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Excuse Me, Mr. President, But We're Pulling Your Weight on Clean Energy

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I'm afraid our President might just not get it. Who needs to do another Rolling Stone interview before he'll take action on clean energy?

I'm not just talking about his reaction to the BP oil spill. Although that's a good place to start. With the announcement that BP has agreed to set aside $20 billion for claims, you would think there's room in there for funding public education campaigns about clean energy (which last week I posited that BP should be paying for, anyway). Alas, not a cent.

Once again, the public interest sector -- led by groups like SmartPower -- is left to fill the education-to-mobilization vacuum that the administration created by not issuing a national call to action on clean energy. If Obama -- the Community Organizer-in-Chief -- won't do it, then we lowly community organizers will just have to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. But we could use your help, Mr. President!

Why are clean energy awareness campaigns so important, anyway? Because they work! When clean energy is effectively marketed to American consumers, they buy it. And if they can't readily buy it, they demand it. And that's how we get serious about this "clean energy future" that Obama keeps talking about -- the one where the green economy flourishes and we get a handle on our greenhouse gas emissions.

A speech and a few policies won't get this done. It didn't work with civil rights. It won't work with clean energy. We need a community-based outreach effort. The same way civil rights sprang forth from the communities, so too with clean energy.

Doing this right costs a lot of manpower, and a lot of money -- which is something we're trying very hard to convey.

Obama's not alone in not getting this. Just this week, while doing outreach for a major program to combat the BP oil spill, one D.C.-based non-profit was appalled -- offended, even -- by our proposed program budget of $770,000. Incredibly, they thought we were spending too much to combat the crisis in the Gulf! Let's get real, here: BP is spending $50 million on crisis PR, and our budget for taking action against their mess -- less than one-fiftieth of their ad buys alone! -- is excessive? This is why companies like BP will always win.

Here are just a few examples of how community-based clean energy awareness campaigns have worked, for a fraction of the cost of BP's crisis PR budget:

  • In Connecticut, over 100 towns to-date have earned Connecticut Clean Energy Community status by committing to buy 20 percent of their energy from clean, renewable sources by this year. Towns that committed to this goal -- and engaged enough residents to make it a reality -- earned a free solar panel for installation on a municipal building. A similar campaign in Pennsylvania was met with equal enthusiasm.
  • In Arizona, plans are underway for a revolutionary Community Power Project, which will use utility-owned solar panels atop private homes to create a mini solar power plant in Flagstaff, Ariz. On-the-ground outreach and a community-based Solar Ambassador program will help residents understand the benefits of this program, ensuring enough sign-ups and interest to expand the pilot into neighboring communities.
  • Across the nation, more than 20,000 college students reduced their collective carbon footprints by more than 19 million pounds by participating in America's Greenest Campus. The online campaign helped young people understand their personal energy use and gave them ways to reduce it. The campaign won a 2010 Clean Air Excellence Award from the Environmental Protection Agency and will re-launch this fall.

SmartPower's clean energy marketing success stories are not flukes. If we could replicate the Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Arizona models on a national scale, the possibilities are endless. Imagine an America where buying and producing your own clean energy is so mainstream that it's considered normal to do it. Imagine being able to walk into Target or Home Depot and walk out with a solar panel! In many communities in America, the guy with the solar array is probably thought of as the weirdo outlier. Once that's the other way around, SmartPower's work will be done -- and I think that's a great sign-off note.

In the meantime, we need Obama's leadership on this. This means providing the resources and support that all good community organizers need.

We're out here pulling the weight of the entire administration, Mr. President. Making sure BP pays for oil cleanup is a necessity. But so is the foresight to start switching over to clean energy, en masse, right now. And a community-based outreach effort is vital to that realization.

Brian F. Keane is president of SmartPower, the nation's leading non-profit marketers of clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency. For more information, visit www.smartpower.org.

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