PowerSource Q&A: Tom Matzzie of Ethical Electric on renewables, policy reform and the Boss

After Tom Matzzie installed solar panels at his house a few years ago, he realized just how challenging it was for consumers to choose renewable energy. So he started a company that made it easier.

Ethical Electric, founded in 2011 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., sells 100 percent renewable energy to consumers in the competitive electric marketplace. Electric consumers who choose Ethical Electric as their electricity supplier in Pennsylvania are buying energy that is produced completely in the state.

Mr. Matzzie, the company’s founder and CEO and a 1993 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, recently shared his thoughts by email about renewable energy, his hopes for reform -- and Bruce Springsteen.

Q: What is the biggest misconception people have about clean energy?

A: Many people think it is too expensive. In fact, renewable energy is often the same price as traditional dirty energy. That is because there are no fuel costs — the wind, sun and water are free. The current grid is designed to favor fossil fuels, but as that changes people will be able to take advantage of electricity that doesn’t have any fuel costs and see big drops in their power bills. This is what has happened in Texas and California already.

Q: Your company shows a good sense of humor in its marketing campaign. Why is that important for you?

A: Well, a day without laughter is a day wasted. I want to find common ground with people — even people who might disagree with my world view (which is very progressive). Humor is a great way to focus on something we can all share. I have some friends who are Rush Limbaugh fans (go figure) and we can share laughs.

Q: If you could change one thing about Pennsylvania’s competitive electricity marketplace, what would it be?

A: There has to be reform at PJM — the grid operator — to better enable low costs and fixed prices. I think there need to be some reforms to how the grid is designed to encourage more wind power and solar power. I also don’t think you can have energy competition if the grid operators keep passing on power plant losses to customers as they did in January. All the natural gas frackers made a killing as people’s power bills soared. It was outrageous.

Q: If you spent one day in Pittsburgh, what would you do?

A: Other than visit my mother or see a Steelers game, I would probably take my kids to the Carnegie Museum so they can share the wonder I had as a child [seeing] the dinosaurs, minerals, gems and more. Get some pizza at Mineo’s for lunch and then maybe Pasta Too in Bethel Park for dinner. I can’t not go to Pasta Too when I’m in Pittsburgh.

Q: What is the best business decision you’ve made?

A: I think the team I’ve hired is the best business decision(s) I’ve made. They are superb professionals and I’m immensely proud of them. They get credit for the work. I get credit for hiring them.

Q: Who do you turn to for advice when things don’t go your way?

A: My board and some of my investors. What I love about them is that they are truly cheering for our success and they’re honest with me. I have a practice of 100 percent transparency with my board and investors, and it works very well for us.

Q: What TV show is a must-see for you?

A: OK, funny story but I watch (PBS show) “This Old House” with my 3-year old every week. For starters, we live in a 1908 row home so some of it is pure self-interest. But I kind of wish my skills were broader than business and politics. For example, it would be interesting to know how to build a house. I admire that. That might be the Pittsburgher in me and our cultural respect for people who work hard. I’ve been all over the United States and that is a universal value.

Q: What is the last concert you attended?

A: Well, I’m the father of two toddlers so the concerts I go to tend to involve folk songs and tambourines. But Bruce Springsteen in Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., last year was pretty amazing. Six encores, a crowd that knew every word. Springsteen really is the Boss.

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969. Twitter: @msanserino.

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