Gary Skulnik's environmental work history includes stints at Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. These days he's selling electricity — the renewable kind.
He co-founded Clean Currents, which buys wind and solar power from producers and resells it to residents and businesses in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The 8-year-old company, a relatively early player in the state's deregulated energy market, is based in Silver Spring and employs about 30.
Competition is on the rise, but Clean Currents is seeing growth from green. Revenue is on track to top $20 million this year, up about 50 percent from the year before, Skulnik said.
He chatted with The Baltimore Sun recently about where the industry is headed, the effect of deregulation and what he does — besides using renewable energy — to help the environment.
You started Clean Currents back when the number of Marylanders purchasing energy from third parties — and the number of those third-party players — was very low. How has the increase in retail-power customers and competitors affected your business?
It means we have to step up our game, which ultimately is great for the consumer. We offer our customers more than just green electricity. … We run two innovative programs that work to energize communities for a clean energy future. …
Through the Green Neighborhood Challenge, we offer schools, nonprofits and community organizations a way to raise funds for green projects while educating their networks about wind power options.
Through Wind Power Rewards, customers can switch their homes to Clean Currents through their favorite store or restaurant and earn a gift card back to that establishment. This has driven thousands of dollars back through our commercial customers' doors while giving our residential customers a tangible benefit for their switch to clean energy. …
[In the future] I see consolidation — I see the big players utilizing their weight to gain market share. And … this differentiation between 'I sell electricity' and 'I sell efficiency' and 'I sell solar on site' … I think that's going to go to the wayside. I think you'll see more bundling together of services into one sustainability solution.
How often does the cost of power supplied by Clean Currents meet or beat the price offered by utilities in Maryland? Has the generally falling price of natural gas the last several years affected you?
We say that our prices are competitive with brown power. This means that we can sometimes be a little cheaper than the utilities and sometimes may be slightly higher.
Complaints about retail-power providers have spiked this year in Maryland. Clean Currents wasn't part of that increase, but are you seeing any impact from consumer problems with competitors? What can people do to protect themselves as they consider their options?
Thank you for noticing we were not part of the increase! We take great pride in our transparency and our commitment to customer service. …
Unfortunately, others in our industry are here to make a quick buck and move on. They will trick consumers into thinking they are with the utility or give them "teaser" pricing that starts low but then can spike without the consumer realizing it.
The issue is that these bad actors are giving the whole industry a bad name. Consumers armed with information are the best antidote to this problem.
When somebody calls you up promising to save you money, find out exactly what the terms are, whether the price is fixed or not and for how long, what the actual utility rate to compare is. Also, search the Internet for comments from other consumers on the company that is trying to sell you.
Do you think electricity deregulation has benefited Marylanders?
Absolutely. It's given people more choices and increased our green energy use. There needs to be more support for consumers, including better efforts to promote customer choice and consumer education. If consumers were more knowledgeable about their options, there would be far less scam artists attracted to our state.
But, however you look at it, companies like Clean Currents … are far better able to provide customers innovative products and better service than the utilities can do.
What got you interested in environmental issues? Has that changed the way you live?
For me, it all started in sixth grade when Jimmy Carter made a big push for solar. But my interest in environmental issues and climate change stems from a very practical view. We only have one planet to live on, so why in the world would we not do everything we can to protect it for us and future generations?
Because I'm trying to live with a lighter footprint, I use clean energy, I've invested significantly in energy efficiency upgrades to reduce my energy usage, I mainly buy organic food, shop locally and at sustainable businesses, compost, don't use pesticides or chemicals on my lawn or plants, recycle, drive a hybrid, take public transit when I can, advocate for environmental laws, and last but not least, only vote for candidates with good environmental records.
Title: Co-founder and president of Clean Currents
Previous jobs: Senior director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network; senior lobbyist for the Sierra Club; media officer for Greenpeace's climate change campaign
Residence: Silver Spring
Hometown: Teaneck, N.J.
Education: Bachelor's degree in comparative religion from Vassar College; master's in communications from the University of Miami
Family: Wife, Polina Pinchevsky, and three daughters
Hobbies: Tennis, cycling and hiking