The Origins of SELF

By Doug Coward, Executive Director of SELF

When I was first elected county commissioner twenty years ago, I was talking with the community and our state reps about going green.

My state rep turned to me and said to me in a public meeting, “Commissioner, are you talking about painting the buildings green?”

That’s where I started 20 years ago.

They literally didn’t know what I was talking about. He was envisioning slapping green paint on a building. “No, not quite, sir.”

We had a long way to go.

So it’s amazing actually to see how much progress we actually have made individually in cities like Orlando and the great work that Chris [Castro, Director of Sustainability for the City of Orlando] and the city are doing. And Jeff [Benavides, Director of Sustainability for Orange County] is in the county.

Now, Florida Power and Light is building solar farms all over the place. When I was a commissioner they were trying to build coal plants, and I was fighting off coal plants. So to see these same utilities now building solar is actually quite encouraging. 

Around 2009, I was trying to promote the clean energy economy in Florida, but I was getting nowhere. I had a Tea Party governor who wouldn’t let the staff even mention the words “climate change.” You had utility monopolies that didn’t want you to do this, and I was in a situation where I was actually having to go to these entities to ask their permission to do what was right for my community.

And it was at that point where I finally decided, “No, no, we’ve got to break open the clean energy economy in a different way, in a way that I don’t have to go and get the permission from an energy monopoly and a Tea Party governor.”

I want to do this, whether you like it or not. And so back in 2009, President Obama rolled out the American Recovery Act, and he included money in that through the Department of Energy for seed grants to basically try and kick start the creation of innovative local clean energy financing programs.

And so we threw our idea out there of wanting to create the first local government Green Bank in America and to basically create a green community development financial institution (CDFI), a type of program that’s approved through the Treasury. And to our utter amazement, we got this huge grant to start the organization.

So in 2010, we created the nonprofit, and in 2011, we’d staffed up and closed our first loan. Over the last ten years, we have grown from one county to four states, and we’re about to open up a fifth state right now.

The key was that financing is the key to opening up the clean energy economy. If you don’t have savings, if you don’t have the ability to get money, how do you invest in these technologies?

We know that they’re cost-effective. But if you can’t overcome that financial burden to take advantage of those technologies, then basically we’re helping rich people go solar. And that’s not what this is about. Yes, I want rich people to go solar, but I also want working-class families and retirees on a fixed income to also participate and benefit from the clean energy economy.

So our nonprofit bank is really focusing on underserved people and that includes, you know, working-class families that include retirees on fixed incomes. That includes people who don’t have great credit scores.

So when we rolled out our program, our real innovation was is to do unsecured loans directly to homeowners most codified in America. And now there are a lot of other companies that are trying to follow suit. We’ve been working on climate equity for about ten years. It’s now the buzzword.

Ten years ago, nobody was even paying attention to this, so it’s exciting to see all of this momentum and support that is finally in existence.

This blog is transcribed from this presentation. Watch the full talk here.

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