Hollywood stars heat up solar power
A partnership between BP and celebrities is helping low-income families go green.
By Monica Heger

(Business 2.0) - Los Angeles homeowner K.J. Lee never expected solar power to make her feel like a celebrity. But thanks to the unlikely union of an oil company and some Hollywood stars, she and her solar panels have become the talk of the neighborhood. "I feel like I won an award," Lee says. In a way, she did: The solar-energy system that has powered her home since March came completely free, courtesy of the BP Solar Neighbors Program.

Celebrity do-gooders

Dreamed up by movie star Edward Norton, the program tackles the dual issues of affordable housing and clean energy. When a celebrity purchases a home solar system from BP, the energy giant donates the same equipment--including solar panels and an in-house wireless display, worth between $10,000 and $40,000--to a low-income family in Los Angeles. Since the program launched in 2003, 23 families have received systems, and BP has spent about $1 million on the project. "It helps families that wouldn't ordinarily have the resources to use solar energy and gives them more money to spend on other necessities like food," says Irene Brown, director of California community affairs at BP.

Norton came up with the idea after shopping for his own solar panels, and he approached BP in July 2003 about partnering with the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the actor's grandfather that helps L.A.-area families buy homes. Norton also signed up the Environmental Media Association, which gets celebrities involved in conservation efforts, to be the link between BP and the stars. EMA president Debbie Levin says she sat down with Norton and "made a list. Who do I know? Who do you know?" So far, participants include Don Cheadle, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Daryl Hannah, Carlos Santana, Alicia Silverstone, and Robin Williams.

The celebrity tie-in may be glitzy, but it helps BP raise serious awareness about its solar-energy business among influential people. Though still a small part of BP's revenues, the solar division is growing by 30 percent each year. And, Lee notes, the West Coast is the ideal place for solar power to prosper: "One thing you know about California is that the sun will rise again."

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