Brian Keane of SmartPower, Renewable Energy Marketer: "We've Never Been Asked to Value Our Energy" (Part 2)

Brian Keane is leading America's biggest clean energy marketing campaign, SmartPower. Amidst the din of promises over clean coal and fears about job losses, he and his team in Washington, DC, are working to make renewable energy and energy efficiency appealing to everyday Americans. "Amidst all the talk Obama is doing about clean jobs and improving our infrastructure, what's missing is public awareness. This needs to be out in mainstream America. People need to be able to walk into Home Depot and buy solar panels."

Here's part two of our interview (part one is here).What do you make of the anti-clean coal campaign being run by Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection?
Brian Keane: The anti-clean coal ads are brilliant ads. Beautiful. An effective use of humor. They show the problem up for what it is. But the nuclear industry is marketing itself as "clean air" energy; they're trying to take this base and saying they're the clean energy. The clean coal industry is saying they are too. Smart people are saying we have these things. As an industry -- wind, solar, hydro -- we need a marketing campaign of that robustness.

The financial stimulus measure allocates $80 billion for renewable energy research as well as 3.5 billion for research on clean coal technologies; where does SmartPower come down on carbon sequestration (if it does)?
BK: Truthfully, SmartPower stays out of the policy realm. Our focus is on creating a vibrant voluntary market for clean energy and energy efficiency. So technically we'd be for any policy that does that — but we don't get into the details.

How does Smart Power's ad contest fit in? Why go with user-generated ads?
BK: The idea is to get to teenagers -- the "echo boomers" -- not just 30 and 40 year olds but young kids at home, to get them to become energy efficient. How do you get to them? We're talking real savings.

It's the second time we've done it — it's a chance to see the incredible talent that's out there, how smart and resourceful people are on this kind of stuff. And we're able to leverage the Internet to help us with our mission. When we commission a TV ad it's enormously expensive. We have to pay an agency something like $100,000. But a YouTube ad can be the same level of quality at a fracton of the cost. Plus, when we get these entries coming in, we can use it as a focus group to see how people are looking at the issues.

Is there also a danger that talking up clean energy will backfire, making people more cynical?
BK:Definitely, there's this vernacular out there, "green," but there's no common understanding. It's becoming a catch-all word. If it weren't so frustrating, it would be amusing how people are pushing green, using green, slapping environmental labels on themselves.

The more we talk about "green," the more it starts to mean nothing. I bought a bottle of Windex last week. It said something like it's "always been green." I'm sorry, but this is all chemicals. I don't know what they mean.

Coca-Cola was brilliant when they said, it's "The Real Thing." That means something different for you than it does to me. Green is not that. We have to be aware of that. Think of it this way — if you say, "Buy solar because it's good for the environment," we're cutting out people who don't care about the environment. I need to have my own reason for buying solar.

A better slogan would be something like, "Solar makes sense." What makes sense to you might not make sense to me. But you allow the consumer to fill in the blank. "Solar makes sense — I live in a freaking desert." Or "Solar makes sense -- I can get a great deal on a solar water heater." Or "I can cut energy costs."

If we can get the White House to buy twenty percent clean energy today, get federal buildings to buy clean energy today using that bully pulpit, using that leadership by example, can have a huge impact. It's not like Obama has to go through Congress to get this done. It just takes an executive order. And it ties straight into a voluntary market and state clean energy funds.

Are there particular challenges with solar energy?
BK:When you talk to most Americans about solar power, they hear you say "100 percent solar power." That's like putting 100 percent of your money in IBM stock. Sometimes it rains, and it does get dark at night. Instead, we'll say, "Let's put some solar up there and do 15 to 20 percent of our house. When the light is strong I'll have other types of energy supporting our house. We'll just increase our portfolio for clean, renewable energy. I'll increase it because I'm mitigating climate change, I'm diversifying our energy portfolio. It's not just for your pocketbook, it's good for the whole country."

It's funny how this has played out. We sit with people and they hedge around the cost forever. If I'm buying something for my house I want to know how much it's gonna cost. We finally say $40,000. "40,000!," they'll say. "You gotta be out of your mind!"

But on the car lot, I can buy a car for $199 per month. The car guys figured it out. They're not choking me with sticker shock. I'm still paying $40,000. To a lot of people, at $125 a month, they say, "I can have that stuff on my roof. That'll be cool."

Every year, 17 coal fired power plants in the U.S. are producing energy just so we can waste it. But [an understanding of this] is something that breaks down across generational barriers. The Greatest Generation are incredible savers. They turn off lights, they don't waste water, in part because they were raised during a depression. Their children meanwhile have a visceral reaction to conservation. They believe the only reason they ever conserved was because they were poor. Baby boomers tend to say "we've arrived, we can keep these lights on." And their children -- Generation X and Generation Y-- are motivated to do something better but don't necessarily know how to.

Do you get money from the clean energy industry?
BK:We don't get any money from these companies — but we work very closely with a handful of them in different states. We'll go into a state that has a utility switching program — a Community Energy or Sterling Planet -- and we would work in partnership with them to promote their products. We're fulfilling our mission. If we're successful, those clean energy guys could become rich as the oil guys today.

Amidst the talk about renewable energy, how does energy efficiency fit into your campaign?
BK: Efficiency is what we call the number one renewable. The best energy is that which we don't use. Ten to fifteen percent of every household's energy use is just in phantom load. It's just waste. It doesn't need to be on. Every year 17 coal fired power plants in the U.S. are producing energy just so we can waste it. But [an understanding of this] is something that breaks down across generational barriers. The Greatest Generation are incredible savers. They turn off lights, they don't waste water, in part because they were raised during a depression. Their children meanwhile have a visceral reaction to conservation. They believe the only reason they ever conserved was because they were poor. Baby boomers tend to say "we've arrived, we can keep these lights on. That light on downstairs, it's not creating climate change, and we have plenty of money to pay for that." Their children -- Generation X and Generation Y -- are motivated to do something better but don't necessarily know how to. They can see the opportunities they have to be efficient as money saved and money in their pockets.

The problem is, in our generation, we've never been asked to value our energy. The only time we really "buy" energy is when we go to a gas station.

How would you evaluate the US government's approach to developing clean energy use?
BK: This past year was a sea change, with each presidential campaign trying to outgun each other on green jobs. The stimulus package allocated $40 billion dollars alone to the Department of Energy, and $16 billion of that's just to renewable energy and efficiency in the DOE. That's real money. It has to have some effect. Then you look at Secretary Chu's appointment. I don't know him, but it's outstanding to me and exciting that this is the first time we've a secretary of energy from the renewable energy world. The people for the sub-cabinet position are also from the energy efficency world. There's real power in these appointments, not just in Obama's bully pulpit. But from the appointments along, the priorities of these agencies are going to change.

Up until the stimulus package, the Department of Agriculture has had more money for clean energy than the Department of Energy. We need to tie these programs together. What I'd love to see, whatever the federal government does, is more attention to helping foster the marketplace. Let the consumers decide, and show value here. The government was the driving force behind the creation of the Internet but it didn't mandate that we use it.

The biggest fear around the renewable energy legislation sitting before the House of Representatives is what it would mean for American jobs in the coal and oil industries. How does SmartPower respond to those concerns?
BK: Too often this is pitched as an "either/or" proposition, and it simply isn't. The creation of "green jobs" isn't done at the expense of "old-energy" jobs. The reality is simply that green jobs can add to the economy of a state — without taking away the old-energy jobs. I'm not sure that these numbers are 100% accurate — but more or less this is true — today in Pennsylvania there are 15,000 "coal jobs". Now Pennsylvania is a "coal state" -- and even so, there are "only" 15,000 job dependant on this industry. But more interestingly, today in Pennsylvania there are 5,000 "clean energy" jobs. Most of these are in the wind industry. So already — the clean energy industry is a third of the way to where the coal industry is today. Pretty soon, Pennsylvania will be a "coal State" and a "wind state". That's pretty cool. This is really what "Energy reform" is all about. Once Pennsylvania had thousands and thousands of coal jobs. Today it just has 15,000. Energy Reform won't take away those jobs per se...it will simply add more energy jobs!

Or take Texas for instance. The Governor there is boasting that Texas will become the number one state for clean energy jobs. His thinking is that Texas "creates energy". Quite frankly — they don't care what type of energy they create — just that they are creating energy. That's pretty cool thinking...

Up until the stimulus package, the Department of Agriculture has had more money for clean energy than the Department of Energy. We need to tie these programs together. What I'd love to see, whatever the federal government does, is more attention to helping foster the marketplace. Let the consumers decide, and show value here. The government was the driving force behind the creation of the Internet but it didn't mandate that we use it.

What policies are most promising to the renewable energy industry now?
BK: Leadership-by-example policies are the most exciting ones. Cities and towns are committing to buy twenty percent clean energy by 2010. When they lead by example like that, people within the communities do the same thing. So if we can get the White House to buy twenty percent clean energy today, get federal buildings to buy clean energy today using that bully pulpit, using that leadership by example, can have a huge impact. It's not like Obama has to go through Congress to get this done. It just takes an executive order. And it ties straight into a voluntary market and state clean energy funds. What you've seen in these states is ingenious thinking, getting products on the ground and sold. But until this administration, we've had no leadership on the federal level yet.

We can see already that getting a message through to ordinary Americans is an important focus for this administration. It was the Department of Energy that last month helped us launch America's Greenest Campus (www.americasgreenestcampus.com) This is an effort to get students, faculty, staff and alumni to reduce their own energy use in order to help their college or university get recognized as "America's Greenest Campus". Already 10% of the colleges and universities in the country have signed on — and we're seeing real energy savings right away. AGC is the embodiment of "Obama principles" at its best — the ground up, focused on a generation that propelled him into office and having real and tangible efforts on some of the biggest problems facing our country today.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Clean Energy | Congress | Renewable Energy

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