A team of workers installing solar panels on a home in Southern California
A Discussion with Author Bill Nussey on RMI, His Latest Book, and Disrupting the Global Energy Industry
Longtime RMI supporter Bill Nussey’s new book Freeing Energy describes the community empowerment and business opportunities that result from small-scale solar and battery systems. The book details stories and insights from some of the industry’s brightest visionaries and from leaders of the most cutting-edge startups, and creates an actionable framework to help accelerate the clean energy transition. I sat down with Bill to discuss the impetus behind the book and the pivotal role RMI has played in his life.
RMI: You started out in the computer industry in the 1980s. What got you interested in clean energy?
Nussey: I saw Amory Lovins give a TED talk, and I had never seen or heard anyone like him before. He is brilliant, funny, and one of the most engaging speakers I have ever heard. His ideas stuck in my brain. I’ve been involved in disruptive industry-scale shifts my whole career, and that’s what renewables are now. Solar and batteries are transforming the power sector kicking and screaming—from a fuels-based business model to one that I’m familiar with, which is one that is based on the economics of technology.
RMI: What was the impetus behind writing this book?
When I had the wonderful good fortune to sell my company, Silverpop, to IBM, I knew it was a privileged time for me. I realized I could do anything I want now. I was thinking of all the people I had met that have devoted their lives to making a difference. So many of them don’t have the network, business experience, and comfort that I have. I thought, how could I do anything less with my life than these people who are giving their all? So I started a journey to figure out what I could do that would matter.
What really got me excited was the fact that solar was on its way to being cheaper than any other way to generate electricity in history. I became fixated on renewable energy, talking about it to anyone who would listen. A friend called me up and said, “We’re getting really tired of hearing you talk about this all the time. You need to quit your job and write a book.” A lightning bolt hit me, and 36 hours later I resigned from my job. I had to do this.
RMI: How do Amory and RMI’s ideas feature in your book?
Amory Lovins was the first person I interviewed. He told me that he respected that I come from a computer background and not an energy background, and that I was committed to learning about this by writing a book. That was a powerful moment for me, and really committed me to write the book. I find the work that RMI does fantastic, and my thinking was that this message needs to go to people outside the industry that are searching for a path into clean energy. And it needs to reach people who don’t even know there’s a path to look for.
The book began with a lot of RMI’s core ideas and grew to include many of my own ideas. It’s for people that are asking, “What can I do?”
RMI: You start the book with a story of Puerto Rico. What made that story so crucial to the book?
After Hurricane Maria, I saw the devastation in Puerto Rico, and was trying to find a way to help. Then I read about what RMI was doing, bringing renewable-powered microgrids to Puerto Rican communities affected by the hurricane. I got in touch with the RMI islands team, and my wife and I went there for a week and interviewed community members as well as government officials. I wanted to tell a story that was emotionally engaging and that people would relate to, and I found that in Puerto Rico.
I couldn’t have imagined how difficult it was when people lose power for weeks or months. It was devastating. But everyone is going to need to think about that for the world that’s coming with climate change. Fortunately, there are solutions, and that’s exactly what RMI is doing in Puerto Rico. RMI is building small-scale solar- and battery-powered systems on schools and critical facilities, and they do a lot more than just keep the lights on. They bring resiliency to the school and the community around it. That’s why Puerto Rico became the main story of the book.
RMI: What inspired you to get involved with RMI?
RMI is the clearest, truest, and most actionable voice in the industry. Almost everybody—people who are for fossil fuels and people who are for clean energy—approaches this from an ideological point of view, and that’s fine. But I’ve been around long enough to know that yelling your ideology is not going to change people’s minds.
What’s great about RMI is that it acknowledges the market reality of these things. If you can bring clear economic benefits to the table, which is where RMI is so strong, you’ll get far more attention and move past people’s hesitation and skepticism more quickly. Everybody—of every political stripe, wealthy or poor—if you can allow them to save a little bit of money, especially by doing something that is morally positive, everybody is interested.
RMI: What makes Freeing Energy different than other books about clean energy?
This book doesn’t talk about climate change. There are hundreds of books written about climate change. The world doesn’t need another climate change book. The book leads with a dollars and cents mindset—a perspective nearly everyone agrees with. I also talk a lot about families, local businesses, and communities in the book. Because that’s who benefits from these small-scale systems. The planet needs every system, large and small, but we’ve been far too focused for far too long on the large-scale systems. For example, if you build these small-scale systems, you create 10 times the number of jobs per megawatt installed than a large-scale system.
RMI: What advice would you give people who want to make a difference and help accelerate the energy transition?
The first thing is get educated, because there’s so much misinformation out there that you can’t make rational decisions. The next thing is, if you’re financially comfortable, put solar on your roof and buy an electric vehicle. And if you can’t put solar on your roof, find a community solar program you can be a part of. And most importantly, advocate to the people who are making decisions. In other words, get involved.