SmartPower's Keane discusses barriers to implementing renewables in U.S.

With debt talks intensifying in Washington, how would spending cuts to the Department of Energy budget affect renewable energy markets? During today's OnPoint, Brian Keane, president of SmartPower, discusses the barriers to wide-scale implementation of renewables in the United States. He also talks about trends in the renewable energy sector during the economic downturn.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Brian Keane, president of Smart Power. Brian, thanks for being here.

Brian Keane: Not at all, thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Brian, your organization focuses on driving the renewable energy market by harnessing the strength of consumers. How much of what you do is dependent on what happens here in Washington policy wise?

Brian Keane: Well, on some level, all of us are dependent on what happens. But what we're really looking to do is get the American consumer, regular people, people who don't care about energy issues, people who don't care about the environment to want to buy renewable energy and to want to be energy efficient. In fact, if we can get it into the marketplace so that people are buying renewable energy the same way they buy Coca-Cola, the same way they buy McDonald's, then we'll actually start having a marketplace. Jobs will be created and people will actually just be using clean, renewable energy simply because it's as reliable and as available as coal, oil, and nuclear power.

Monica Trauzzi: So then what are the chief hurdles that you encounter in your work?

Brian Keane: They're significant and there are barriers to the consumer. So really what happens, you know, when you look at solar power specifically, 84 percent of the American people say they want to buy solar power. Today less than 3 percent actually do. And really we know it's because of four significant barriers. Number one, amazingly, the American people don't think solar power works. They don't think it's strong enough to power their homes and their lifestyle. So number one, we've got to convince them, hey, it really does work. It's real, it's here, and it's working. Number two, if you can convince them it works, they have no idea where to buy it. And it really is, it's hard to buy solar. You don't just walk into Target and get solar. And around the country it's a mishmash of policies from states to cities and even from to our local communities on how to buy solar. So we've got to fix that problem and fix that barrier. And then number three, the cost is a barrier. And historically, it's always been, you know, it's just simply a premium product, solar is for instance. But there are people who really will buy a premium product. Ben & Jerry's and Starbucks being good examples of how they'll do that. But then the other cost barrier is really one of an opportunity cost in that you'll even just ask your parents and they'll be like, you know, I don't have time to buy solar. And it is like, wow, that's amazing! Could you imagine saying I don't have time to buy Coca-Cola? But so what we have to do is start knocking down these barriers. And then the fourth barrier is simply one of inertia and inertia hits every product coming on the market. In kind of this day and age, we're really - inertia is being knocked down quite strongly. So the opportunity is now for us to start getting to these first barriers of does it really work? Where do I buy it and how do I afford it? We can really start doing that.

Monica Trauzzi: So how critical then are government tax incentives to tackling that third problem of cost and what happens if Congress decides not to renew those tax incentives this year?

Brian Keane: Yeah, well, cost, you know, cost is a huge issue. What has been so exciting really with this administration is that, in fact, they've tackled that cost issue head on and what we're seeing now is that the cost of solar has already come down by over 60 percent just since the 1980s. And they're actually predicting now that it would be on cost parity with coal within the next three years simply because the steps and measures that this administration has taken, so that is really pretty exciting, incredibly exciting. But then I'd also pull it back and be like -- and remind folks that it's not simply cost, it's a values question. People want to know why do I actually need to buy solar? The American people, we've never been asked to really care about our energy no matter what. The only time the American people care about energy issues is at the gas station and that's why that's such a barometer. What we want to do is start getting people to be energy smart. Think about where your energy comes from and then think about how you use it. And when you do that, then you'll start making smarter energy choices. You'll start using your energy a lot smarter and you'll want to buy different types of energy.

Monica Trauzzi: So, with the debt talks intensifying here in Washington, there's been some talk about spending cuts to the DOE budget. Do you think that the debate recognizes the magnitude of the energy issue that we have here in the United States?

Brian Keane: No, no, quite frankly. And I don't think that they understand kind of the magnitude of the jobs opportunity. What they should be looking at is energy -- with energy, don't think of it as an environmental issue, it's a jobs issue. It's actually an energy security issue. The environment actually can be third, fourth, or even fifth or tenth on the list of things that you care about. Really, this is an opportunity to create renewable energy jobs and what this economy needs now most is jobs. And when they talk about the debt ceiling, when they talk about the deficit it has to be in relation to how to actually get more jobs into this country. And renewable energy and energy efficiency, these sectors are really the engines that are going to drive our jobs.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what trends have you seen in the renewable energy sector throughout the economic downturn and now, as things start to turn around, what do you think will happen in the short term?

Brian Keane: Well, you know, it's fascinating that, quite frankly, we can all be part of the energy solution and in this country we have a huge energy problem. And the energy problem is everything from how our current energy affects the environment to do we actually just have enough energy to power our lives? Case in point, you and I are actually living in homes today that are more efficient than the homes we grew up in, but I will guarantee you that you and I are actually using more energy than the homes we grew up in. So what we really have to do is actually just start being smarter about our energy. We have better refrigerators in our homes than we had growing up, but we still have more gadgets, so we have more energy being used. When we were kids the refrigerator was the biggest drain in the house and at least that made sense, right? I mean it's on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Today it's the TV and that's absolutely frightening, right? So the flat screen TV tied to the cable box to the DVD player, it's about $100 worth of power when you think it's off each year. So that's fascinating. When you think your TV is off, it's still drawing about $100 worth power. Now, many homes have two, three, maybe even five TVs and so you're talking huge amounts of energy that we just never used to use. So what we have to do is actually start training ourselves to use energy better and, you know what, there's a better way to turn off that TV with just the remote. Put it on a power strip and actually turn it off, especially when you're on vacation for weeks at a time, turn it off. You wouldn't leave with the TV just blaring CNN, so don't leave it on anyway. And so, number one, we just have to start getting smarter about how we use energy and then we can start looking about different ways to actually power our homes, wind, solar, and hydro, anything else to actually start augmenting how we use energy.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, interesting stuff. We're going to end right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Brian Keane: Hey, appreciate it, thanks.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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