E2P Interview: Ed Rendell on the air

Ed Rendell is no stranger to alternative energy. As the "Growing Greener" Governor of Pennsylvania, a job he finished up in the first few weeks of this year, he gained a reputation as a green-business chief executive, overssing the investment of $387 million to fund over $2.6 billion in alternative energy projects (though it must be pointed out, he did also make some cuts to less-sexy eco-programs).His administration is credited with bringing some of the most important renewable energy companies to the United States.

Yesterday it was announced that Rendell was joining the Board of OwnEnergy, Inc., "a Community Wind development company that partners with landowners to help them develop and own their own mid-size wind farms." This is an interesting model for sustainable investment that we'll look at in more detail next week. But first we wanted to check in with the former "America's Mayor" and current Daily News sports columnist about his latest gig.

So with all the established companies and alt-energy startups out there, why OwnEnergy in particular? "This is a great human interest story," Rendell said by phone, noting that "it was kind of downplayed in the press release. The CEO of OwnEnergy, Jacob Susman, was a student of mine in my political science class I taught [at U. Penn]." Years after graduating Susman got back in touch with Rendell about the company he founded in 2007.

"I'm interested in being on boards for 2 reasons - one, I can use the money," Rendell declared with his trademark frankness (though he later admitted this gig involves no pay, but stock options) "but two, I would only a join a board if I really approved of the mission of what they were doing. And wind was always a huge component of our [Pennsylvania's] energy strategy. We've got 20 wind farms in Pennsylvania now (check them out here along with more in development), with all the new jobs those create, so wind energy is something very near and dear to my heart."

More than that, though, Rendell said he was particularly impressed by the model of wind development Susman had created. "I love the concept of community energy," he said,"so I saw this as an opportunity to do well by doing good."

With the crisis still going on in and around the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, which has led to some closer scrutiny on nuclear power, and its potential problems, here in the U.S., I wondered if this was the time for wind and solar to step up in Pennsylvania and grab a dominant maret share. Rendell was circumspect: "Certainly, we have to move on alternative energy technologies," he said, reiterating his faith in their continued growth and significance, "but even the greatest advocates of these know that the scale we can ramp-up to by 2025 is such that none of them can replace coal-fired power plants [outright]. We're going to have to have a portfolio of options, including solar, wind, cleaner coal." But he stressed that wind farms are definitely going to be a big part of that mix.

So does the fromer Governor, sometimes tarred by opponents as a partisan for Philly (and to some extent Pittsburgh), see any win for the City of Brotherly Love in all this? "This is a win statewide," he insisted, allowing that "OwnEnergy won't be doing too many [wind farms] around here, because Philadelphia is not particularly suitable for wind - you need a better elevation. But Pennsylvania, remember, has the highest elevation east of the Mississippi."

Indeed, most of the wind action in the state is in the upper elevations where the Alleghenies run just east of Pittsburgh, and Rendell pointed out a specific plan for Johnstown (a western PA town that Earth to Philly is officially fond of). But as he stressed, a win for Pennsylvania is a win for Pennsylvanians, and in fact, for everybody who wants to look forward to a livable planet down the road. And that's not just a bunch of hot air.