FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 069: Wendy Philleo – How can a little sunshine in our schools speed the adoption of local energy?

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Social Entrepreneur and non-profit leader, Wendy Philleo, Executive Director of Generation 180, joins host Bill Nussey as they explore how her organization is using innovative  educational content to transform interest into solar action, community by community all across the US.  Wendy shares examples of their pathways to action programs, including the Solar for All Schools effort, which is saving schools millions of dollars nationwide, making the case that technology and policy changes alone are not enough to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

Here are a few of the insights from Wendy…

“…I don’t think that policy and technology alone are going to save us. If we want to speed up this transition, and we have to, we need to capture the hearts and minds of Americans [to drive] widespread clean energy adoption. It’s going to require a massive cultural shift.”


“Americans need to be galvanized by a compelling vision of what’s possible. So we are telling a new energy narrative… around economic prosperity, around energy, freedom around resiliency and innovation.”


“…when schools go solar, they reduce their energy cost. And I think it’s important for people to realize that energy is the second largest expense for schools after personnel.”


You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

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Links

Generation 180

Report on Solar in Schools

Solar for All Schools Pathway

Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Well, hello, hello, hello to everybody in the Freeing Energy world. This is Bill Nussey, your host for today’s podcast, and we are all about local energy. Our guest today and her organization have created one of the most exciting programs we’ve come across about accelerating the transition to clean energy. Our guest today is Wendy Philleo, the executive director of Generation 180. They are a US based nonprofit that is devoted to inspiring people to take on the clean energy transition. And Wendy is no stranger to the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, bringing over two decades of experience to a role.

She has crafted and lead programs are some of the biggest and most widely recognized organizations like the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund. I’m sure you’ve heard of these. So prior to joining Generation 180, Wendy founded and led impact Change Consulting, which helped foundations around the world fine tune their missions and programs. So we have with us today, an expert in the world of building missions, crafting messages and making people aware of really important topics. Wendy, I’m really excited to having you. So welcome today.

Wendy Philleo:

Thank you. It’s great to be here. I’m really excited about it.

Bill Nussey:

So as we like to do, want to hear little bit about what makes you tick, where you came from, how you got to be where you are. So let’s start with a little bit about your background and what shaped your path and why this work is so important to you. Now, we did a little research and you describe yourself in many places as a social entrepreneur. What does that mean to you?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah, there are a variety of ways that term is used. Often, it’s about describing building a business for social good. In a nonprofit that I led before Generation 180, it was a nonprofit focused on conscious consumerism. When I was there, I launched a social enterprise called So Kind, which is all about offering alternatives to traditional registries and encouraging gifts of time and experience and non-material presence. So I learned a lot from that. But more broadly, I like to use that term as being kind of open to new and creative and on entrepreneurial approaches to addressing social change issues.

Bill Nussey:

That’s great a great term. I like it. Well, let’s talk about how you got on this path. It seems that your dad was committed to community service and served on a lot of nonprofit boards. So maybe it’s in your genes. If you had to think back, what are the influences that how helps you pursue this noble and impressive career path?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. Well, great question. One of my earliest memories is being on the shoulders of my father at a Jackson Browne concert, which was also an anti-nuke rally. So perhaps it started there. That may have kicked things off. But then also a few years later, he took my three older brothers and me to a month long course in Massachusetts on how to build your own solar home, which is something he wanted to do. Then a few years later, my parents were divorced and my father moved from the DC area across the country to a tiny, tiny, tiny town at the foot of these 14000 foot peak mountains in the Rockies. He built his solar home there, and for me as an early teen, it was my first time in the Rockies and I just fell in love with that ecosystem and fell in love with big nature and wilderness, and it’s been, I think, the inspiration for all of my sustainability work from that day onwards.

Bill Nussey:

And where do you live now?

Wendy Philleo:

I actually live in Charlottesville, but we still spend a lot of time in Colorado as well.

Bill Nussey:

Colorado’s beautiful.

Wendy Philleo:

And I will say one other thing. I will also say that after undergrad, I read a book called, “Your Money or Your Life,” by Vicki Robin, which is a book about financial independence. But the takeaway for me was all about designing your life to have purpose in your work. So it had a great influence on me.

Bill Nussey:

Love it. How old were you when you read that?

Wendy Philleo:

I was about 21.

Bill Nussey:

I read a book about the same time called, “The Road Less Traveled,” and I think about it. It was so formative for me. I love that those books, which sometimes I think people don’t read as much as they should, but those books can change the direction of your life.

Wendy Philleo:

Agree.

Bill Nussey:

So academically, you went to Tufts University where you received a master’s of arts in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School. And for those listeners that don’t know, this is a graduate school of international affairs. What made you pursue that major and what experiences from that shapes your perspectives?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. I’m, just in general, fascinated by how we humans organize ourselves and how we shape our living environment, how we govern, how we eat, how we interact and how we entertain ourselves. So I’m fascinated by different cultures. The reason I went to Fletcher was because I was interested in sustainable development, both locally and globally. I also met my husband there and that shared interest in international relations, I think, is what led us to saving our nickels and dimes for over a decade to be able to take our kids out of school and quit our jobs and travel for a year. It helps to have that experience to… It gives you a valuable perspective on the US and our particular challenges as a country and what we could be doing differently. But at the same time, it also gives you a deep appreciation for what our country does right.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s shift the conversation to Generation 180. One of the reasons I found you guys, and you and I have spoken before since then, but you guys have a… Part of your mission really touches and overlaps with what we’re doing at the Freeing Energy Project, which is the local energy, the small scale stuff, and helping bring to life the ideas and the inspiration and excitement and education that this is part of the big solution. It’s not just an adjunct and a nice to have. It’s a critical part. We’re going to talk a lot about that in the next few minutes, but you wrote something a little while ago that really caught my attention and Sam’s attention. I’m going to read it just to transition into Generation 180.

Bill Nussey:

You wrote, “Do you know what changes our behavior? Our friends, our neighbors, our communities. Do you know what makes us happy? Our friends, our neighbors, our communities. Social psychology research tells us that social support and social norms can help lead to long-term behavior change and that the more you engage in your community, the more you build social ties and find purpose in life. The happier you’ll be.” So is this a central part of how Generation 180 thinks? And why don’t you kind of tell us about that and introduce us to your organization?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. I do think it’s fundamental to our work because I don’t think that policy and technology alone are going to save us. If we want to speed up this transition, and we have to, we need to capture the hearts and minds of Americans. Widespread clean energy adoption, it’s going to require a massive cultural shift. So the behavioral science is really important and it reveals that our social environment, our community can profoundly shape our behavior. So social visibility, peer pressure, influence, influencers, they can all speed the cultural adoption of clean energy norms, which is really important. So our work is all about hastening this contagion and ripple effect in our communities.

Bill Nussey:

So you guys are harnessing, for tremendous good, the same psychological things that aren’t always used for good, but should be more often and historically have been. Tell us what you’re doing with that. What is Generation 180 all about?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. So our mission at Generation 180 is about inspiring Americans and then equipping them to get engaged on clean energy. So our feeling is that most Americans now at this stage understand the Normandy of the climate crisis, but understandably, they feel overwhelmed and they feel no sense of agency about what they can do. So 70% of Americans feel like they want to do more on climate, but the majority of those folks have no idea on where to start. So not only do we need to restore people’s sense of agency around this issue, we also need to give them clearer pathways about how to get engaged.

Wendy Philleo:

So our kind of theory of change is that first, Americans need to know that there are solutions out there and that there’s a healthier and more equitable, clean energy future is possible. To date, Americans have just gotten like a hefty dose of what we need to avoid. There’s a lot of doom and gloom. To galvanize Americans at the scale and pace that we need to, we know this has to be the decade of decarbonization. So Americans need to be galvanized the compelling vision of what’s possible. So we are telling a new energy narrative like you do around economic prosperity, around energy freedom, around resiliency and innovation.

Wendy Philleo:

So what we do at Generation 180 is twofold. One is first, we’re trying to help tell that new energy story. So that’s a lot of media outreach. It’s a lot of sharing stories of success. It’s about sharing the momentum of clean energy adoption Then we’re trying to reach people in new and unexpected ways. So that means using creative communications. It’s around using cultural strategies. So that could mean partnering with comedians. It could be partnering with sports broadcasters and musicians and artists to help embed clean energy values throughout our life. And second is to run local clean energy campaigns that both decarbonize and provide pathways for people to get engaged. So our two main campaigns are Electrify Your Ride, which is all about popularizing and normalizing electric vehicles, and then our second main campaign is Solar for All Schools.

Speaker 1:

Why is the third party ownership and financing business model of solar so important for schools? Generation 180 recently published its third edition of the Brighter Future Report detailing the enormously beneficial role that solar is playing in schools across the US. But how are schools paying for these systems? The report notes, “According to available data on school methods of financing, third party ownership is how 79% of the solar installed on schools is financed. While third party ownership is the predominant way schools finance are solar systems, it is currently allowed by law in only 28 states and the District of Columbia. The states that allow third party ownership account for 91% of the solar installed at schools nationwide. That means the remaining 22 states only account for 9% of the solar installed on schools. Lack of access to third party financing is stifling solar development in almost half of the US. The schools in those states without access to this financing mechanism must find funds in their budget, seek out donations and grants, raise the money to go solar, or issue bonds.”

Speaker 1:

Generation 180 has case study after case study demonstrating the innumerable benefits that solar provides schools. But though the economic benefits to schools are self evident, the pressure on school budgets is enormous and in many states, regulations inhibit third party ownership and financing, making it more difficult for schools to realize the savings. It’s worth noting that according to Generation 180, energy is the second largest expense for schools behind personnel. So how they fund the shift to solar to realize those savings is critical.

Speaker 1:

In an excellent article from the Institute of Local Self-reliance, the authors note that, “States have opportunity to create policies and new models of solar financing that keep investments local and are more inclusive of those traditionally left out of the conversation, including low income communities. Doing so will continue to grow both capacity and community power in the distributed solar market nationwide and give states a competitive economic edge.”

Speaker 1:

We at the Freeing Energy Project would add that there is likely no better example of where these local investments and resulting savings manifest than in our precious schools. Want to learn more about how your community schools can save money by going solar? Generation 180 maintains the most comprehensive database of solar schools in the United States and an easy way for you to learn about solar schools near you. In addition, Generation 180 provides a detailed Solar for Schools campaign toolkit and a guide for advocating for solar in your community schools. How can you get involved? Check out our show notes for this episode to see the links to Generation 180’s Solar for All Schools program and a free technical assistance help desk. Now, back to Wendy and Bill for even more.

Bill Nussey:

Well, you mentioned a lot of venues and voices you’re bringing to this discussion, but one you mentioned, comedians. That caught my attention and I feel like maybe there’s an enormous announcement about to happen right here on the Freeing Energy Project Podcast. So can you just give us a quick preview of maybe what’s happening in the future, which might become my favorite podcast in the industry? But maybe. Anyway, go ahead.

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. I can tell you two announcements. One is we are bringing on a comedian in residence to Generation 180, a fantastic comedian named Esteban Gast. He will also be launching our first podcast cast, which will be called, Comedians Conquering Climate Change. So we just recorded our first episode. So that’ll launch sometime in November.

Bill Nussey:

Wow. We’ll make sure we get all the details and we’ll send it out to our listeners and include it in our links. You’ve hired an in-house comedian. That is a phrase… I’ve been in business for 25 years. I’ve never heard that before and it may be my favorite idea I’ve never heard of. I’m going to tell all my entrepreneur friends, “You need to hire a comedian in residence.” As soon as you said, “funny,” and, “climate change,” at the same time, it puts you in a universe of one. This is not a lighthearted conversation, but I think you’ll open up a lot of ears with that. So I’m excited to hear that. Thanks for doing that. I can’t wait to listen to Esteban.

Wendy Philleo:

Sure.

Bill Nussey:

Well, on a more serious note, let’s talk a little bit about your schools program. Why did you pick schools of all the areas that you might focus on? Why schools and what are you guys doing there?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. We work on both schools and electric vehicles because they lead to direct decarbonization and both are highly visible and highly contagious behaviors. But more on schools, really it’s because every community has a school, right? They’re powerful symbols of learning and growth in our communities and they reach a wide variety of audiences from both the students and the teachers and the parents and the school decision makers. We also realized that if all K12 schools across the country use renewable energy, the carbon emissions that we would be avoiding would be equivalent to taking offline 18 coal-fired power plants. So there’s a huge opportunity here.

Wendy Philleo:

Also, of course, when schools go solar, they reduce their energy cost and I think it’s important for people to realize that energy is the second largest expense for schools after personnel. So it’s a big deal and you can also of course, link it to stem learning and job training opportunities and in some cases, resiliency for community. Also, if we’re equipping our children for the future, of course, solar is a no brainer. I’ll just add one more thing. When we were doing our strategic planning process and our research, we looked at the K12 arena and we saw that it was a gap and there was just not enough people working in that arena and it was an area where we could make a big impact.

Bill Nussey:

One of the things that drew me to you originally was your focus on schools. I’ve got a book coming out in December and the opening chapter, the core story of the book is a school in Puerto Rico and how that school has built a solar micro grid with batteries to deal with all the power outages, even when there aren’t hurricanes there, but how that really affected, not just the school and the students, but the entire community in this mountainous, rural area down in Puerto Rico. So I think schools are emotive in a way that many other commercial or residential projects don’t capture the imagination. I think it’s a fantastic focus area for you guys. It gets me excited, so I want to learn more and I enjoy your newsletters. We’ll make sure everyone has a signup for your newsletters so they can learn more as well. But another thing that I like that you focus in Generation 180 is action. It’s not just education. You have a phrase, “pathways to action.” So what’s the difference between just education and education towards action? How do you view that?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. We are all about action and actual behavior change. So we know that awareness doesn’t lead directly to action change. So there’s a lot of other elements there. So what we want to do is both inspire and then equip. So in both of our campaigns, we are building out what we call clean energy ambassador networks. So on the school side, we are developing networks of clean energy school leaders. That’s superintendents, that’s school facility managers, that’s school board members because we know that school decision makers are most influenced by their peers.

Wendy Philleo:

So we want to build that peer to peer network. At the same time, we know that they need to technical assistance. So we have a lot of resources on our website, like a help desk, like free technical assistance and our clean energy network, as well as guides for both parents and students, as well as school decision makers. Then we go to the school decision makers where they are a lot of times and reach out to them. So it’s not just about us providing education, but really going out and making those connections and then creating this peer-to-peer network to influence them.

Bill Nussey:

Well, let’s take a look at the footprint of schools in the US. How many schools are there in total and what is the current number that have solar on them? Where can we go?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah, they’re about 130000 schools K to 12.

Bill Nussey:

130000?

Wendy Philleo:

Yes.

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Wendy Philleo:

We have doubled the number of schools with solar in the last five years. So we’re seeing great trends in that direction, but really still a lot of progress to be made because only 6% of K to 12 schools have solar.

Bill Nussey:

Wow. So there’s a long way to go, but it is such a great win, win, win place to focus on and it has such benefits to the community. I think it’s a really beautiful example of what’s possible. Let’s drill in on one in specific that you guys have talked about and I’d love to share with our listeners, it’s the Batesville School System in Arkansas. What’s the story?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. This is fantastic. I love this one. Batesville School District went solar and their district is saving nearly hundred thousand dollars a year. Before they went solar, they were having a lot of teachers leaving because they were one of the most underpaid school districts in the region. So after they went solar, they used their savings to increase their teacher pay, which I think is just marvelous, which helped keep teachers there and attract teachers to them.

Bill Nussey:

Wow, that’s a great story. There’s a story in my book about somebody who had proposed a parent of a school and they had proposed to help raise money for the school to put up solar. The principal of the school said, “I don’t really have time. I don’t believe this. I don’t believe it’ll save me money,” and the story was that wanted to be clean. They wanted to send a message to the students. It was trying to lean into STEM, but there was just that entrenched belief. It wasn’t politically based. It was just the, “This is going to be too much trouble and come back at me in five or 10 years when I’ve got time to think about this.” I think that also drew me to your mission because I think simple education, and as you said, examples, just educate. If school A is doing it, school B wants to know.

Wendy Philleo:

That’s exactly right. I think your example also reminds me that one of the things we also learned in doing our research is that 80% of the schools that have gone solar installed it with funding and ownership by third parties. So the legality of third party financing is really important here. So the ability to use a power purchase agreement, which is legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia is really important for school decision makers and parents and students to understand because in those 28 states and DC, those schools can go solar with no upfront cost. So they don’t need to find the funding in their budget, which is really important for speeding up adoption of solar on schools. Then for the remaining states, we need to make PPAs and third party financing legal.

Bill Nussey:

Just to go a bit deeper on that, my understanding having been involved with several school projects is that schools are nonprofits and therefore, they can’t directly benefit from the tax benefits that federal government and some state governments offer for solar. So by having a third party own it, that entity can actually much further lower the price of it than the school would do it if they paid for it on their own. So it’s a win-win again, and this education process of what’s possible and obviously goes far beyond schools, but schools are such a visible heartwarming example.

Wendy Philleo:

Exactly. In Tucson, the Tucson Unified School District, they’re going to save $43 million over 20 years and put that money back into their schools. So there’s just amazing stories out there that we are really trying to tell and share with the media and others. It’s exciting.

Bill Nussey:

In some cases, in some regions, there’s political resistance, sometimes misinformed, but sometimes there’s political [inaudible 00:24:34] to solar of all scales. But I think the schools, you just can’t argue with that. You just can’t argue with that. Maybe some corporations shouldn’t save the money from solar, but a school most certainly should. Everybody wins in the community.

Wendy Philleo:

Exactly. If you start the conversation with economics, you don’t need to bring anything up else up, right? It’s cut and dry. Let’s save money and put it back into our schools.

Bill Nussey:

Wendy, I love listening to the stories about what you guys are doing with the program. We’ve talked about the other you have, but I think another thing that I’m really interested, and I think a lot of our listeners will really benefit from, is this isn’t your first rodeo. You have helped shape messaging and moved the needle on important social things in the past. So you’ve really built a career on making a difference in a very large way. I think that’s going to be an inspiration to many of our listeners. So let’s talk a bit about that social entrepreneur in you. A lot of people reach out to me and probably many more to you in, “How do I make a career in advocacy and social impact in nonprofits?” When you’re asked that question, how do you answer it for people?

Wendy Philleo:

Well, yeah. I think in terms of, especially in terms of climate and clean energy, now is the time to be engaged on this issue from a career perspective. We need all hands on deck and it’s a really exciting time. So I think there’s so many ways to get started from taking the renewable energy and sustainability courses, to volunteering at climate organizations and looking… There’s such so many different entry ways from the sustainability departments in corporations and helping them get to net zero. Philanthropy and foundations are doing really interesting work, in politics and in the government. I just really think we need all types of skill sets and expertise and advocacy on all fronts. We know that solar and wind jobs are just exploding. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity here for people who want to make careers in this field.

Bill Nussey:

I liked your idea of volunteering early on. I’m actually curious if you’re familiar with situations where someone could do that. What would it look like if somebody wanted to volunteer, either in their community or nationally, and they call up? Who would they call up and say, “I want to volunteer”? Who’s looking for volunteers and what kind of work can they do?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. I think a lot of the big green organizations are always looking for people to help. I think there’s always local groups nearby that need your help in terms of local nonprofits, need board members, they need volunteers. So I would say do the research in your local area. Then if you are so inspired, if you are a electric vehicle owner, for example, and you want to join our network, please get in touch and we will provide you the training and resources to help spread that message as one example. But I think- [crosstalk 00:27:43]

Bill Nussey:

Good example.

Wendy Philleo:

So I think there’s a lot of ways to start that process.

Bill Nussey:

The Freeing Energy Project takes more of a entrepreneurial approach or, I call them innovators, it’s policy innovators and business innovators, technical innovators, scientists, but we’re trying to educate people on what’s possible and inspire them about how large a business opportunity this is. That’s really the reason I started all this years ago and wrote the book, which was the genesis of this Freeing Energy Project. But it morphed into a lot of things, including this podcast, which is surprisingly really taken off and now I love doing this. The people I meet, yourself, top of the list today, just a lot of fun, a lot of fun and it inspires me tremendously what’s going to happen if people like you can lend your talents to this problem, we’re going to fix it. Speaking to people like you, one of our favorite parts and the wrap up part of our interviews, discussions in the podcast is the lightning round questions.

Wendy Philleo:

Okay.

Bill Nussey:

All right. So what excites you most about being in the clean energy industry?

Wendy Philleo:

I think it’s really just about being part of building a healthier future for my kids.

Bill Nussey:

Yeah. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would that be?

Wendy Philleo:

That Americans vote for clean energy. The majority of want this and now they need to vote like it.

Bill Nussey:

Looking out over the next five years, what do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate, store and distribute electricity?

Wendy Philleo:

Batteries, batteries, and batteries. That’s going to change a lot about storage, resiliency and distributed energy.

Bill Nussey:

Wendy, clearly you’ve listened to all of the other podcasts because that is the right answer. Many of my friends call me Battery Bill. So if the answer to a question is batteries, then it’s the right answer. The final question, which you kind of already answered, but when people ask you about how they can make a personal impact towards the clean energy transition, what do you tell them?

Wendy Philleo:

Yeah. I say your energy matters. Your energy matters in all ways. It’s about getting informed. It’s about doing what you can do at the household level, installing solar if you can, buying a used or new EV or pledging to buy one when you’re going to get a new car, purchasing community solar or green power, speaking up in your community at your work, your university, voting for clean energy, volunteering, all of that. I think the thing to remember is that you have more influence than you realize to help speed up the clean energy transition.

Bill Nussey:

Wendy, I love what you’re saying and it really resonates. In fact, the final sentence in my book is a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in total, all those acts will be written in the history of this generation.” I can’t imagine a more profound perspective on what you guys are helping bring about, so many of us are doing, but your mission, schools focused, buses focused, I think, really speaks to what Mr. Kennedy was talking about. So I think on behalf of all of us, we are so grateful for the work that you and your amazing team are doing. We hope to continue to be able to support you guys in every way possible to get the good word out there. There’s nothing more motive in schools. It’s a great story.

Wendy Philleo:

Thank you, Bill. Well, I really appreciate you having me on and I look forward to future collaboration.

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