'Rooftop Revolution': Why It's Time to Join the Solar Boom
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The following is an excerpt fromRooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy -- and Planet -- from Dirty Energy. Copyright © 2012 by Danny Kennedy. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.
There’s an epic struggle afoot for the head and the heart of America. And the fat cats in Dirty Energy who feed off our addiction to fossil fuel have an obvious motivation—profits—to keep us in denial about our bad habit. They don’t want us to dwell on our energy addiction and the damage it does to ourselves, our planet, and our children’s future. So Dirty Energy dips into its very deep pockets to tout its brand of power in the news and keep America in the dark about cleaner, smarter, more-affordable options out there. But as a growing number of Americans are finding out, they do have options.
Although change is difficult and requires traction, it’s easier when someone shines a light on the path ahead, and this is what the solar-power movement is doing: providing a solution, an alternative to business as usual, while the coal, oil, nuke, and gas giants continue their fight for the status quo. Not to be too highfalutin, but when the colonial Americans were frustrated by heavy taxation without government representation, it wasn’t until they saw a new direction—inspired by the French Republic’s demand for liberty—that forces of change pushed them to have their own revolution.
It’s time for a new revolution, an energy revolution, our revolution—a Rooftop Revolution. The movement worldwide to go solar—to usurp the powers that be in our existing electricity grids and put power in the hands of those in the developing world who don’t have it—is creating a space for as profound a change. Breaking up monopolies, spreading benefits to the poorest, making consumers producers, and getting polluters to pay and thus using market forces to get them to participate in building a clean economy—this is what the Rooftop Revolution is all about. And that’s why it’s not surprising that King CONG [coal, oil, nuclear, gas] is fighting back.
In 2012 oil barons such as the Koch brothers will spend many millions on TV ad campaigns to tar President Barack Obama with the same brush they used on Solyndra. Those who have the most to lose, the opponents of solar, will come out with fists flying—as the US Chamber of Commerce did in the 2010 election cycle. The massive business lobby outspent the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined to further its official policy of digging up every last ounce of fuel in the ground and burning it as soon as possible.
We need to urge our politicians to refuse money from energy companies and their lobbies so that our representatives can make decisions about energy policy without being beholden to paymasters and without ignoring the public demand for clean, local energy. And public opinion is clear: according to the SCHOTT Solar Barometer, when voters were asked to select an energy source they would financially support if they were in charge of US energy policy, 39 percent said they would choose solar power while a measly 3 percent chose coal—almost the inverse ratio of our representatives in Congress.
Mark my words, we’ll have to battle a lot more of this malarkey in the near future. Case in point: the viral campaign that the American Petroleum Institute (API), the powerful oil and natural-gas trade association, launched in January 2012. Dubbed “Vote 4 Energy,” it was scripted by industry executives in a big election year to dupe viewers into believing that the tired and traditional use of dirty energy would somehow lead our country back to prosperity. Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy organization, released a parody video that exposed the reality that the API campaign wasn’t divulging—that these energy sources are damaging and unsustainable and that the jobs the corporations claim to create are only temporary. But which ads do you think more Americans see—ads funded by incredibly rich oil corporations or those of a nonprofit? The API campaign included radio, television, and print advertising in election-year swing states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—fertile ground for political theater in which energy is a key issue.
As the API’s spokesman said when launching Vote 4 Energy, “It’s not about candidates, it’s not about political parties, it’s not even about political philosophy. Energy should not be a partisan issue…. We believe a vote for energy will elevate the energy conversation.” I wholeheartedly agree with the API that energy isn’t, or shouldn’t be, attached to a political party or philosophy. We know, however, that these politicized battles are not always elevated into some erudite discourse but rather end up in the gutter of half-truths and name-calling. (You know we’ve reached a new low when “Drill, baby, drill” is the apex of political rhetoric.) We know that the incumbent industries present our energy options subjectively, as the Vote 4 Energy campaign shows, and that the clean-energy industry is coming to this gunfight armed with a couple of slingshots.The Public Demand for Clean, Local Energy
Whether Americans will see through King CONG’s smoke and mirrors and clever communications is another question. We have to take this battle seriously because CONG and its industry associations could hamper our momentum in bringing what our country needs and what an ever-growing number of our citizens want: clean, local energy. CONG intends its long and sustained campaign to frame solar as at best some “future technology” and at worst a total failure. Nothing could be further from the truth: solar power is ready right now. It’s what all the satellites in space use to operate, beaming bits and bytes of data down to Earth for our communications and entertainment. And there are new advances in solar technology every day.
More importantly, millions of people globally are now using solar power in their homes. With the advent of creative customer finance solutions, more US businesses and households became solar-power plants for themselves in the past 10 years than in the previous three decades. One of the best competitors of the company I helped found, Sungevity, just launched SolarStrong, a billion-dollar program with the US military and Bank of America to put solar panels on the homes of 300,000 US servicemen and -women—almost doubling the solar-home stock in America within five years.
Solar cells, a high-performance technology set, produce electricity that each year costs less and less compared with electricity derived from coal, oil, nukes, and gas, which costs more each year. Before long we could all live in a country that’s largely powered by solar panels on the skins of our buildings and the surfaces of our vacant lands—and maybe even on the surfaces of our roads.
Lest you think I and my fellow solar entrepreneurs are biased because we’ve helped build businesses in this space, here are some hard numbers from the US Energy Information Administration from around the same time some pundits were striking up the band to play the dirge for the solar industry: US solar-generated electricity expanded in 2011 by 45 percent over the first three quarters of 2010. In comparison, natural-gas electrical generation rose only 1.6 percent, while nuclear output declined by 2.8 percent and coal-generated electricity dropped by 4.2 percent.
Solar is on the rise across the United States. In 2010, 16 states installed more than enough to supply approximately 2,000 homes, compared with only four states in 2007. California saw huge increases in usage, crossing the head-spinning 1-gigawatt marker on solar rooftops—a level only five countries have achieved. (To put this number into perspective, 1 gigawatt is the capacity of a whole nuclear power plant, which could power 200,000 homes!) But that’s just a start for this form of power generated from solar panels.
Worldwide the solar industry is also taking off in a big way: China enjoyed such a burst of solar power that it recalibrated the target in its twelfth five-year plan to 15 gigawatts installed by 2015—50 percent higher than the previous target and 50 percent more than we expect to have in the United States.
The big surprise to me personally, as someone in the solar business, is that China caught up to the United States in installed solar panels in 2011, which I had not expected to happen for years. Five years earlier there were almost none in all of China—and the United States had a 50-year head start.
On the subcontinent, Pakistan has passed the point where solar power is cheaper than a lot of electricity that comes from diesel generators, and India is upping its target from 20 to 33 gigawatts to be installed by 2020.
Germany produced more than 18 billion kilowatt-hours of solar electricity in 2011. That’s 60 percent more than it produced the year before and is enough to supply 5 million households for a year. In December 2011 the country installed 3 gigawatts of solar panels in just one month—enough capacity to power 600,000 homes!
By any measure, the world is experiencing a solar boom. Momentum is building, and we have to keep it going for the benefit of our economy and our planet’s longevity. To do that we have to combat Dirty Energy’s efforts with our own, and the time is now.
Danny Kennedy is a global authority on environmental issues and a successful clean-tech entrepreneur. In 2007 Kennedy founded Sungevity Inc., which has become a leading residential solar-power company. He serves as Sungevity’s president and oversees government relations and community engagement programs.