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

Sungevity founder Danny Kennedy talks about his book and how solar power is transforming communities and creating jobs.

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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.

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