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Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Energy Is Putting Power Back in the Hands of the People

Rarely do we switch on an appliance or flick on the lights and consider the source of energy. Yet, in the past few years, we have become more conscious about the mountains being blown up in Appalachia to extract coal or the massive onslaught of gas drilling and fracking on new shale formations. Danny Kennedy’s new book, Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy -- and Our Planet, turns our endless search to keep looking down for future energy sources and simply asks us to look up for it. The sun, he argues, is waiting to be tapped for clean, cheap energy if we can get our heads out of the sand.

Danny Kennedy, Greenpeace activist, Project Underground founder and long-time campaigner, decided to apply his organizing skills to harness the sun’s energy. Choosing to do something about our energy crisis and climate change, he founded Sungevity with a small group of trusted friends in 2007. Now, Sungevity is one the world’s leading residential solar-energy companies and is the exclusive residential solar partner for Lowe’s.

I sat down with Kennedy to learn more about his vision and reasons for writing this book.
 
Heeten Kalan: Your book is titled Rooftop Revolution. Why do you think solar power is a revolution in the making?
 
Danny Kennedy: Solar power represents a change in electricity that has a potentially disruptive impact on power in both the literal sense (meaning how we get electricity) and in the figurative sense of how we distribute wealth and power in our society. Fossil fuels have led to the concentration of power whereas solar’s potential is really to give power over to the hands of people. This shift has huge community benefits while releasing our dependency on the centralized, monopolized capital of the fossil fuel industry. So it’s revolutionary in the technological and political sense.
 
Sungevity’s mission is to build power based on sunshine as well as build a great business. Each time a solar panel is installed we gain supporters and voters. A family or business that uses solar panels ends up lending their voice to demonstrate solar’s potential for new energy, new jobs and a healthier economy. This is a revolution – using our rooftops, we can make the difference.
 
HK: In your book you talk about solar power being local and decentralized. This is almost the antithesis of what we currently have. While that is an appealing concept, what do you think gets in the way of realizing solar’s potential?
 
DK: What gets in the way is all the wealth and politics that benefit from "King CONG." I identify the collective interests of coal, oil, nukes, and gas as the major obstacles to alternative energy sources and have dubbed those interests King CONG. We have regulated monopolies in the U.S. that basically amount to the government saying to the fossil fuel industry/big energy that if you keep the lights on in Chicago and New York we’ll give you control over that market and let you grow your business by certain regulated standards.
 
Yet there’s been no innovation in that industry and no motivation to innovate. They’re using the same turbines for a century now. We’re suffering because the big energy companies are motivated by self-interests. Just like cell phones threatened landlines in the telephone business, solar power is seen as threatening big fossil fuel-derived energy. What we need is a social will and political pressure to break down that monopoly and we need entrepreneurs who will deliver a more modular, flexible and affordable solution.
 
HK: You also write about King CONG’s role as one of the primary obstacles in making this shift. Describe King CONG and how you see a way forward.
 
DK: As I mentioned, the collective interests of coal, oil, nukes and gas is the giant King CONG. King CONG is the problem, they are contaminating our political sense (through huge spending to promote CONG) and the environment (by digging up the earth). How we get around this formidable force is by being better, smarter and cheaper. Sungevity provides solar electricity service in nine states now and it’s cheaper than what customers get out of the grid. That is one way to get around this obstacle.
 
Solar energy can be that solution for Americans and the world. Just like the developing world has jumped over establishing landline telephone networks to cellphones, with solar power you see similar leapfrogging. I describe in the book places in Africa that refuse to be bogged down by King CONG; they just go straight to a more distributive energy system.
 
That future is what we have to create by solar citizenship and solar entrepreneurs. At the same time, we have to make friends with businesses that have grown up in the era of King CONG because we can’t dismiss their concerns and the work they have put into this industry, as well as the many people they employ. Going forward, utilities will have to become more flexible and move towards a sharing economy of electricity, or the “sunshine mesh,” as I call it.
 
HK: We’re bombarded through media by the notion of how fast China is installing coal power plants. You take a different view on China, saying that they are instead playing catch-up in solar production technology at a very fast pace. What are the implications and how did they do it?
 
DK: The implications for the planet are good. The fact that China is going solar at such a fast rate should be encouraging for anyone who knows about energy issues. For more than a decade we were decrying the industrialization of China and its economic and environmental effects for the world, even though we didn’t want to deny them the electrification that we benefit from.
 
More and more people are gaining access to electricity in China, and a lot through coal. Some of that is being slowed and even though they are still using more coal than solar they have decided to encourage solar. For instance, if you can build a clean technology business in China, you are supported by the government in a variety of ways. That rapid development and production of solar technologies has benefited consumers in the U.S. with lower cost solar panels. More importantly, the newly-developed clean technologies are cheap enough to be used in China.
 
China caught up to the U.S. in five years to have the same installed solar capacity, and that level is expected to be surpassed soon. In 2015 they will be many gigawatts ahead of us. So China is a good example of a superpower nation that is not building a dependency on King CONG.
 
Two years before I started Sungevity, I did work with Greenpeace in China and there was none of this. Less than a decade later, they are the center of the solar universe. That economic driver is a really good force for the planet. The irony is that we -- the USA -- are now seeing that as a threat and engaging in trade war and trade politics, even when we all know we should be supporting these industries across the board. Whereas the Chinese are now developing and using clean energy and clean technology en masse, we are trying to punish them for it.
 
HK: Some people argue that Chinese businesses get the leg up via state subsidies, and in this country that question becomes very controversial. Can you demystify government subsidies around energy? What subsidies are already in play in the energy sector and how could we deploy them differently?
 
DK: The whole energy industry is subsidized. For over a century, the U.S. has chosen fossil fuels as the beneficiaries of the federal budget and federal subsidies. Already in 1916 coal and oil benefited from tax subsidies, and now that has become a given. By contrast, the solar industry has benefited for only the last decade and all solar power subsidies are temporary or time stamped. The tax credit you can claim for installing solar panels expires in 2016. As an industry, during that time we have to make the best of it. Not to mention that this is still a fraction of what fossil fuels get; they receive benefits to the tune of 20 to 1.
 
The real question to ask is not whether to have government subsidies, but rather to think about what the subsidies are for and who they are given to. We -- as a part of our communities -- pay taxes. We have government for a reason: to support things we like. Most people can agree that it’s good to promote clean energy. Now the Chinese are doing the right thing, doubling down on the future energy we need for our earth. And yet here in the U.S., Exxon Mobil, the most profitable corporation in history, continues to receive subsidies.
 
Why is anyone’s guess. Their prices have gone up and they’ve been shedding jobs. By comparison, solar industry jobs have gone from 0 to 120,000 – that’s more people than the coal mining industry employs in this country. Prices for solar-generated electricity have plummeted during this period and we’re not rogue profiteering companies that “spill and kill” like the oil and coal guys.
 
HK: We don’t seem to focus on the positives of job creation presented by the solar industry. Those job numbers as a comparison between solar and coal are really interesting. It seems that if we increased subsidies we could jumpstart the industry and jumpstart job creation.
 
DK: Exactly. I know from my personal experience that solar has great job-creating potential. Sungevity’s model of solar leasing makes it very affordable for customers. We’ve grown from a small startup in 2007 to 250 employees in California and we employ contractors in eight other states across the country. No one knows that, no one hears that good-news story.
 
At the same time, oil is shedding jobs, coal mining is only employing 60 to 80,000 and shedding jobs by the thousands. Yet coal provides one third of our national electricity supply. If the US were to support solar energy with policy, incentives and subsidies we could really begin to grow renewable energy from its current market share. There is a real opportunity now to invest more in the solar industry to create good-news stories like Sungevity’s across the country.
 
Sungevity’s business model leverages existing contractors – roofers, carpenters and electricians – to get out and do the work of installing solar systems on roofs. We think this is important because it brings the mainstream trades into the solar economy and helps them see there is good work to be had spreading solar.
 
As a business, subcontracting the final mile or boots-on-the-roof stage of going solar is a clear advantage and we can focus on making the process of going solar, including all the permitting and bureaucracy stuff simpler as well as innovate with new finance products, like the Solar Lease. This lets folks go solar for no-money-down and pay through time for their solar electricity.
 
HK: We talked about how individuals can put solar on their rooftops and also the role of government, but how about the private sector? I just read that Massachusetts is one of the leading states for massive rooftop solar projects. What is the role of the private sector here?
 
DK: The role is to make this easy and affordable for people to spread it across America’s rooftops. In my book I write about “solar citizens” and social business and entrepreneurs, who have to be savvy and good business people.
 
The reason why REI, IKEA and others are installing solar is to save on energy costs. It’s cheaper to take it free from the sky than taking it from the grid. What the private sector can do is work to make this more and more affordable with financing. The key innovation has been the solar lease for residential customers and the PPA for commercial customers.
 
It works like this: since these customers do not want to purchase the infrastructure and would rather only pay for the electricity, they want to sign a power purchase agreement. These financing structures are innovation that the private sector alone will deliver.
 
My broad answer is that the private sector is going to provide the entrepreneurs and innovation that allow solar power to achieve its potential. It depends on many more businesses growing and succeeding to fill this niche. We need businesses to provide easy solar for box stores, schools, churches, and we need innovations for building materials and construction. All those businesses will be born out of the classic American entrepreneurial spirit. Ninety percent of new jobs in the U.S. economy are created by small businesses getting bigger. This is one way Sungevity leads by example, and it is what we think will be the future of the revolution.
 
HK: Detractors of solar technology like to think of it as marginal and “boutiquey,” as if solar panels are quaint on some hippie’s roof but cannot handle the baseload of our large-scale economy and manufacturing/production needs. What’s your response?
 
DK: Those are the words of pundits who aren’t reading the writing on the wall. It’s like the IBM people who said there wouldn’t be more than five computers in the world. Or Bell Atlantic saying that cell phones aren’t as good as landlines. Now the rest of the world is jumping to cell-based infrastructure. “Baseload” is a figment of the fossil fuel industry that is now being undercut in countries where they are bypassing that argument altogether.
 
Germany has 30 gigawatts of solar on rooftops, enough for the giant company E.ON to announce that they will no longer build coal or oil power plants and will instead run increasingly sustainable power plants. Developments like these completely throw “baseload” on its head – the assumption that you oversupply the demand in order to ensure up-time to ensure service. With solar, you dispatch just enough energy and in the case where you can’t provide enough then you can rely on the old forms.
 
HK: In the last year we’ve also seen a big rush in the U.S. and other parts of the world to move to natural gas, which is viewed as abundant, clean and cheap. Does this focus on the availability of gas (as a U.S.-based energy source) and the ensuing messes of fracking turn us away from environmental work and the growth of solar?
 
DK: Gas is not cheap; the costs are shouldered by the communities from whom it is extracted. Don’t believe the hype –there’s been a lot of “supply side” hyperbole, which is something we’ve heard from the gas guys before in order to increase service. There have also been economic busts led by the gas industry claiming more value than they created.
 
We should be wary. The reality is that America does have a lot of gas. However, we have to use this moment as a quick bridge to a broader renewable future. We will need a lower-cost supply of energy, particularly solar, so as a nation we have to weather this major energy industry shift and invest in solar. Most consumers aren’t falling for the natural gas solution because they get that it’s just as dirty as coal and oil, and that we have to move away from digging into the ground in order to boil water.
 
HK: The book charts out your own trajectory from working with Greenpeace and Project Underground to your current role in the rooftop revolution. You talk compellingly about realizing that protest without solutions won’t get us where we want to go, and neither will quick technological solutions without advocacy. You’ve been in both worlds, why are solutions without justice inadequate?
 
DK: I’m not naïve enough to believe that solar panels are going to fix power relations in our country. Whatever we do we should also be redressing the injustices that have been perpetuated by energy industries since they were created. Energy policy has become a social policy, where we choose to extract energy from indigenous and poor communities in Appalachia or Nigeria.
 
The energy industry’s implications are huge for the environment, inequitable wealth accumulation, and people’s health. In simple terms, we now have dirty coal burning plants giving asthma to poorer people. When we promote solar energy, it must be done in a way that empowers people by creating businesses, building jobs, and cleaning up the environment. That is its potential but the implementation from dream to reality has to be very intentional. So I am very conscious of that intention, of being part of a “solar social movement” that maintains that dream while building businesses like Sungevity.
 
An increasing number of Americans are aware that it’s possible to go solar. It is saving money for people in places like the mid-Atlantic. We are showing that you can give people the option and make it clear that it is possible to go solar with a solar lease. Do something! Get involved!
 
Not only is there an enormous growth potential for solar energy, but there is also work to be done to show what the solar industry already has changed. Look at the jobs story – 120,000 strong, yet who knows that in America? And the solar industry provides jobs that can’t be off-shored, for manufacturing, selling, installing and maintaining solar panels. The industry employs at least four more people than fossil fuels per unit of energy. Where’s the media coverage on the solar industry’s growth trajectory in our current economic recession -- how many industries have been growing at that rate in recent years? Solar is not marginal, it’s all over the place. 
 
Heeten Kalan is a Senior Program Officer at the New World Foundation. In his spare time he enjoys carving wooden spoons and helping people plan their self-guided safaris in South Africa.
 
Solar roof image via shutterstock.

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