Today at Berkeley Lab

EETD Eco-Rapper Wants to ‘Occupy the Rooftops’ With Solar Panels

— By Sabin Russell

He wears a green headband, dark sunglasses, and dances on Oakland rooftops. He is so passionate about solar energy that he sings about it, with a video camera focused on his face, in a style he calls “eco-rap.” In his day job, he crunches numbers as John Romankiewicz, Senior Research Associate for the China Energy Group at Berkeley Lab. But when he powers down his computer, and glides his bike back down Cyclotron Road, he is Sustainable John, the poet of PV:

Yo! These are our rooftops
These are our workshops
Stand up with the sun
Let’s Occupy the Rooftops…

Romankiewicz (Row MANK uh witz) first heard the phrase “Occupy the Rooftops” from activists working for Solar Mosaic, an Oakland company that is developing a “crowd-source” system to finance arrays of photovoltaic panels atop community buildings. The concept has been described as a way for renters or people who own homes poorly sited for solar power to invest in neighborhood PV power grids. Occupy Rooftops seemed to echo the idealism of the Occupy political movements, without the animosity or the tents pitched in parks. So Sustainable John picked up his pen, inspired to write the verses that morphed into his YouTube video.

The first version of his Occupy Rooftops solar music video was a live performance delivered last December at a South Berkeley pub, during a competitive “poetry slam.” A friend videotaped it, and that led Sustainable John and friends to produce the current three-minute video, shot on a sunny hillside overlooking downtown San Francisco, at the Berkeley Marina, and in front of the PV panels on the St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County Community Building rooftop.

As Sustainable John puts it, “Eco-rap and I first came together in Beijing.” He had moved there shortly after graduating from Northwestern University, with a major in materials sciences and engineering. He thought it was to be a short trip to learn a new language and to find out more about the clean energy work going on in China. He ended up staying three years. Romankiewicz attended classes at Tsinghua University and won a Fulbright grant to study renewable energy policy development. It was there that he and friends started doing eco-rap videos — in Mandarin with English subtitles. “For me, this has been a fun way to get my message out,’’ says Sustainable John.

Before joining the China Energy Group, Romankiewicz followed up his Beijing stay with a stint as a policy analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and later with the State Department’s Office of Global Change. His interest in rooftop PV was stoked by his analysis of micro-grid systems at Berkeley Lab. “It’s local generation of power in ways that make financial sense,’’ he says.

He lives in a house in Berkeley with a rooftop that, he says, “definitely cannot go solar.” He’s an active Tweeter and blogger on his own website. And to walk the talk, or perhaps pedal what he peddles, Sustainable John rides a bike every weekday to his office in Building 90, overlooking San Francisco Bay. At some point he hopes to do graduate studies in energy policy. Meanwhile, when he is not eco-rapping, he may well be jian bing-cooking. Sustainable John acquired a taste for the savory breakfast crepes sold by Beijing street vendors. He enjoys making them, so he is setting up a sustainably powered vehicle to deliver them. He is building a three-wheeled bicycle modeled after the sturdy san lun che trikes of China. “Nothing is going to stop me,’’ says Sustainable John, “from bringing delicious jian bing to the masses.”