Blog: Sean Reed

As founder and executive director of Clean Energy Coalition, Sean Reed provides strategic planning, leadership and guidance to the organization's operations, three divisions, and 19 staff. Mr. Reed has successfully acquired, managed and completed more than 30 state and federal grants valued at more than $55 million.

Before founding Clean Energy Coalition in 2005, Mr. Reed served as a program developer and energy analyst for the city of Ann Arbor's Energy Office and the joint city of Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County Community Development Department. Sean has also worked for WARM Training Center in Detroit as a program manager, at Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, the Olkonorei Integrated Pastoralist Survival Program in Tanzania, Africa, and as an instructor at the Japanese Ministry of Education in Imadate, Japan.

Sean has presented on the topic of energy efficiency at numerous statewide and regional conferences in Michigan.  His work in the energy arena has been covered nationally by National Public Radio, CNN, Time magazine, and the New York Times.

Born in Malawi, Africa, Sean has traveled and worked widely, living in Africa, Asia and Europe. He holds a bachelor's degree from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Penn., master's degrees in social work and urban planning from the University of Michigan, and is certified as a housing rehabilitation specialist and home energy rater.

Sean Reed - Most Recent Posts:

From a Folding Chair to $55 Million in Funded Clean Energy Projects

There can be no doubt that here in Michigan, things are changing, especially when it comes to how we power our economy and our daily lives.  The Clean Energy Coalition is a not-for-profit organization that has not only embraced the need for change but has been actively working to deploy the tools and technologies that can make it happen faster.  Change doesn't happen through good intentions and sheer willpower alone.   The creation and growth of the Clean Energy Coalition is a case in point.  After working for the city of Ann Arbor on clean energy projects, I conceived the idea of creating an independent organization that could work on the same challenges and solutions, but have a statewide impact.  That was the genesis of the Clean Energy Coalition, which was established in 2005. 

In our first five years, we have worked through many of the same issues that every entrepreneur faces.  Moving from a one-person shop to hiring our first staff person, and then growing the organization with 14 full-time and five part-time employees.  If you haven't had that entrepreneurial moment of sitting alone in a bare office with a folding chair, card table, laptop and cell phone as your sole office mates, I highly encourage you to have this experience at least once in your life.  It's highly transformative. 

As an organization, we've worked hard to establish credibility with potential partners and stakeholders.  We’ve worked with everyone from the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, to Fortune 500 companies, to municipalities from across the state, to mom and pop shops, to the homeowner down the block.  We've fostered a culture of creativity and innovation with our staff.  We've created a strong brand that connects with consumers and potential partners, and is uniquely differentiated from other companies and organizations working in the clean energy arena.  And we have identified unmet needs in the market, and then systematically assembled funding and partners who can help drive change.

So, in our work to transform markets in the clean energy sector, what needs have we seen from our partners?  In general, the biggest issue is not a lack of desire to change.  It's not knowing where to start.  There have never been more options available to help people, businesses, and municipalities save money on their energy bills, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and cut pollution.  However, with so many choices, limited budgets, and competing priorities, it can be challenging for even the most well-intentioned and committed individuals and organizations to move forward confidently and with purpose.   Many people we speak with often overlook the simple things they can do without a big cash outlay.  For example, they might be interested in installing a wind generator on their home, but haven't done anything to reduce their electrical load, such as installing compact fluorescent light bulbs.

In general, we have found that a "go it alone" strategy is not always the best way to tackle problems, uncover opportunities, or create value.  We have found that as an organization, our ability to open the door to new technologies, new partners, and new sources of funding is our greatest asset.  Since we launched in 2005, we have been building bridges between the public and private sectors.  We have assembled over $55 million in funded clean energy projects developed right here in Michigan.  Whether the goal is to build a green vehicle fleet, reduce the energy footprint of buildings, or help build clean energy infrastructure, our track record makes us a valued partner.

Our far-reaching initiatives include championing innovative vehicle technologies to create green fleets that reduce emissions and boost fuel economy.  A local example of this is the support we provided to help put Ann Arbor's new hydraulic hybrid recycling trucks on the road.  Others include spearheading infrastructure investments including local biodiesel, ethanol, compressed natural gas, and upcoming electric charging infrastructure; auditing and creating energy conservation plans for residential and commercial buildings; and helping to organize Ann Arbor's annual Earth Day and Green Fair events, as well as other local workshops and stakeholder events.  We've also provided technical consulting services to 40 municipalities, including conducting greenhouse gas inventories and establishing revolving energy funds.  And assisting with the launch of the state's first commercial PACE (property assessed clean energy) program in Ann Arbor is certainly something we are particularly proud of.

Just like a "go it alone" strategy doesn't work, neither does a cookie-cutter approach.  Our organization recognizes that every individual and entity it works with is starting at a different place and has different resources and goals when it comes to adopting clean energy solutions.   Our deep understanding of the issues and technology, committed partners, and access to capital allows us to develop custom-tailored solutions for our clients and partners.  We would welcome the opportunity to work in partnership with you to bridge the individual needs you might have and advance the many positive opportunities and changes currently underway.  I think you'll find we can exceed your expectations – both for bottom line results and in delivering measurable improvements to our quality of life.

Life With the Maasai: Why Feeding the Starved Doesn't Work for Long

I thought it might be helpful to spend a little time explaining what's a driver for me personally and how that impacts and directs my work in the energy sector and with Clean Energy Coalition.  It’s impossible to launch an organization like this and not have my personal and professional lives overlap!  And lately, I’ve been struck by the debate in social and professional arenas around issues that are so important to me, so I thought I’d take the opportunity over the next couple posts to share some of my thoughts.

So, first off, what drives me?  How do I look at the world around me?  I had a highly transformative experience shortly before moving to Michigan in 1999.  I spent a year living and working with the Maasai tribespeople in rural Tanzania.  While there, I worked installing renewable energy systems for an indigenous, tribal community development organization called the Olkonerei Integrated Pastoralist Survival Program.  

The Maasai tribespeople are not only some of the most beautiful, friendly people you will ever meet, but also one of the most traditional tribes on the African continent.  They live as their ancestors have for thousands of years.  Their culture is based upon their cattle, which they herd on common land, in semi-arid zones in Tanzania and Kenya.  While I was living with the Maasai, a tremendous calamity befell them.  The short rains failed to come during their typical season.  This had the effect of creating a famine in which numerous Maasai died of starvation.  The Maasai have survived for so long as a culture due to the sustainable methods of their lifestyle.  Yet while I was in Tanzania, famine was striking Maasai, often with tragic results, with increasing frequency.  

Like people the world over, the Maasai tribespeople live in a constant dynamic with various forces – both good and bad – which heavily impact their existence.  The Tanzanian government was employing various methods to try to make the Maasai more sedentary, so that they could utilize the Maasai land for other purposes.  This had the effect of denying the Maasai one of their critical survival mechanisms: their ability to move about the plains in search of water to feed their cattle.  Instead, they were encouraged by their government to farm, and when the rains didn't come, they faced starvation.
In our society and many others, the tendency is to look at a situation like the plight of the Maasai from a purely localized and reactive level and offer up social services, such as handing out food donations. While I firmly believe that these types of services need to be available and applied to get people through crises, how does this help the predicament of people like the Maasai from a long-term perspective?  While it may help some Maasai to make it through another year, who is to say that this same event will not happen next year?  By understanding the larger forces that impact localized suffering, we gain the ability to make structural changes that can impact and possibly proactively rectify seemingly hopeless situations.  I feel that if you want to be an effective agent for change, it's imperative to contextualize the issue and tie it to the greater political economy, class, and culture.  
The starvation that I witnessed in Africa was a catalyst for the development of a proactive, macro, solutions-based approach that I try to take both with my work and in my personal life.  I think this is why I have been thinking so much about the public debate around social support issues happening here in Michigan and across the US lately.  In tandem with the collective societal memory loss of the challenge of living through the Great Depression, we have witnessed the steady erosion of the social support structure that arose to address the needs of a society in which more and more people both have fallen and continue to fall through the cracks.  The slower rates of economic growth, government deficits, excessive unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates of the 1970s further questioned social support, and regardless of the political party in the White House since then, these programs have not been significantly revitalized.
As the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown wider, we have witnessed a crisis in the United States, with the development of three class-based, benefit systems: fiscal benefits that aid the corporate sector; occupational benefits that mostly aid people with good, full-time jobs; and general benefits that are aimed primarily at unemployed and underemployed workers.  Although benefits for general society have had to constantly strive to prove their worth to larger society, increasingly all three benefit systems have come under attack.  It is my firm opinion that all three segments of society are important and worthy of our societal support.  All three segments need help to get through tough times and be encouraged to do the right thing.  I refuse to believe that the "rising tide" does truly lift all boats. I equally refuse to sit in it and watch it steadily sink.

"You Cannot Speak to a Frog in a Well about the Ocean"

In my last post, I discussed some of my concerns with the way societal support structures are being dismissed these days.  I mentioned how this resonated in both personal and professional ways for me.  Today, I’ll talk about a specific example of this that is a serious issue facing citizens all across Michigan, that’s not being talked about enough yet, but that I think everyone needs to know about.  But first one more bit of background on why this matters so much to me.

A number of years ago, I found myself in the midst of a self-induced crisis trying to figure out what I could do to make a difference.  Strangely enough, it was when I was climbing a sacred mountain in rural China that I read the following Buddhist saying: "You cannot speak to a frog in a well about the ocean."  While this passage could be interpreted in a variety of ways, I saw it as speaking volumes about my role in this life.  Like the frog, the construct of the "well" defines the parameters of existence for most of us.  Maybe this offers many of us a secure existence, but it also collectively shuts us off from understanding different cognitive constructs and alternative ways of being.  I vowed that I would be a part of an effort to redefine what the "well" really means by bridging the gap between well and ocean.

The work undertaken by the Clean Energy Coalition tries to bridge this gap by working closely with individuals and organizations to move further along the path of energy independence.  As an example of this, Clean Energy Coalition staff have been working on a project with Michigan's "Cities of Promise" for the past year and a half.  These cities include Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Pontiac, and Saginaw.  To give you a better sense of the plight of these cities, a number of them don't even have a functioning heating system in city hall.  Our work has involved helping to guide strategic energy investments in these cities, then capturing and reinvesting the money saved through a financial tool called a "revolving energy fund".  Over time, these investments would have saved the cities millions.

Why do I say "would have"?  In August, Clean Energy Coalition's contract with the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to work with Michigan's Cities of Promise was cancelled.  However, Clean Energy Coalition was not alone in this.   Over $90 million worth of contracts through the MPSC's Low Income & Energy Efficiency Fund (LIEEF) were terminated.  The reason?  The State Court of Appeals ruled that the MPSC does not have the authority to manage LIEEF due to its lack of specific mention in a 2008 act passed by the state legislature.  This ruling comes despite the fact that the MPSC has successfully managed the LIEEF for more than 10 years and that LIEEF was initially created by an act of the state legislature.  If this doesn't make any sense to you, join the club.

Thousands of Michigan citizens will be impacted by this Court of Appeals ruling that seems to be based on a technicality.  And the sad but true impending reality is that some of them will die.  Why?  Because LIEEF has historically been a significant provider of financial assistance to qualified individuals to prevent the shut off of utilities during the winter.  The other main provider of heating assistance, the federal LIHEAP program, is targeted for a 50% reduction in funding initially proposed by President Obama.   There is a misconception that the utilities cannot shut off your electric and gas during the winter.  They can.  And this is certainly not something that people should have to learn when it's too late.  This is a tragedy that we will needlessly have to watch unfold over the course of this winter because the state legislature has yet to take this up as a serious issue for Michigan's citizens.  I have attended recent meetings of the State House and Senate Energy and Technology Committees and while LIEEF has not been mentioned, a bill to allow for the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs, despite a federal ban, was not only discussed, but, successfully passed out of the House Committee!

As someone who has come face to face with starvation, as someone who believes in structural change, what do I think we need to do?  I think that we need to get serious here about caring for our fellow Michiganders.  About caring for the world around us.  About caring the world that our children's children will inherit.  Is it worth $10 a year (the cost of the LIEEF surcharge on your utility bill) for you to know that you have provided a warm house for children living in poverty in our state? We all should recognize the tremendous tightrope we walk in modern life with little to buffer us from despair; we can’t know for sure that the plight of Michigan’s economy will never deeply affect us.

Over the course of the 10 years LIEEF has been operating, it has been a tremendous tool not only for addressing the pressing needs of heating assistance, but also with proactively attempting to render obsolete the myriad structural issues that cause individuals, companies, schools, and municipalities to struggle with their utility bills year after year.  Remember my story about the Maasai?  Promoting energy efficiency across society is that long-term solution that addresses structural change.  Work in this arena includes everything from Clean Energy Coalition's strategic energy investments in Michigan's Cities of Promise, to the thousands of low income households that have had targeted energy retrofit work performed.

If you agree with me, that you think this proactive, caring approach makes sense, I highly encourage you to contact your state representative, state senator, or the members of the House and Senate Energy & Technology Committees and let them know that you care about LIEEF, about energy efficiency, and about doing what’s right for Michigan families.