Andrew Butts had childhood asthma and remembers waking up, unable to catch his breath. There was a coal-fired power plant near his home in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.
He connects the two, struck by how his family’s health has been shaped by energy choices beyond his control.
While Butts, 33, was attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota to study science, technology, and environmental policy, he started a non-profit organization that connects consumers to green energy options through local utilities.
Butts’ Green Neighbor Challenge recently won $ 100,000 from the Environmental Justice Data Fund, tested by Google.
“I learned one day in class that I could sign up for Xcel’s Windsource program for a fraction of the monthly cost of co-paying my inhaler,” said Butts, 33, who has worked as a freelance videographer and supply chain analyst at SC Johnson before graduate school.
“I found that my friends across the country also had local programs. Signing up is easy, but the action also gives you power,” he said. “So I spent the second year of my studies exploring how ordinary people could transform our energy system. This informed our mission to make it easy for residents to find, understand and enroll in these green pricing programs so that all of us we can breathe easier. ”
The following is an interview with Butts about his nonprofit and his case for using renewable energy, modified for length and clarity.
Q: What do you plan to do with the prize?
A: We plan to expand our green pricing database and develop a similar tool to help homeowners access energy efficiency incentives and discounts through public services, governments and nonprofits, including those created by the Reduction Act. of recently approved inflation. We also aim to develop a tool to help low-income residents find and apply for state energy assistance programs through their local community action agencies, which are known to be underutilized and underfunded.
Q: What are the statistics that support the market you seek to serve?
A: According to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, more than 70% of U.S. homes, including renters, have the option of enrolling in green energy for a small additional cost through their own utility, but due to the lack of marketing on these programs, only 14% of families are aware that these options exist. Worse still, only 2% signed up.
Over the past four years, our team has researched and built the first nationwide detailed database of green energy programs. For 27% of households who do not have access to green energy through their own utility, they can purchase Green-E certified renewable energy certificates through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
Q: What is the case with the switch to renewables?
A: Many states have laws that give energy users the right to choose cleaner air. Even putting the climate crisis aside, the health benefits of switching to renewable energy can more than pay off the entire energy transition. Here in the Midwest, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the public health benefits of solar and wind power to be between 3 and 6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Xcel’s declared net charge for Windsource is 0.6 cents per kWh. This means that the health benefit is five to ten times higher than the cost. Combining this EPA assessment with data from the Department of Energy, we estimated that if only 2% of US households switched to green energy, reducing air pollution would generate over $ 983 million in public health benefits. per year. This means fewer strokes, heart attacks, asthma attacks, doctor visits and lost work days.
Q: You mentioned that the Green Neighbor Challenge so far, aside from the $ 100,000 prize, has survived with around $ 10,000 you’ve raised from backers. You and the others who worked on it were basically volunteers. How did you support yourself?
A: Most of our contributors have been students, but others have full-time jobs, are in-between jobs, or survive on part-time / concert jobs. I’m in the last category and I’m lucky enough to have a support network. I take a lot of contract work from the university as a freelance video editor and as a course instructor for the Regenerative Game Studio sustainability-themed game design course; as a teaching assistant for two other sustainability courses; and also as a researcher on water for the Institute for the Environment.
Q: What’s the end of the game?
A: Not only do we want to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, but in the process we want to grow people’s knowledge and ability to shape their local energy system that meets the needs and desires of the community. Information is power. And public information is essential for democracy. With it, we can force our utilities to source green energy in a more certifiable way, beyond their regulatory requirements. Demonstrating support for renewables also sends a message … about the world we want.