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Buying Renewable Power Should Be as Easy as Downloading an App

Ethical Electric, a start-up run by a veteran progressive organizer, aims to connect people with power that matches their values.

Tom Matzzie, the founder of Ethical Electric, doesn’t have a background in the energy business. If, like me, you were once signed up for the email list, you’ll probably remember his name from your inbox sometime around the middle of the Iraq war. It was this experience organizing progressive campaigns that helped lead him to his current business, which aims to link progressive-minded electricity customers to renewable energy.

Matzzie started transitioning his own home to wind and solar power after his father died of cancer in 2010. His father grew up next to a coal-fired power plant, before the Clean Air Act was in place. “His whole community was poisoned by dirty power,” Matzzie says, and there seemed to be some connection between the plant and cancer in the town. “I'd been a supporter of addressing climate change and clean energy as a progressive, but it became much more personal. I didn't want to spend any more of my money on dirty energy. I wanted to only support 100% clean energy."

He started by making his house as energy-efficient as possible, then added rooftop solar panels that could cover 30 to 40 percent of his energy needs. But he found that the process of going solar, “while hugely awesome,” required patience, risk tolerance, and financial flexibility. It was hard—too hard for most people.

“My instincts as an organizer kicked in, and I thought, 'this won't scale as fast as we need,'” Matzzie says.

Matzzie also found the alternative to installing solar panels—buying clean energy from an energy supplier—trying. The web forms weren’t clear. The companies didn’t know how to talk to him as a customer. After a customer enrolled in a clean energy program, the company would fall out of touch, offering little information about its efforts to support clean energy. He felt there was room for a different type of clean energy company, one that would make switching to clean power “as easy as downloading an app or buying a book on Amazon,” he says.

That’s what Ethical Electric promises to do. In deregulated electricity markets, delivering power—maintaining the power lines and the infrastructure that make up the grid—and selling power are two different businesses. If all goes as planned, Ethical Electric will sell power sourced from renewable energy projects to customers, starting this fall in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

As a start-up, it will offer two main products: Customers will be able to match their electricity consumption with renewable energy credits tied to clean energy projects within a few hours’ drive of their home, or they can participate in “shared solar”—buy a share in a community solar installation and count the power generated there against their home electricity bill. As the company grows, Matzzie plans to start buying power directly from local wind and solar projects.

What ultimately distinguishes Matzzie’s company from another clean energy provider is its commitment to progressive values—the ethics of electricity. “Clean is too generic. Green is too generic,” Matzzie says. He wants to show customers that “yes, we’re 100% clean energy, but we represent the total ecosystem of their values and are somebody they can feel comfortable doing business with.”

And that’s where Matzzie’s experience as an online organizer can help: He knows “how to get people to do things online for a good reason,” as he puts it. “Just like we saw people moving their money, we're going to be asking people to move their power bill to a company that supports 100% clean energy."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Theo R.

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