It’s been about 25 years since Paul Reeves began chasing windmills.
The Chicago native had just finished working for Jesse Jackson Sr.’s presidential campaign in 1988 when a news item sparked his life’s interest.
“I was reading about the Caribbean, and how poor people could not afford electricity because the cost was out of range,” the 59-year-old said. And, sadly, he realized, the same was true for many rural and urban minority families in the United States. That’s when he started spreading the gospel of renewable energy and the opportunities for energy independence and economic prosperity it presented to African-American communities.
“Blacks have to learn how to control their own destiny when it comes to energy,” he said. “Without developing some type of capability to create renewable energy, you are always going to find yourself at the mercy of large utility companies that don’t necessarily have your interests at heart.”
Reeves’ passion for his mission is almost palpable. “I feel somewhat like an evangelist talking about this,” said the great-grandson of a Chicago minister. “This is my calling. This is my ministry…. I get up in the morning and I’m excited to go to work.”
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, SUNY’s W. Averell Harriman College of Public Policy and Management at Stony Brook and Dartmouth University’s Amos Tuck School of Business, Reeves founded the company One World Energy to further his cause throughout rural, disadvantaged communities of color.
He had to learn from the ground up, and cut his teeth in the wind energy business working with Black farmers in Oklahoma. The college-educated crusader was a novelty to the mostly older farmers, many of whom have little formal education. They barely understood him, but they admired his passion.
“I learned a very valuable lesson the first time I interacted with those Black farmers in Oklahoma—that you have to keep things simple,” Reeves recollected.
For example, in explaining the startup costs of a wind farm, which could reach up to $2 million, Reeves said he had to equate it with the startup costs of, say, planting a corn field.
Few of the Black agrarians could afford those startup costs, but the projects got financial and other support through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Powering America initiative, with which Reeves later worked as a liaison to Black communities.
The funding from that program soon dried up, though, and Reeves had to get creative.
“We started looking at HBCUs as a conduit,” he said.
The move not only created more jobs for the community, but also established an avenue for student involvement.
“Renewable energy for minority students is something exotic,” Reeves said. “So, I’d like to take wind turbines out of the exotic and make it something tangible that they can envision as part of their future.”
Among Reeves’s latest projects is the creation of working with is the creation of a 4-megawatt turbine on the campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
He also has a provisional agreement with the university to create a 150-megawatt wind farm in Worcester County, Md. The project will include about 70 to 80 turbines, measuring 320 feet high, that could potentially power about 60,000 homes.
“Officials and everyone down here have been very welcoming,” he said.
That may be because of the unique approach to the development. Reeves is pursuing the wind farm under the aegis of National Renewable Solutions, a company with which he’s been working for three years as a project developer.
“One of the reasons I like working for NRS is that they have a community ownership approach, which ensures that everyone within the project’s footprint has an economic stake,” he said.
“A more cooperative approach to energy would benefit more people,” he added, “because you’re not so motivated by profit margins.”
The Eastern Shore project is still in the process of obtaining permits, and Reeves said he is in negotiation with several Black businesses in the area to become part owners of the farm with an eye to creating majority-minority ownership of the project.
The energy hub is slated for completion by 2015 or 2016, he said.
Meanwhile, Reeves is also pursuing his work with Upepo Energy Group, which he founded in 2001. Through Upepo, the energy evangelist works with nonprofits to educate inner-city residents about the health benefits associated with renewable energy usage. Traditional power plants are disproportionately situated in or near poor Black neighborhoods, he said, and the resulting pollution decimates the health of many Black children, who disproportionately suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
He also works to generate energy ownership models for low-income communities of color that would create a hedge against the price volatility of conventional electricity.
“We have to decide that we don’t want to kill our children. We have to decide that we don’t want our elderly to make these draconian choices between eating and having heat…. This is unconscionable, and we can change that paradigm,” he said.