When I was 10, a group of Wesleyan college students built a solar house for my family. They weren’t the best builders by far, and pipes burst every winter for years. But, they were passionate about the emerging renewable energy revolution. Jimmy Carter had put solar panels on the White House while cars were lining up for gas. How could they be wrong? I was ready to link arms, pound nails, and join the forces of change.
However, the revolution fizzled. The White House lost its collectors; McMansions, SUV’s, and gadgets proliferated. Thirty-plus years later, a new revolution is building and, this time, we can’t afford to lose. I’m not much of a revolutionary. I still travel and consume too much. But, I’m proud to be making progress and to be collaborating with activists, philanthropists, and investors who are jump-starting this revolution. In particular, it’s been an honor to be involved with the Sierra Club, Rachel’s Network, and now Geo Investors.
The Sierra Club’s primary contribution has been to put the brakes on dirty energy. When I joined the Sierra Club Foundation board, the Bush Administration had just announced plans for 109 new coal plants. The Club audaciously decided to challenge every one. Amazingly, we recently celebrated the 150th plant that was defeated. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized this success with a $50 million commitment from his personal foundation. Now the hard part: achieving the “Beyond” portion of the Beyond Coal Campaign.
Increasingly, I’m convinced that, as important as it is, philanthropy is just not enough. Rachel’s Network has been a terrific forum for exploring how I can do more to foster the transition to clean energy. I’ve been inspired by fellow Impact Investing Learning Circle members who are using program-related investments, ballot initiatives, and other mechanisms to catalyze market-changes.
The role of investments and markets has become a primary focus for me. During my time as chair of the Sierra Club Foundation board, we’ve transitioned as much of our portfolio as possible to asset managers who are aligned with our priorities. Convincing investors that coal is a bad investment has been a key component of the Club’s campaign success. Now the Club is partnering with clean energy leaders to convince investors, policymakers, and the public that renewables and efficiency are a good bet.
Thanks to Rachel’s Network, I will soon have the opportunity to learn about clean energy markets from the inside. The Network introduced me to Geo Investors, a new renewable energy infrastructure fund, and I just agreed to join their advisory board. Geo is focused on providing relatively conservative capital to mid-sized projects that use established clean technology. I will be the only female board member and the only one without corporate finance and/or renewable energy credentials. It’s daunting, but exciting.
I applaud my fellow members who are fueling the clean energy revolution with their grant-making, investments, and changes in their own consumption patterns. And I challenge us all to do even more. Arriba juntos!
Loren Blackford is a member of the Sierra Club board, a former chair of the Sierra Club Foundation board, and an advisory board member with the National Wildlife Federation.