One of the first challenges Quayle Hodek had to overcome when starting Boulder, Colo.-based Renewable Choice Energy was going into meetings with CEOs in their 60s and carrying the mantle of Renewable Choice CEO as a 23-year-old. Now 32, Quayle has grown into one of the top recognized leaders in the industry and has built a client list that includes companies like Whole Foods Market, Vail Resorts, Steelcase, Kettle Chips, Burt's Bees and Performance Bicycle. He's a frequent speaker at industry events and educational programs and has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and on CNN and CNBC. Denver Magazine wrote a great feature on Hodek last year that's worth a read.
I first got to know Quayle when we both sold educational books door to door for the Southwestern Company. I didn't sell many books, but he sold many, many, many books. He was the #1 salesperson that year and made more money in one summer than most people make in a year ($70k+).
He drives a hybrid car when he has to drive, but he prefers to jump on the trails on his bike whenever he can.
Later he joined a dot-com that I had started, and we worked together to start Renewable Choice; he as CEO and me as the creative/designer/marketing/Web guy. I left after a couple years to start a family, and Hodek has been leading the charge ever since.
Quayle has been one of the drivers of the creation of new renewable energy markets and was active in helping to create the Green-e Certification Program, the industry standard for renewable energy purchasing. I caught up with him during a rare lull in his busy schedule and fired these seven questions his way.
MNN: What will the energy grid look like in 50 years?
Quayle Hodek: The entire electric infrastructure will look wildly different in 50 years. The short answer is the electric grid will be much smarter, and much more reliant on renewable resources than on expensive and polluting fossil fuels.
The idea of a smart grid is now slowly coming into reality. The smart grid will have a two-way communication system including smart meters, with ability to manage peaks in demand, better isolate and sustain physical damage, carry clean renewable electricity long distances, and allow for a heavy saturation of small-scale distributed generation, like rooftop solar. If investments in the smart grid infrastructure continue, electric vehicles may become ubiquitous — both because of the economic and environmental sense they make for consumers, and because of the vast store of batteries that will be available to grid operators to balance out the intermittency of wind and solar resources.
New additions to our electric system have not yet been dominated by renewables, but their share has gone up 40-fold in just the past 10 years. 2008 saw renewables make up 40 percdent of all new electric generation built in the United States, up from 1 percent in 2001. So looking forward, it’s not unreasonable or uneconomic to see renewables growing from 3 percent of total generation today (excluding 7 percent from large hydro dams), to 50 percent or more.
There are several major studies and research showing how the United States could reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. Over the next two decades, the continually rising costs of fossil fuels will make it prohibitive to continue burning them, so we’ll witness the overdue transition to a largely renewable system. Smart grid upgrades will feature two-way communication to consumer appliances, real-time pricing information, more efficient transmission infrastructure, and advanced battery and flywheel technologies to balance the inherent fluctuations of wind and solar resources.
Quayle, post-sky dive, with a couple members of his team at Renewable Choice.
What’s the difference between a good offset and a bad offset?
There are many different types of offset programs and systems around the world. Offsets or credits can be used in water management systems, to track compliance with renewable electricity standards for utilities, to mitigate the impact on wetlands and biodiversity habitat from new construction, and to regulate the amount of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur oxide air pollution allowed from industrial facilities.
These systems are created by governments or stakeholder groups, and typically use regional or national tracking systems, scientifically or regulatory-designated protocols, and independent auditing and certification. Some people call these systems generically ‘environmental credit systems.’
Offsets are used by individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments to reduce their overall environmental impact of a certain activity. A carbon offset is the common name for a ‘verified emission reduction’, or VER. A carbon offset is proof of one metric ton of carbon dioxide air pollution being avoided or eliminated.
A good offset is one that actually delivers the direct and verifiable positive impact that’s intended. A bad offset is one of questionable quality, where the environmental benefit is either unclear or unverified. With the variety of stringent protocols and certification standards around the world today, there’s not much reason to purchase a non-certified offset. Good carbon offsets are verified by one or more of the many certification standards, including The Climate Action Reserve, Voluntary Carbon Standard, Gold Standard, Green-e, and the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. These standards and protocols govern a wide range of topics around carbon reduction project types, accounting, compliance, proof of additionality, and reporting. Offset buyers should always do their diligence on the quality of a particular project, or work with an advisor or reputable company that only sells certified offsets.
Within the set of certified offsets, other factors determining offset value are largely influenced by buyer preference. For example, is an offset from a local project preferred over one from South America, Europe, or Asia? Or of all the renewable energy options, is there a preference for solar or wind over geothermal or biomass? In addition to the direct environmental benefits represented within an offset or credit, are there other social or economic development benefits that will accrue with the project?
When developing wind farms in rural and economically depressed areas across the U.S. for example, there are jobs created, revenues for farmers leasing their land, and tax revenues generated for local communities. Or when switching out dirty charcoal-burning stoves across communities in Africa for cleaner burning wood stoves, there’s a substantial benefit to the indoor-air quality for all those families, beyond the global CO2 reductions. These ‘charismatic’ offsets, from projects with unique characteristics, new technologies, or with significantly positive additional social benefits are able to command a premium in the market from buyers.
Which of the companies that you’re working with are doing the best when it comes to making their operations greener?
Well, I know I’m sticking my neck out here, but I’m going to throw it out anyway.
Yes, I know they’re late to the game, and everyone reading this has their own strong opinions on their business model and their effects on a wide range of issues. But here’s the thing. As the world’s largest retailer, Walmart has an individual impact that eclipses the entire economies of many countries.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with scores of great companies, many who are leaders in areas like green building design, investing in renewable energy projects, engaging employees in efficiency and greener initiatives, and developing the newest clean technology innovations. But the scale of Walmart’s recent sustainability push throughout its supply chain and its efforts to engage other major corporations have been impressive. Regardless of whether we purchased our last TV, birthday card, or T-shirt at Walmart or elsewhere, the same resources, workers, ships, energy, and brands are part of our everyday lives.
What Walmart is doing is beginning to discuss, measure, and publicly disclose the sustainability (or unsustainability) of every step along a product’s lifecycle. Every single supplier to Walmart is now required to report energy, carbon, water, waste, and social sustainability efforts of their companies and products. This is definitely just the beginning of a long process, and most consumer products today are a long way from being truly green or sustainable. But the message coming from the world’s largest retailer is reverberating throughout industry everywhere.
For thousands of companies, these conversations around sustainability are the very first they’re having. And Walmart is part of a broad coalition, called the Sustainability Consortium, of other major companies who are also starting to require similar disclosure and reduction goals from their supply chains. If this trend continues, it will push sustainability farther into the mainstream than any existing set of laws or regulations anywhere. My company, Renewable Choice, has educated thousands of companies on the initiative, and we are directly supporting over a hundred of their suppliers in measuring, reducing, and reporting their environmental impacts.
Visiting Iguazu Falls in Brazil.
Does the world need saving?
No. The Earth doesn’t need to be saved any more than the sun needs saving. It was here long before human beings, and will continue well past the end of human civilization, whether through conflict, disease, evolution, environmental collapse, or colonization of other planets. When most people talk about saving the planet, they mean preserving the ability of humans to live here. That means clean water, clean air, healthy food from living soil, and with a diversity of plant and animal life that keeps the earth’s naturally regulating systems in balance.
True sustainability is a way of living with each other and using natural resources that ensures the ability of current humans to meet their needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to do so. It involves aspects of economy, society, and the environment.
What’s the difference between green and greener?
There’s a big difference between thinking green and actually being green. To me, green ideas, lifestyles, choices, and products are those where the environmental impact is considered, and has at least a smaller negative impact than a traditional choice. Ideally of course, being green should actually speak to a net positive impact, instead of just harm reduction. So today’s ‘green’ is actually just the first step.
Greener is constantly pushing the boundary, moving the change to the edge of what’s possible and feasible. It’s learning, discussing, and choosing to engage in things like organic farming, renewable energy and efficiency, reducing and recycling. Those who are ‘greener’ are active participants in a process, an evolution. There’s a radical re-thinking of our place in the world, and the search for more healthy and fulfilling lifestyles.
Green doesn’t have to mean going back to a pre-industrial or pre-technological existence. It’s about doing more with less. It’s about not wasting resources and trashing the environment. Green implies respect for the planet and for others, by making positive choices, and being conscious of the range of effects our lifestyles have.
Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?
That’s a really tough question. I’m going to have to mention several people instead. I’m constantly inspired by all the incredible people doing environmental and social justice work as their main focus and contribution. They range from college students first becoming activists for a campaign that compels them, to academic researchers, teachers, and writers, to employees and thought leaders within companies. I’m especially thankful and excited about the new generation of entrepreneurs who are designing business models (for profit or not) with the express purpose of doing well for their people by doing good for the planet.
To name just a few individuals who’ve affected me through their work, here goes: Leslie Glustrom and Amy Guinan from Clean Energy Action, based in Boulder, CO. They’re doing the tough work of educating staff at state public utility commissions about the long-term economic costs of fossil fuels, and how renewables and efficiency can compete today. Tyler Hartung and Dan Epstein of the Unreasonable Institute, cultivating and mentoring ‘impact entrepreneurs’ from around the world.
Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, forging sustainability as a core value before many of us even knew the word. Mark Newton of Dell computer company, as a leading example and voice of sustainability for his peers at all other Fortune 500 companies.
My good friend Adam Kanold, an engineer at Tetra Tech, who’s putting himself on the line in Afghanistan doing reconstruction work. Louis Karp of Whole Foods Market, whose environmental ethic and charisma helped drive renewables adoption for the whole company, touching millions of individuals with their message, and proving the viability of large-scale wind purchases to other corporate decision makers.
And my younger brother, who feels no choice but to live sustainably on a small plot of land he farms organically, in order to show anyone who’ll listen how self sufficiently we can actually live.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs considering entering the cleantech arena?
My advice is typically a mix of encouragement and realism. So my first thought is, go for it! Just don’t do it blindly. Starting, growing, and leading an organization of people can be very rewarding, enjoyable, and yes, earth-changing.
The more specific advice I like to share is the practical stuff you’d learn eventually through an MBA program or just along the way.
1) Follow your passion. Your idea will never make it unless you’ve got unshakable belief and a strong purpose behind the product or service you want to provide.
2) Write a solid and comprehensive business plan. Flying by the seat of your pants is absolutely necessary as an entrepreneur, but any excuse to skip creating an extensive and formal business plan is just amateur, not visionary.
3) Your team is everything. The most talented individual contributions are only meaningful when part of a cohesive team. And the best plans are similarly useless without an inspired group to execute them.
4) Check your determination. In my experience, entrepreneurs whose ideas have been successful all have a tireless work ethic and commitment to their cause. Typically this means 60-80+ hours a week in the early years of your venture. And you often must get through 10 “no’s” for every one “yes” when pitching your concept to investors or your product/service to potential customers. That’s just the deal. Be ready for it.
Social, environmental, or other “impact” entrepreneurship allows the chance for your life’s work to be aligned with your personal mission and values. How cool is that?
Also on MNN:
- Margaret Roach: Former media maven turns to garden writing
- Gary Hirshberg: CEO, organic food maven, rapper