Washington's hottest start-ups: Ethical Electric

Virgin Atlantic’s Business is an Adventure event series touches down in Washington next week, with the aim of discovering how the desire to create change drives businesses to succeed. Ahead of the big day, we find out a little more about one local start-up driving change in the energy sector...

Washington start-up: Ethical Electric

Founder: Tom Matzzie

USP: Ethical Electric is a clean energy supplier, supplying 100 per cent clean renewable energy from wind and solar farms. Unlike many other energy companies, Ethical Electric doesn't have any blended products and won't contribute to any fossil fuel or nuclear energy production.

Here we ask CEO & founder, Tom Matzzie, about Ethical Electric's mission and what the future holds for the renewable energy industry.

For the uninitiated, tell us what Ethical Electric is all about.

Ethical Electric is a renewable energy company empowering utility customers to cut emissions and support clean energy through 100 percent renewable electricity. Our company buys electricity from local wind and solar farms in wholesale competitive energy markets and sells it to homes and businesses through their existing utilities instead of fossil fuel-based power. 

Ethical Electric supports environmental causes, is a Certified B Corporation and a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, and is certified with the highest available rating by Green America’s Green Business Network, the first and largest network of socially and environmentally responsible business.

Is Washington a particularly good place to base yourself as an energy business?

Washington D.C. is an exciting home base for Ethical Electric, for several reasons. To start, the District is where national energy policy is shaped, and by providing 100 per cent renewable electricity to customers who live here, we are enlisting people at every level of that decision-making process in the shift toward clean energy away from fossil fuels – even if they can’t install their own rooftop solar power. Washington, D.C. is also a competitive retail electricity market, meaning consumers can actively choose what kind of power they purchase, and is located in close proximity to other states featuring competitive markets across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Finally, D.C. has become a hotbed of innovative thinking, allowing us to tap not only progressive consumers, but creative professionals who have joined our team and strengthened our company’s efforts.

What innovations do you see changing the energy space over the next decade?

We’re excited about the continued democratization of renewable energy for consumers across America – on both cost and energy access. Installed solar project costs have fallen more than 50 percent since 2009, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and dropped 17 per cent in 2015 alone according to GTM Research. Solar and wind are cost competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the US today, and this trend will keep growing. In addition, innovations like community solar are opening up clean energy to even more consumers and creating opportunities to drive new projects through new demand. We’re members of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, and are working hard to create solar access for all.

What are the big problems with energy that still need to be solved?

46 states either enacted or considered regulatory changes to solar incentive programs across America in 2015, many of which were driven by utilities opposed to the growth of solar power within their territories. We need to make sure renewable energy is on an even economic footing with fossil fuel power, which receives an inordinate amount of subsidies. We also need to educate consumers to let them know just how affordable and available renewable energy is to their lives, and how important decarbonization is to cutting air pollution and fighting climate change.

So the desire to create change must be a big part of the Ethical Electric story?

Creating change is central to Ethical Electric. My inspiration to found the company struck when I installed solar on my roof. It’s a worthwhile but difficult process, and when considered through the lens of technology adoption, I realised renewables needed something different to scale. My insight was to offer renewable energy as a service through existing utilities instead of as a home construction project, creating a larger opportunity to scale, and the strategy of directly marketing to consumers came from my cause marketing experience. A large market of people want renewable electricity, and while rooftop solar developers reach some, only a small consumer segment can install solar on their homes for various reasons. It’s our job to let people know they can make a difference. I think this drive to improve lives is important to many D.C. based start-ups, especially the other companies joining Virgin Atlantic’s entrepreneurs event. Washington, D.C. attracts people who want to change the country through technological solutions to policy problems, so it’s natural the start-up community has evolved in the same way.

What are the pros and cons of starting up in Washington?

Accessing working capital and talented employees is always an obstacle to scaling up a company, and that’s no different in Washington, D.C. But even though the start-up space is crowded here, it’s also attracted an incredible amount of attention – particularly on clean energy and climate change issues – and we’ve been fortunate that the challenge of a competitive space has also created the potential for us to grow fast.

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