"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
I’ve been working to promote clean energy since about 2001 (if you don’t count my sixth grade science fair project on solar panels in 1979). I started with Greenpeace, where I took part in campaigns as divergent as a solar initiative in San Francisco, the Bonn climate talks, a solar tour of Florida, and a protest against a coal plant in Salem, Massachusetts. Moved on to Sierra Club and lobbied on Capitol Hill. It was during this time I went to Annapolis as a private citizen, just to see what was happening in my own state. Maryland, surprisingly had next to nothing in terms of clean energy legislation.
Over the next few years, I crafted and led the effort to pass our state’s first Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), the policy tool that over time was going to lead to the explosion of solar in Maryland, while also actively leading the advocacy efforts for the state’s solar incentive program and the Healthy Air Act. It was during this time I met a man who has become one of my best friends and an inspiration, Mike Tidwell, founder and executive director of CCAN (and die-hard Nats fan). Mike and I worked as a powerful team in those days, enabling us to not only pass the legislation that would set the stage for the entire Maryland clean energy revolution, but building grassroots demand for action on climate change and more clean energy. It’s really hard for those who weren’t there to imagine how different the climate in the state was back then. There was no Clean Energy Center, no SolarCity, no website such as Understand Solar, and not a single solar or wind lobbyist, just Gary Skulnik and Mike Tidwell talking to anybody who’d listen. As one former State Delegate, who used to call me “Mr. Clean Energy” was fond to recall, “Gary used to walk around talking about clean energy and bothering everybody, but nobody wanted to hear it.” My, how the times have changed.
I started my first clean energy venture, the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) during this time. CEP was a nonprofit that organized businesses and people to support clean energy. One of the first members? Scott Nash of MOM’s Organic Market. CEP was like the petri dish that Clean Currents grew out of. I assembled dozens of local businesses together to actually purchase clean energy, but the only way they could do it in those days was to buy Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs. It was very clunky. I knew there was demand for clean energy in Maryland, but in the halls of Annapolis, the utilities and power companies were telling me that I was completely wrong, and that I didn’t understand how business works. As I looked around the hearing rooms whenever a clean energy bill came up, I could see these utility guys were not alone. It was always the same exact story. Panel after panel of business owners and business trade groups, from the chamber of commerce on down, would invariably be lined up against the bill, while I and a bunch of other activists and non-profit advocates would be for it. That’s when I decided I wanted to start a business that not only sold clean energy, but showed that business could be a force for good in the world. I wanted to have a business that would stand with the activists and make the business case for progressive environmental change that these old school business people were completely missing.