Sungevity Founder Danny Kennedy on Making a Difference With Solar

9/23/10Follow @wroush

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software spec creator to the salesman. In my last incarnation at Greenpeace I was running five offices and 100 staff and a $14 million budget. It’s about assembling a team around a common purpose and running them with good energy.

X: When you were starting Sungevity and meeting with investors, did you ever run into any skepticism about whether a guy from Greenpeace could turn into a capitalist entrepreneur?

DK: Nobody ever said that to my face. They might have said it after I left the room. I did have one person say to me that Australians don’t make good managers. I think the proof is in the pudding. We have changed the way the industry sells solar, with a fairly small capital infusion compared to some of our competitors, and certainly compared to the hundreds of millions being spent upstream on what are fairly frivolous technology ventures. In my life at Greenpeace, we also brought about a hell of a lot of change in the world with relatively small resources. So it’s a good bet to go for someone who has a clear track record of making successful change in the world. Why not expect them to be successful in the entrepreneurial world?

X: I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s latest book, Earrth, which is frankly very pessimistic about the chances for arresting climate change; he says we’re at the point now where all we can do is gird ourselves for the huge social and economic dislocations that are going to come from rising sea levels and disrupted climate. Do you ever suffer from the sense that what you’re doing may be completely futile—that even if we put solar on every roof in the U.S. it would be just a tiny part of what we would need to do to bring down atmospheric carbon levels?

DK: I love Bill and his writing. The End of Nature was one of the catalytic books in my youth, and in Earrth, he returns to that form. Sadly, Bill is right. The lag in the climate means that we have already condemned hundreds of millions to a squalid future, and that we will leave our children a vastly diminished Earth. But it will only get worse if we do nothing. What is the right thing to be doing with your life? I could sit back, be fully apprised of the problem, and just ignore it and feel terrible about myself and my children. Or I could pursue a solution. If you think that there will be civilization around a millennium from now, you can ask “Will it be fossil-fuel-powered?”, and the answer is no. Then you can work back and ask “When did the transition happen?” Sometime in the next century or two we will make this transition, from this dumb experiment of digging up sunlight and burning it to using fresh sunlight. I am trying to usher in that transition faster than the current economy would have it happen.

X: What’s your feeling about the Obama Administration’s record so far on climate change and energy legislation?

DK: I’m very frustrated. I understand and respect the decision to pursue healthcare reform, but I think he blew his political capital on that in the first year, and he had the opportunity to do clean energy and didn’t. Now, with midterms coming up, he can’t. The U.S. Senate has been playing cat-and-mouse for a decade with cap-and-trade, and has decided to do nothing, and Obama is sitting back and letting them do it. The history books will look back on the 21st century and say that the world’s largest economy abrogated responsibility, while the Chinese decided to embrace it and go for it. The same day the U.S. Senate rejected any kind of meaningful energy bill, the Chinese put $750 billion on the table for clean energy. That’s where it’s happening, not in D.C. The least [Obama] can do is put solar back on the White House, and we have a campaign calling on him to do that, and I have spoken to him personally about that, and he says he wants to, but that his bureaucrats are balking. As a political animal, I think he has really mis-hit. I think he has misjudged, and has missed a moment which Thomas Friedman and others were calling on him to grasp. Our children’s children will look back and wonder what the hell we were doing with this decade.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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