How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy—and Our Planet—from Dirty Energy
By Danny Kennedy
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 Danny Kennedy and Sungevity
All right reserved.
Chapter One Sunny Side Up
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!
—LEWIS CARROLL, FROM THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Solar is dead—at least that's what its detractors want you to believe. Dead in the water, they say, dead as disco and dinosaurs, a hippie-dippy pipe dream gone up in smoke. But these solar-energy opponents, many of whom hail from the coal, oil, nuke, and gas lobbies (ol' King CONG), have recently been pointing to just one example in their efforts to prove their point: Solyndra, the erstwhile solar-industry poster child, which, in 2011, made headlines and drew nationwide derision when it went bankrupt after receiving a $500 million loan from the US government.
But here's the truth King CONG doesn't want you to know: The downfall of Solyndra actually proved that solar power is fast becoming the most cost-effective and efficient form of electricity on Earth. The company's failure was largely due to competition in a market that's been growing at an amazing rate, and Solyndra's idea for a lower-cost solar module (which had a daft cylindrical design that was too fragile and too expensive to make) simply couldn't compete with less-expensive, mass-produced silicon-based solar panels, the cheapest of which largely come from China—not an uncommon practice as new products become more common and affordable.
Solar-panel manufacturing is relatively simple (it's less complex than, say, making a car), and a lot of it can be done using automated methods or low-skilled labor, of which China has plenty.
Let's look at Apple Inc. for a moment. Here's a company that designs its devices in California and then sells them through clever online and physical retail stores around the world, but it manufactures these products in Chinese factories. The world loves Apple products, and Wall Street loves the company, which in 2012 surpassed Exxon as the most valuable in the world. It currently has more cash than the US government! There are problems aplenty with this model of manufacturing, and I'm not naïve about the issues—such as labor conditions for the factory workers and environmental impacts like the pollution caused by poor regulation—but let's be realistic: Apple is traveling a well-worn path, following such companies as Dell and General Electric. That path leads to great opportunity in ancillary businesses—the benefits created by Apple in creativity, publishing, recording, telephony, and sales of its various devices are legend—and the greater good, which is the availability of Apple's amazing products.
The truth is, we should be glad that China is making solar panels cheaply—it makes these products more affordable for Americans and the billion-plus people on the planet who don't currently get electricity and would otherwise turn to dirty planet-cooking coal, oil, or gas to get it. Though domestic manufacturing of solar panels and solar-panel parts is gaining strength in America over the first decade of the twenty-first century, the real jobs and margins right now are elsewhere in the industry—in sales, marketing, finance, and the installation of these products. Most of the jobs are downstream.
So Solyndra went bust, which is sad for the people who worked there, but its demise in no way marks the end of an entire industry. Nevertheless many people who had turned a blind eye to government pork for bad ideas and bankruptcies waiting to happen, and those who had sought federal funding for all sorts of less-worthy ventures, like a bridge in Alaska that went nowhere, had a field day. There was a frenzy of media coverage fed by political hearings and witch hunts that made this one company's fate one of the biggest stories of the year. Indeed, the hysteria surrounding Solyndra's bankruptcy reminds me of the people who thought that the fall of the web browser Netscape marked the end of the Internet. More column inches were devoted to the Solyndra story in most outlets than to Japan's Fukushima nuclear-power-plant disaster, which wrote down the Tokyo Electric Power Company's value by $13 billion and required a $9 billion bailout by the people of Japan.
But why has the so-called demise of solar energy and the solar industry been so widely reported? Because the rise of solar power is a direct threat to the rich and powerful corporations that create electricity through dirty, unsustainable, and harmful fossil fuel.
The Battle for America's Head and Heart
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 Rooft op 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 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.
A Perversion of Power
Now more than ever it is critical that we set the record straight on energy use in the United States—to tell the truth about the progression of solar energy and to present the facts that the mainstream media has largely ignored or underreported: that fossil fuel is the real dinosaur in the energy industry and that much of the world is seeing the light about solar power. We must get our elected officials to recognize the true value of solar power and to embrace the opportunity to build on this clean form of electricity generation and spawn a new breed of entrepreneurs and businesses that will employ millions and pull us out of dark times.
The Solar Ascent is kicking in around the globe, and we need to be leaders of this movement. Our next step is to clear from our heads the fog of misinformation from the fossil-fuel industry, assess the landscape clearly, and urge others to do so, as well. This means getting our friends in the news media to start reporting facts on all sides of the energy debate.
Working in the solar industry in the months following the Solyndra scandal at the end of 2011 really felt like slipping through the looking glass into a crazy, upside-down world. I'd been working with others for about a decade to realize solar's potential. Sungevity, the company I'd helped build, had just doubled in size and we'd had a banner year, as had most of our competitors, selling solar solutions to mainstream Americans. Yet in the months following Solyndra's crash, from Thanksgiving to the New Year, everyone started worrying that we wouldn't make it. "Sorry about that solar thing"; "Shame it didn't work out," they'd say, or, "Would've been nice to have clean energy."
What the hell is up? I was thinking. We're winning! Solar is the fastest-growing source of energy on Earth because it's the only source of energy whose costs are declining rapidly. All the others, including natural gas, are going up in price—no matter what the gas industry says. Although there is currently a surplus of natural gas in the US market due to the lower cost of fracking, it won't last because when you're dealing with a finite energy source and consuming it in the vast amounts that Americans do, it's impossible to keep costs low over the long term. And no matter how much the industry touts the wonders of fracking, when its technology causes earthquakes—as fracking did in March 2011 in Youngstown, Ohio—costs and other ramifications are sure to mount.
On the other hand, sustainable solar energy is swiftly becoming earth-shattering in much more figurative and economically beneficial ways. Solar prices are coming down; and if we stay the course we're on, they'll continue to drop. Globally, solar is the fastest-growing industry, valued at more than $100 billion. And in the United States, it's the fastest-growing job-creating sector. Solar grew nearly 7 percent as an employment generator while the economy flatlined—a tenth of that growth from August 2010 to 2011. Things are good, and they're getting better. The solar industry is admittedly still just under 1 percent of the whole energy picture, but it's growing fast. Solar is David against King CONG's Goliath, but we're armed with a mighty, badass, solar-powered slingshot. As my Aussie friends like to say, "From little things, big things grow."
Excerpted from Rooftop Revolution by Danny Kennedy Copyright © 2012 by Danny Kennedy and Sungevity. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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