Why a 'Cleaner-Energy' Guy Doesn't Fear a Smokestack-Loving White House

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Dennis Kelly

Dennis Kelly says he doesn't much care what the vice-president's task force on energy policy had to say in its report Thursday, which is an unusual claim for a guy in the energy business. Then again, Kelly is the CEO of Green Mountain Energy, "the nation's largest retailer of cleaner and renewable energy." And with all the talk from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney about upping domestic production of coal and oil power and taking a "fresh look" at nuclear power — the three kinds of energy Green Mountain vows never to peddle — the report doesn't have many encouraging words anyway.

The company's tagline mission is to "use the power of customer demand to change the way power is made." Which brings us to why a long-time marketing executive at Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola is running an energy company. He's there to be a salesman.

Green Mountain Energy doesn't make energy. It moves into a deregulated energy market — which is where the "power of choice" comes in — with existing sources of power, and makes its pitch. Which, as a real-life business plan, may be just modest enough to work.

Green Mountain doesn't even guarantee clean energy to its customers — technically, they'll be plugging into the same dirty grid juice they used before — just that the electricity they pay for will be replaced by the cleaner energy Green Mountain's energy traders go out and shop for.

Today, Kelly is using the bathtub analogy. "Making electricity causes more air pollution than any other industry in the U.S.," he says. "We tell customers to think of the power grid as a bathtub full of dirty water. Sign up with us, and the energy you use may still all the electricity you draw out of the bottom, we guarantee we'll be put cleaner energy back in at the top. Eventually, the water gets cleaner."

For a small premium, of course. "We know more about why consumers are willing to buy green and how much of a premium they're willing to pay," he says. Right now, that's $5 a month — "a couple of cups of coffee at Starbucks." (Depending on whether you take tall or grande.)

How clean is Green Mountain's valley?

But let's back up: Everything GME hands out — from promotional materials and press releases to business cards — is on fashionably flecked recycled paper. Kelly's own true-believer roots go back to Harvard's Kennedy school for Evironmental and Public Policy — "this is fulfillment for me" — and the company's corporate culture, he reckons, is about half sales and half enviro-evangelist. But Kelly never promised clean energy — just cleaner. And that tends to disappoint the purist.

"Boycott Green Mountain Energy!" screams the aptly named website www.boycottgreenmountain.com. "The Mountain is a landfill!" Hard-core environmentalists, far from rejoicing at the prospect of a for-profit, self-sustaining clean-energy company, think of Green Mountain as something of a Trojan horse, and Kelly its Ulysses.

They slam Green Mountain for relying overwhelmingly on natural gas for its energy basket, and for supplementing that with hydroelectric power — which has its own dire forms of ecological impact — and landfill gas.

And then there's the company Green Mountain keeps. Some of Green Mountain's best investors are George W. Bush's friends. Literally — Sam Wyly, a longtime Bush confidant, is the company's largest investor. And behind Wyly are energy giants BP Amoco and Nuon, who each own about a 20 percent stake.

Kelly concedes it all, though not gleefully.

He doesn't apologize for his Big Energy investors. "Hey, they bought into us — we didn't buy into them." Kelly likes working with BP Amoco's plugged-in trading desk, and happily points out that the oil giant is also the world's biggest retailer of solar panels.

As for the mix, Kelly says blame the marketplace, not the merchant. After all, he's running a business here.

"If people want to make a pure green product and sell it at a 20 or 50 percent premium, that'd be great," he says. "We're not a charity, we're not a non-profit organization. We must attract capital. Our plan is to change the way power is made, do it with other people's money and give it back to them with a return."

Report, Shmeport

So sure, Dennis Kelly is rooting for a clean-energy renaissance. The more cleaner energy there is on the market — and the cleaner it is — the better Kelly will be able to peddle it to consumers who are willing to pay a small premium to have a clearer conscience every time they plug in and turn on.

But he's not holding his breath where Washington is concerned.

"To legislators everywhere, we're looking for a level playing field," Kelly says. "We'll do the rest." At the federal level, that means no subsidies for any form of energy, clean or dirty, as long as what Kelly calls the "true cost" of energy, including environmental impact, is taken into account. He's hinting, of course, that a big fat subsidy — in the form of a don't-worry-too-much-about-the-pollution thumbs-up from Dick Cheney's report — is exactly what the coal, oil and nuke industries are about to receive.

But no matter. Green Mountain is playing a market game, and on that front, Kelly says life under George W. Bush has been just fine. Because on the state level, a "level playing field" means exactly one thing: deregulation.

The company relocated from Burlington, Vt., to Austin, Kelly says, primarily for two reasons: Houston was still the energy capital of the country; and as long as the company stayed in highly regulated Vermont it was in the somewhat embarrassing position of not being able to do business in its own state.

Texas, however, finished a smooth transition to deregulation under Bush the governor and remains a self-sustaining energy powerhouse, running a consistent power surplus in these times of supposed scarcity. And look what sprouted up in the land of oil fields: On April 3, Green Mountain began offering customers "100 percent clean wind power" from a windmill farm in the Texas hills.

Which arguably constitutes a change in the way power in Texas is made. And Bush didn't lift a finger to stop it.

Blowing away smoke in Ohio

For now, Green Mountain does the symbolic things it thinks will build up its brand. In February, Green Mountain scored its biggest success in deregulated Ohio — coal country — where it was selected to serve 400,000 of the state's electricity customers with the cleanest energy it can afford to sell profitably.

Overwhelmingly, that's natural gas — not exactly the stuff of the sandalistas. So Green Mountain is building Ohio's first wind farm as a flagship. Says Kelly: "Even though that might be only two or three percent of our mix, it's important that we build the first wind plant in Ohio.

"It's a tiny fraction of what we make," Kelly admits. "But making the start is what counts. All this is part of building up our brand and our presence."

A tiny pause.

"And also making a difference."

And how much green is there?

With the big score in Ohio and inroads in other sufficiently deregulated markets, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, and of course California, Green Mountain's base stands at six states and 500,000 customers. (The Texas wind offering is still in its early stages.)

The company is still privately held, and so numbers like profits and revenues are still behind the curtain (an IPO is planned, Kelly says, "for when we can do it"). And no matter how much the company tries to cast its monthly premium as a selling point — "in order to sell a cleaner mix of energy, we have to charge a premium, and that's fine with us" — Green Mountain's bottom line will always be up against the fact that Americans are generally quite adamant about paying as little for electricity as they possibly can.

But that's where an non-tree-hugging White House could be a big help, although for only some of the reasons Bush and Cheney have in mind.

Kyoto? CO2 emissions? Slashing environmental regulations? An energy policy based largely on coal, oil and nuclear? For Kelly and Green Mountain, it's all just good publicity: "The whole discussion is really good for our business."

Kelly, though, does look a little worried about California, which he says has "localized problems" but is definitely in danger of giving Green Mountain's deregulation raison d'etre a very bad name. But with Bush standing firmly against price caps and behind market forces, no matter how cruel, the Coca-Cola salesman figures the tide is still running in his direction.

And while the Bush-Cheney plan paid some homage to Green Mountain's flavors of power, the farther the White House goes back to the kind of energy that fired the sooty Industrial Revolution, the more that may help create just the political climate (pun intended) necessary for the kind of creeping, market-driven uprising Kelly has in mind.

And if that doesn't work, they can always hook up their natural-gas lines to that bathtub.