One Man's Quest to Make the Sun as Big as Granite Countertops
Whatever the outcome of today's election, the sun will keep shining and the wind will still blow. That's what Brian Keane is counting on. Keane is president of a nonprofit marketing organization called SmartPower. State agencies, foundations, utilities and others hire the group to explain to citizens or consumers just what renewable energy is, why it's coming to town, and in so doing, to help expand local markets for clean energy. Reasons for going renewable vary these days -- from state renewable power mandates, to friendly civic competition, to financial incentives, to the race to cut carbon pollution. Sometimes, it’s just plain cheaper. Keane and I spoke last month about his new book, Green Is Good.
Q: When SmartPower started up, the U.S. wasn't exactly clamoring for renewable power. Most of it still isn't. What was your pitch to the foundations?
A: Ten years ago, they all came in and said, 'Look, somebody has to be out there selling this stuff like it's Coca-Cola.' And what we learned then, ten years ago, is that people needed to know that renewable energy was strong enough to power their lives today: Today. Not tomorrow. Not in the future. It’s not some kids running through a field with pinwheels.
Q: And so what is the marketing message?
A: It's different for every generation, every demographic. For 30 years, [environmentalists] said, 'Buy renewable energy because it's good for the environment.' And it is. But that doesn't really speak to anybody. A lot of people will buy things because it's cool, or it's neat, or they just want to.
Q: How do you convince business professionals in the burbs with two kids?
A: The lesson there is granite countertops. Granite countertops are in every newly constructed home, every remodeled kitchen. There are a lot of other countertops you can buy, and they're a lot cheaper. But for some reason we're all buying granite countertops. Everybody's doing it: That is the most compelling reason people do things. So granite countertops have achieved that. We need that with solar power.
Q: You don't hear that from solar companies and analysts, who are focused on the costs of renewables versus coal- or gas-fired power.
A: What we have to understand as an industry is that it's not about a 'need' decision. We have to make them 'want' it. Not everybody wants something because it's good for the environment. That's not the motivator. It's simply a value add. When we started SmartPower, a lot of the people selling renewables were 'cause' people. They weren't business people. And there's a certain freshness in that. But it also can hinder the marketplace. It set up almost automatically this-us-versus them thing. We see this in Arizona. There are people in Arizona, politicians in Arizona, who say they hate solar. I say, 'How can you hate it? I mean, you live in a desert.'
Q: It's too much of a culture thing.
A: Exactly. It's like, 'So if I actually buy solar power now I need to wear hemp, and I've got to buy organic, and I've got to become one of those type of people.' And our argument is, No, you don't. In fact, you just should be energy smart because you're your type of person. The best marketing is that whatever product you're selling fits in with your life.
Q: And how do you get that across?
A: The way to sell it is on-the-ground outreach, community to community, peer to peer, friend to friend. It is the secret sauce we have. It's the same secret sauce that Amway created, that Tupperware has been doing for years, and quite frankly, that vacuum cleaners used 40 years ago.
Our model is the vacuum cleaner salesman. Forty years ago there was a general perception that there were vacuum cleaners, but nobody had one. And a vacuum cleaner salesman would go door to door, and the woman of the house would answer the door. He'd say, 'You need a vacuum cleaner?' And she would say, 'Actually, I don't. I have a broom.' And he'd throw dirt on the floor. He'd vacuum it up. She'd say, 'Oh my God. I need that.'
And by the way, today there are no vacuum cleaner salesmen.
Q: So you throw solar panels on people's floors.
A: Well, the only way to get people to actually buy solar is they need to see it in action. They need to kick the tires on it, if you will. So we create basically these on-the-ground outreach campaigns that make use of people who already have solar, and we make them solar ambassadors. People who own solar love to brag about it. So they'll sit around, and say, ‘This is my solar. Look at my bill. Look at how much money I'm saving. Here's the inverter box. Isn't that cool?’ It's that type of argument, just like the Tupperware party.
Q: And you've worked some with religious, ecumenical organizations?
A: Yeah. And that really is almost a silver bullet. If you can get a pastor or rabbi or priest to --
Q: To walk into a bar?
A: Exactly! No, but if you can get them to talk from the pulpit about this stuff, it literally is the voice of God saying, ‘Why aren't we doing this?’ And that really leads to one of the most important things with renewables and efficiency: leadership by example.
Q: Tell me about Solyndra. What happened there?
A: My argument on Solyndra, not to get political, but Romney really doesn't care if it was a bad solar investment or if it was a bad soda investment. They are trying to show the incompetence of the administration, and it just so happens that that was the opportunity.
Q: You helped start up Senator Warren Rudman and Senator Paul Tsongas's Concord Coalition in the early 90s, to bring attention to federal deficits. What's the tie-in between federal deficits and renewable power?
A: What I like to do is take very complicated issues and make them understandable for regular people. And nothing is better for that than, say, the federal budget deficit. The federal budget deficit is extraordinarily complicated. There's no easy solution to it. And this is true as 1992 as it is today. But if you want people to take action, you have to make things relevant to them. You have to make them a stakeholder in it.
We had all these activists and volunteers out in the states. Basically, I'd be traveling all over the country, and say, 'Look, here's the deal. You know, you're not allowed to have a credit card that's maxed out. If you did, you can't even service the debt that you have on that credit card. So you need to live within your means.' We'd apply that to the United States budget and say, 'This is exactly what's happening.' So, all we're looking for is common sense from people.
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