Guest: Tom Matzzie, CEO and Founder of CleanChoice Energy
Outline of Chat:
- How did you get your start working in renewable energy?
- Was there anything in your life that impacted you or inspired you to start a renewable energy company?
- How does renewable energy affect your family today?
- How would you define clean energy?
- What is it that's creating that pollution in other energy sources?
- Can you explain community solar?
- What is the hardest part of getting the public on board with renewable energy?
- We know CleanChoice has been around for over 10 years or so. What does the next 10 years of your work look like?
- What would you tell someone who's interested in combating climate change but doesn't know where to start?
(All discussion is paraphrased unless it's in direct quotes.)
Eric Holthaus: How did you get your start working in renewable energy?
Tom Matzzie: In 2012 I started my company CleanChoice Energy for a few different reasons. First, I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and I'd really seen the impact of the dirty energy and air pollution on those communities. I also cared deeply about climate change and wanted to find easy solutions. I put solar on my own home in 2009, and that was a very difficult experience. It took up to eight months to finish the project, and I realized that there would be a lot of people who would not be able to participate in clean energy unless there was an easier solution. I started CleanChoice to make clean energy easy for more Americans.
EH: Was there anything in your life that impacted you or inspired you to start a renewable energy company?
TM: The town my father grew up in was considered the dirtiest town in Pennsylvania. It was covered in a particulate air pollution colloquially called black sugar. There was literally soot falling out of the sky from the coal fired power plant that was across the river from the town. And this town experienced a lot of different problems related to that pollution. And my father, unfortunately, died from a form of cancer that was tied to that pollution from the coal fired power plants.
EH: I’m sorry to hear that. What other ways did you see this dirtiest town affect your life while you were living there?
TM: I saw the impact of dirty energy on these communities and the community that I grew up in. And I knew that there had to be a different system, a different way to do things that would create abundance for people, that people would have jobs, but also could provide clean energy to power our economy instead of dirty energy. And that's really what the clean energy movement is about — it's moving to a system where we can have abundance for everybody, good jobs, a great economy, but also have clean air and be safe from catastrophic climate change.
EH: How does renewable energy affect your family today?
TM: Renewable energy is important to my family because my children breathe the air just like we all do, and I want that air to be pollution-free. We also live in a world that's increasingly impacted by climate change, and I want my family and my community to be safe from catastrophic climate change.
EH: What does clean energy mean to you?
TM: Clean energy means a few things to me. First and most importantly, it means clean air for our communities, for our children, for our families. It also means jobs for the people who build solar farms and wind farms. And finally, it means making us safer from catastrophic climate change. Climate change is going to devastate our future, our children's future. It's important that we work as quickly as possible to reduce carbon pollution that is caused primarily by our energy system’s dependence on fossil fuels.
EH: What exactly is CleanChoice Energy doing to meet these impacts?
TM: CleanChoice Energy does a couple of things. We are on a mission to provide clean energy to everyone, everywhere. And that's what we're about. We want to bring solutions to them no matter where they live and meet customers with whatever their accessibility is for clean energy.
EH: So, when you're talking about providing people with energy, is your company building these things, or finding people that have built them?
TM: There's a few parts for business. We have a solar development team that is out there working with landowners to develop solar farms. And then we have another part of our business where we supply clean energy to homes and businesses who want to buy it via retail supply and community solar programs.
EH: How would you define clean energy? What exactly does that mean?
TM: Clean energy means getting the electricity that we use every day to make modern life possible, but without the carbon air pollution and all the negative impacts it has on our air as well as catastrophic climate change. Technically speaking, the EPA defines “green power” as “the renewable energy resources and technologies that provide the greatest environmental benefit.” This includes wind and solar, which are two of the cleanest energy sources. All of the energy we source at CleanChoice comes from regional wind and solar farms.
EH: What is it that's creating that pollution in those other energy sources?
TM: Dirty energy sources burn fossil fuels, and the burning of those fossil fuels emits pollution in a few different forms. There's obviously things like particulate pollution that causes cancer and asthma in children, but it also includes carbon pollution, and that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere and is what leads to what we know as global warming. Global warming leads to all sorts of different climate impacts, everything from droughts to extreme weather.
And what it will mean in the future is big changes to how we live in our world. Things like — does the Midwest still produce crops? Are you able to live near the ocean? Big impacts that will mean hundreds of millions of people are displaced from their communities unless we make the change to clean energy and climate solutions.
EH: Can you explain community solar?
TM: Community solar is a way you and I can access the financial savings of solar power without having to put panels on our roofs. Essentially customers buy into a regional solar farm and receive utility bill credits. It’s a new product but definitely worth checking out.
EH: Is that kind of like a barrier for people — they don't want solar on their roof, and this is the solution?
TM: The barrier for people with rooftop solar is not that they don't want it — people want rooftop solar, and it's a great solution. Everyone should try to get it. It's that many people can't get rooftop solar. More than 75 percent of Americans cannot do rooftop solar. That's because of the roof type or it's shaded by a tree, or maybe they are a renter or don’t have the financial resources to commit to a rooftop solar project.
There are a lot of different reasons that people are excluded from rooftop solar even though the companies in rooftop solar do a great job making it easy. So finding solutions that are easy services that you can sign up for online or through a mail-in or by calling an 800 number is a really important way to expand renewable energy participation.
EH: What is the hardest part of getting the public on board with renewable energy?
TM: Well, there are a lot of different hard parts. Certainly one of the hardest things is for consumers to figure out how to get clean energy, and we make it as easy as possible. That's the secret to CleanChoice Energy. You can simply fill out a form online, return a piece of mail, or call an 800 number and you can sign up for clean energy. All of the other parts of the business — complicated contracting with renewable energy power plants, building solar farms — the customer doesn’t have to worry about that. We have professionals who take care of that. And for our customers, the central value proposition is its clean energy that's easy.
EH: Well, we know CleanChoice has been around for over 10 years or so. What does the next 10 years of your work look like?
TM: What I'm looking at for the next 10 years is really expanding our impact as a business. And that means two things for me. One, a lot more customers, but it also means more solar farms. And we're going to be talking about in the next couple of years some of the big goals we're going to set, not for 2023 or 2025, but for 2030, and how we have an even bigger impact than we've had so far today.
EH: What would you tell someone who's interested in combating climate change but doesn't know where to start?
TM: I would tell them that one of their biggest contributors to climate change is the electricity they use. Start by greening their power. Check us out at CleanChoiceEnergy.com and make the switch. The second step is obviously that we all need to get involved with policy making at local, state, and federal levels, because it's going to take all of us together to overcome catastrophic climate change. We all have a role to play in creating a better environment for future generations, and it starts with choosing to buy clean energy.