Posts 0 Comments 0

Power by the People

This piece was initially published in a slightly altered format by Inc.
Last week, we celebrated our National Independence Day. As parts of the country blew past temperature records, power outages left a million homes without electricity, and drought conditions forced cancellations of fireworks shows in cities from Missouri to California, we also marked what we might call Energy Dependence Day. Once again, we were reminded of the mismatch between our most basic ideals and an energy system that harms our planet, while leaving our communities and nation less secure. 
Fortunately, things are changing fast. And we–the people–are the ones doing the changing. Millions of Americans, myself included, are back at work this week as members of the growing clean energy economy. We’re investing in, inventing, building, and benefiting from our own neighborhood solar panels, windmills, smart grids, batteries, and electric cars. This change in our physical infrastructure is in turn ushering in a social revolution of incredible potential. Though no one knows exactly how this transformation will unfold, today seemed like a good day to highlight shifts already underway. 
To put it simply, power by the people is power to the people.    
Let’s start with the economy. For too long, almost all of us have been energy consumers. Now, though, we’re rapidly starting to become energy producers. In California, for instance, the number of solar installations grew from 500 to more than 50,000 between 1999 and 2011. Most of these new solar power producers are saving on–or have eliminated outright–their utility bills. This means more dollars that circulate within communities instead of flowing to utilities and fossil fuel companies. 
Or, think about all the property owners already making double digit returns on investments in energy efficiency. McKinsey and Co. has estimated that the average rate of return for global energy efficiency investments that could be made by 2020 is 17%, and that the total amount of money that could be saved via these investments is $900 billion. As Michael Shuman writes in Local Dollars, Local Sense, many homeowners can earn such good rates of return by investing in efficiency at home that they should see energy efficiency a new high-yield investment type—a way of diversifying portfolios so that they includes less Wall Street and more stable local value.
The economic impacts of a clean energy economy go well beyond utility bills. The types of institutions that financed and built the big energy world are poorly suited to creating a distributed energy system. Initially, most in the energy industry construed this mismatch as a problem. Now that entrepreneurs are tackling the problem, it’s becoming an opportunity to reconfigure our whole understanding of how finance and investment should function. Solar power has been adding jobs at a faster rate than any other industry in large part because of a handful of entrepreneurs who pioneered leasing innovations that allow homeowners to finance solar arrays for little or no upfront cost. My own company, Solar Mosaic, is one of several businesses aiming to dramatically expand renewable energy by using the Web to make it possible for everyone (not just property owners) to put their money to work creating clean energy for their communities
Looking beyond the economy, we might ask how a localized clean energy system could change political power dynamics. Many of us have learned the hard way how difficult it is to effect political change on energy issues when utilities and fossil fuel companies regularly rank among the top 10 Washington lobbyists. Now we have another tool. People who become energy producers are people with an active stake in fighting for an economy and a power system that values clean energy. 
A final realm of change that deserves mention is community. In many cases, Americans will only be able to access the new clean energy economy if they are able to find ways to work with their neighbors to pool time and resources. Again, we encounter an opportunity masked as a challenge. In Minnesota, communities have pioneered an innovative wind power financing model that pairs local owners and larger investors who can process renewable energy tax credits. As a result, the state now leads the country in community-scale wind projects. The citizens of Colorado, meanwhile, have pushed the state to pioneer community-funded “solar gardens.” In both of these examples, and in others across the country, energy is no long something that simply flows into our private homes. Instead, it’s a hub for community. 
As I mentioned, no one fully understands the sort of sea change a localized energy system might bring about. energy commentator David Roberts has compared our present moment to the early days of the Internet, when we had only an inkling of the power of the tools at our disposal. It’s an apt analogy: ahead of us is an opportunity to democratize the production and dissemination of energy in the same way the Internet democratized the power and production of information. The major difference may be scale. Energy is the world’s largest industry, and the economic sector with the single greatest impact on the world’s environment. 
In the coming years, more and more Americans are going to begin to have opportunities to invest in, buy, or organize to create clean local energy. As they do, they’ll like become familiar with a new acronym: IPP. It stands for Independent Power Producer, and is the industry’s way of referring to any non-utility power source–to every school with a solar panel on its roof and every group of farmers who have bought into a community wind cooperative. 
Independent Power Producer. It may just be the most beautiful piece of jargon you’ll ever hear. 

On the Longest Day of the Year, Celebrate Solar Power!

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, today is the longest day of the year. Here in Oakland, California, we’re soaking up over 15 hours of sunlight. Globally, about 7600 exajoules of solar energy—that is, about 15 times the amount of energy humanity will use this year—will reach the earth’s surface in the next 24 hours, powering everything from phytoplankton to redwoods to backyard BBQs.

It is, in other words, a beautiful day to get outside and celebrate the power plant that has kept our planet humming with life for the last 3.7 billion odd years.

It’s also the perfect day to celebrate what we’re learning to do with the sun’s power. The past few years have ushered in an unprecedented, unforeseen, and largely unheralded solar energy revolution. As recently as 2005, global installed solar power capacity stood at 4.5 gigawatts (GW). Today, the figure exceeds 65 GW, which is equivalent to the capacity of about 130 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

To put recent growth of solar power in perspective it helps to look at how it has played out in particular places. Take the U.S., for example. Solar is America’s fastest growing industry, and already employs more than 100,000 men and womenmore than U.S. steel production and more than U.S. coal mining. In California, which leads the nation on solar power, the number of installed solar energy systems has increased from about 500 in 1999 to more than 50,000 in 2011. These days, when you fly into a place like Oakland, you can see your plane reflected in the rooftops below.

Then there’s Germany. A few weeks ago, every energy wonk in the world did a double take after learning that the country had met a third of its weekday noontime electricity demand—and half of noontime electricity demand on a Saturday—with solar power. These statistics are amazing in of themselves, but even more amazing is the fact that three-quarters of Germany’s solar energy capacity is locally-owned. Put simply: the world’s fourth largest economy and seventh largest energy consumer is now meeting a huge chunk of its electricity demand via clean energy sources whose economic benefits flow to everyday people.

So what’s driving the solar revolution?

Better, cheaper solar technology is a big part of it. While the efficiency with which solar cells convert sunlight to usable energy has improved dramatically over the last few decades, manufacturing costs have come down. The upshot of both these trends is that the cost per watt for solar panels declined from $22 in 1980 to well under $1 by January of this year.

Policy has also played an important role. Many countries, Germany included, have implemented feed-in tariffs that essentially subsidize solar and other forms of renewable energy. In the U.S., government support for renewable energy has been more scattered, but state and federal incentive programs have still played a critical role in expanding the solar industry. For a fraction (one twelfth, to be precise) of the government dollars that go to the fossil fuel industry, these programs are driving innovation, bringing us closer to the day when solar will be cheaper than coal, even absent incentives. In California, we are already arriving at that point.

Finally, a new breed of solar entrepreneur is bringing down the costs associated with installing and financing solar power. One major innovation came from Jigar Shah, a founder of SunEdison, who realized that it might make more sense for many property owners to lease, rather than purchase, solar energy systems for their roofs. Thanks to solar leases, building owners are now able to go solar with no upfront cost and make lease monthly payments that are typically less than what they would pay the utility for the same amount of energy. More recently, innovations in cleantech have been merging with innovations on the net to form what Sunil Paul calls the “cleanweb.” Sungevity uses advanced software and satellite imagery to provide potential customers with iQuotes for solar installations on their roofs. My own company, Solar Mosaic, is using the web to empower people to pool their resources to create solar in their communities. Our efforts recently won us a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Inititiave, which aims to catalyze a dramatic decrease in solar energy costs over the next decade.

There are plenty of days in the year to think about the mistakes we’ve made fighting climate change and how much we have left to do to create a society powered by clean energy. Yet, for now, with the sun shining outside, it’s worthwhile to step back and think about what we have accomplished. It’s worthwhile to think about all of the solar panels that are out there catching some serious rays today and how much coal–about 186 million tons per year–they’ll keep in the ground.

What comes next? According to McKinsey and Co, the revolution is just getting started: we’re on track to reach 400-600 GW of global solar capacity (that is, the equivalent of between 800 and 1200 coal-fired power plants) by 2020. Other projections estimate that by the end of the decade solar will be the cheapest power source for more than 80 million Americans. Some would say these projections are overly optimistic. I suspect we can do better than the projections suggest. We’ll have to work hard. We’ll have to innovate like crazy. We’ll have to beat some seriously big and bad opponents and overcome some immense challenges.

Fortunately, we know can do all of this, because we’re already doing it.

This post was crossposted from the Huffington Post.

Accept it in Oslo, Earn it in Copenhagen

( - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Today is “Young and Future Generations Day” here at the International Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, and I'm here with my wife Wahleah and our two-year-old daughter Tohaana. Along with thousands of other young people, we're doing everything in our power to convince world leaders to commit to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding international agreement based on a target of 350 parts per million (ppm), which is the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Less than 400 miles away in Oslo, Norway, President Obama is accepting the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” If ever there was a time and place to live up to that honor, now, in Copenhagen is it.

Continue Reading...

Why We Fight

We fight, even against insurmountable odds, because sometimes we win.

As I get ready to head to Copenhagen this Saturday for the international climate negotiations, I'm thrilled to see the success of The Leadership Campaign and their efforts to have Massachusetts use 100% clean electricity by 2020.

On Monday, Representative William Brownsberger will file their bill, An Act to Re-power Massachusetts, in the Massachusetts House, calling on Gov. Deval Patrick to create a task force to formulate a plan to get Massachusetts to100% clean electricity by 2020.

Continue Reading...

Young, Green, and Out of Work

(Thanks for the cross-post. The unemployment numbers are disturbing. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

by Rinku Sen & Billy Parish

Last week, the Labor Department reported that youth unemployment stands at 18.2%, nearly twice the national average of 9.8%. The percentage of young people without a job is a staggering 53.4 percent, the highest figure since World War II. Looking deeper, the statistics for youth of color are terrible and telling.

According to the most recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40.7% of black youth between 16-19 are unemployed, almost double the amount of whites teenagers (23%). For Latinos the same age, the rate is nearly 30%. Get a little older and the gap grows wider. Unemployment for black Americans aged 20-24 is 27.1%, over twice that faced by white youth (13.1%) in the same age range.

The glaring differences indicate that unemployment is not only decidedly raced, but also that the current economic condition is wholly unforgiving for young people of color. Only a massive, well-funded set of green jobs programs explicitly designed to close those racial gaps can create a truly vital, full-employment economy.

Continue Reading...

A Big Breakthrough on Green Jobs

The New York State Senate and Assembly, too often a model of corruption and dysfunctionality, rose above petty politics last week to pass forward-thinking legislation on climate and energy, setting a precedent for bipartisanship and a sensible cap and trade system.  The State Senate passed the groundbreaking Green Job/Green New York Act, with strong support from Republicans, Democrats, and the Working Families Party, which spearheaded the legislation. The bill — expected to be signed into law this week by Gov. David Patterson leverages $112m in revenue from the Northeasts's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) into $5 billion of private investment to finance home weatherization, energy efficiency projects, and green jobs creation.

Continue Reading...

A New Number For a New Era: From 9/11 to 350

Eight years ago today, two planes flew into the World Trade Center, another crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth landed in a Pennsylvania field. The raw power of that day came to be symbolized by a date composed of three numbers. Three numbers that evoked the shock of being attacked, the horror of the sounds and images on our television sets, and the heroism of so many men and women. Three numbers that framed the events of the last decade and seemed like they would define my generation.

But eight years ago, many in my generation couldn’t vote. We didn’t choose the President, his wars, or his policies. In fact, young Americans have largely rejected the politics of fear and division that dominated those formative years of our political consciousness—voting 2 to 1 in favor of Barack Obama. Today we remember the victims and honor our heroes, but we also have a new President, new crises, and three new numbers: 3-5-0. 350.

Continue Reading...

Can A Number Save the World?

It can if that number is 350. That's the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million (ppm). It’s also the rallying cry of a creative campaign to raise awareness of the climate crisis and build grassroots support for the 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen. wants communities around the world to join together on October 24 for an International Day of Climate Action. You can join with your church, your school, or your friends and do something to visibly get the word out about 350. [See the latest video from]

Continue Reading...

From Washers to Wind

Wednesday was the 39th anniversary of Earth Day and to mark the occasion, President Obama was in Newton, Iowa to speak about clean energy. Newton is one of those towns where most of the residents are employed by one major employer, and until October 2007, that employer was Maytag. So when Whirlpool bought Maytag and shut down the Newton plant, over 12% of Newton's 16,000 residents lost their jobs. If you didn't lose a job, your husband, sister, or neighbor surely did.

But now Newton's a shining example of what's possible. Instead of dishwashers and washing machines, the people of Newton are making wind turbines. That's why President Obama chose Newton and Trinity Structural Towers to argue that “the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy.  The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”

But towns like Newton aren't just losing jobs, they are losing talent too. Young people have been hit hard by this recession. According to the Education and Labor Committee, of the 1.2 million jobs lost last year, 60 percent were held by workers under the age of 25. Mobile and in search of opportunity they are moving to bigger cities and mega regions that promise greater opportunity. Iowa, in particular, has been hurt by this “brain drain,” losing more college graduates than any other state in the country.

So while we replace dishwashers with wind turbines, and re-open empty auto manufacturing plants with solar manufacturing facilities, let's also work to build truly whole communities. The communities that define themselves by one industry or one employer will be increasingly at risk. A healthy, 21st century economy demands that we become increasingly self-sufficient in the resources we use—the food we grow, the water and energy we consume, and the products we build. Revitalizing local living economies can create jobs, conserve energy, and keep young talent in the community.