Community wind, blow by blow

Last week Earth to Philly  chatted with Ed Rendell about his appointment to the board of OwnEnergy, a community wind energy initiative. This week we go more in depth into the model OwnEnergy has worked on, with the company's founder, Jacob Susman.

First Susman wants it clear that despite the Governor's memory of their meeting, he wasn't a student in Rendell's political science class, but did "sit in on it a couple times" as a Wharton student. He also wants all his Philly peeps to know he attended Masterman and Central High School prior to that.

It was later while working for Goldman Sachs that he began moving in the direction of clean energy: "We had a group internally - a project finance group - that made investments. We realized this was an exciting opportunity to grow" and Susman and others created the Alternative Energy Investing group there. "We started investing in the alternative-energy companies themselves" instead of into financial partners, he said. "I also worked in Spain at AES Corporation, cut my teeth there, working on an idea that became OwnEnergy."

That idea is facilitating local involvement in establishing wind farms, "smaller projects on average," chiefly finding "a local entrepreneur that we get to know, someone savvy, basically people who are business and community leaders" to serve as a liaison between OwnEnergy and local groups.

"When you have a local partner it's easier," he says, because it mitigates the NIMBY phenomenon. "Now, in one of our projects we're working with a local partner, and his job is to get other landowners on board. In this case, he came back to us with folks in the community about wording they didn't like [in the agreement]. Instead of digging in we were able to adapt our land document. It's just a matter of listening  - you have to make a project amenable to the community."

There are two main selling points to this approach: One is that farmers who join the program have a profit-sharing role rather than just renting their land to outsiders. "There have been land wars," Susman says, "between large scale energy companies - some developers make promises and lock up the land just to keep someone else from getting it. This is a different model."

But with a financial partnership instead of a straight payout, don't farmers have more risk? "We'd never claim it's zero risk," he says."Most of the people we work with say I'd like a bigger share of the upside with ownership and development process. They've decided the risk/reward equation works out better for them than the other way, and usually they want to  help keep the capital in the local community. We're creating 2 to 3 times the amount of local jobs within an industry that is already a great job-creator."

So is it catching on? OwnEnergy is a national company, but already here in Pennsylvania "we have a 60-million-dollar wind farm in Cambria County that can start this year, with two more ready to go in the 2013 time period. One of our team members," he adds, "is based in Pennsylvania."

As far as future plans, "We're hellbent on getting wind established" as a viable energy source, but "We do see expansion into other alternative energy areas like solar and biomass in next couple years. We have this community model and we want to roll that out across different technologies." In the meantime, "we are empowering a network of clean-energy entrepreneurs around the country."

As for Rendell's involvement, Susman said that "This is an industry that relies on the regulation picture coming into place in a certain way, so having someone who's as astute as the Governor working with us is going to be incredibly helpful. He's a great person to work with, he is a leader and knows how to get the job done."