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Brenden Millstein: Changing the Outlook on Climate Change

Bold Idea: Carbon Lighthouse is working to swing perspectives from skepticism to optimism, in order to reverse carbon emissions and stand as a beacon for positive social change.

Bring up the subject of carbon footprints, and nine out of ten brows will furrow with dutiful worry. That’s why an encounter with 2011 Fellow Brenden Millstein, co-founder of Carbon Lighthouse, proves slightly unnerving. Nearly every sentence ends in an optimistic exclamation point, which is quite a feat when talking about global climate change.

“I’m not interested in a doom-and-gloom discussion. We’re cobbling together existing technologies in a much more intelligent way. That’s exciting to me! If I had a team of 100 thousand people, we could cut U.S. emissions by 25 percent right now. That’s a quarter of the way there, and we haven’t even created anything new yet! We can cut energy consumption in buildings right now, with absolutely no new technology. That’s pretty good!”

Much of that progress Brenden attributes, with no false modesty, to the growth of the firm he co-founded with Raphael Rosen in 2009. Their mission is to find a pragmatic solution to significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. within the decade. Their work consists not only of retrofitting existing buildings to reduce energy consumption, but also to cultivate understanding that this is more than just a treehuggers’ concern. Outside their home base of San Francisco, Brenden and Raphael spend a lot more time pitching the financial advantages that Carbon Lighthouse can offer.”What we’re working on right now is staving off the absolute worst results of climate change. We’re in a window where we have a little bit of time,” he says, adding confidently, “We’re making serious progress.”

“We don’t ask anyone to change their lifestyle, or what they’re doing,” he says. “If we’ve done our job correctly, no one even knows we’ve been in the building, except that the energy bills are 20 percent lower. You’re going to have the same air conditioning, probably better light, probably more fresh outside air…you’ll probably be a little happier.” And, he adds, “the one thing everyone can agree on is reduction of dependence on foreign fuel. That’s pretty unifying across any party line.”

Brenden doesn’t hesitate to admit that their big idea is a daunting one, especially with the constant release of new statistics that make the problem of climate change seem bigger. Then, of course, there’s the challenge of convincing clients to work with a relatively young firm, as well as attracting the best and brightest in the field to join their team.

With such a huge global problem in their sights, Brenden says it’s essential that the day-to-day of work be a positive, rewarding experience. And that begins and ends with his team. “Raphael and I have been best friends since kindergarten. It’s really fun to work with him every day, even when we’re losing. We have this incredibly bright, hard-working, fun engineering team. Everyone on the team brings an energy and an optimism with them, from the office to sites to projects.”

While it’s a massive intellectual challenge they’ve chosen, Brenden says, “it’s a really great group of people to solve it.”

Drive Change: Recent reports continue to look for the silver lining in the rate of climate change and the promise of alternative energies. For Brenden, however, the main cause for optimism is seeing that good people care. Despite being a small company, Carbon Lighthouse has doubled their engineering team every year. For non-engineers, as well, there’s a million ways to get involved. Read Brenden’s blog post “How to Find a Job in Cleantech” to learn more.

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