Rooftop Revolution

How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy - and our planet - from Dirty Energy

| 192 pages

Rooftop Revolution

Powerfully lays out the case for solar power, which author Danny Kennedy calls "the biggest untold economic story of our time."

  • Written by one of the world's leading solar entrepreneurs

  • Powerfully lays out the case for solar power, which author Danny Kennedy calls "the biggest untold economic story of our time"

  • Filled with eye-opening insights and inspiration

Solar power's detractors have been proclaiming that the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra proves solar is just a hippie pipe dream. But as Danny Kennedy points out, Solyndra's downfall actually proves the opposite: the company failed because it wasn't able to compete in a red-hot industry, not because solar isn't ready for prime time. In this succinct, hard-hitting book, Kennedy proves that solar can save money, create jobs, and protect the environment-and only politics and perception stand in its way.

Signs of solar's ascendency are everywhere. The industry employs 100,000 people in the United States, twice as many as in 2009 and twice the number of coal miners. In 2011, Warren Buffett invested $2 billion in a solar farm, and General Electric bought a start-up solar manufacturer, announcing, "By 2020 this is going to be at least a $1 billion product line." Production of solar-generated electricity rose by 45 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, while electricity from natural gas rose only 1.6 percent and coal declined by 4.2 percent.

But powerful forces are still arrayed against solar power, and that's why Kennedy wrote this book. We need a rooftop revolution to break the entrenched power of the coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas industries (which Kennedy calls King CONG) and their bought-and-paid-for allies. Kennedy systematically refutes the lies spread by CONG-that solar is expensive, inefficient, and unreliable; and many other untruths -- and shows that the solar industry can become a far greater source of jobs than it already is. Praising the pioneers who are pushing solar forward, Kennedy also decries the rampant political pandering that keeps us dependent on dirty and dangerous forms of energy. Now is the time to move away from the declining sources of the past and unleash the unlimited potential of the sun.

  • Written by one of the world's leading solar entrepreneurs
  • Powerfully lays out the case for solar power, which author Danny Kennedy calls "the biggest untold economic story of our time"
  • Filled with eye-opening insights and inspiration
  • Click here to read the press release

 

Solar power's detractors have been proclaiming that the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra proves solar is just a hippie pipe dream. But as Danny Kennedy points out, Solyndra's downfall actually proves the opposite: the company failed because it wasn't able to compete in a red-hot industry, not because solar isn't ready for prime time. In this succinct, hard-hitting book, Kennedy proves that solar can save money, create jobs, and protect the environmentand only politics and perception stand in its way.

Signs of solar's ascendency are everywhere. The industry employs 100,000 people in the United States, twice as many as in 2009 and twice the number of coal miners. In 2011, Warren Buffett invested $2 billion in a solar farm, and General Electric bought a start-up solar manufacturer, announcing, "By 2020 this is going to be at least a $1 billion product line." Production of solar-generated electricity rose by 45 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, while electricity from natural gas rose only 1.6 percent and coal declined by 4.2 percent.

But powerful forces are still arrayed against solar power, and that's why Kennedy wrote this book. We need a rooftop revolution to break the entrenched power of the coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas industries (which Kennedy calls King CONG) and their bought-and-paid-for allies. Kennedy systematically refutes the lies spread by CONGthat solar is expensive, inefficient, and unreliable; and many other untruths -- and shows that the solar industry can become a far greater source of jobs than it already is. Praising the pioneers who are pushing solar forward, Kennedy also decries the rampant political pandering that keeps us dependent on dirty and dangerous forms of energy. Now is the time to move away from the declining sources of the past and unleash the unlimited potential of the sun.

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Overview

Powerfully lays out the case for solar power, which author Danny Kennedy calls "the biggest untold economic story of our time."

  • Written by one of the world's leading solar entrepreneurs

  • Powerfully lays out the case for solar power, which author Danny Kennedy calls "the biggest untold economic story of our time"

  • Filled with eye-opening insights and inspiration

Solar power's detractors have been proclaiming that the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra proves solar is just a hippie pipe dream. But as Danny Kennedy points out, Solyndra's downfall actually proves the opposite: the company failed because it wasn't able to compete in a red-hot industry, not because solar isn't ready for prime time. In this succinct, hard-hitting book, Kennedy proves that solar can save money, create jobs, and protect the environment-and only politics and perception stand in its way.

Signs of solar's ascendency are everywhere. The industry employs 100,000 people in the United States, twice as many as in 2009 and twice the number of coal miners. In 2011, Warren Buffett invested $2 billion in a solar farm, and General Electric bought a start-up solar manufacturer, announcing, "By 2020 this is going to be at least a $1 billion product line." Production of solar-generated electricity rose by 45 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, while electricity from natural gas rose only 1.6 percent and coal declined by 4.2 percent.

But powerful forces are still arrayed against solar power, and that's why Kennedy wrote this book. We need a rooftop revolution to break the entrenched power of the coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas industries (which Kennedy calls King CONG) and their bought-and-paid-for allies. Kennedy systematically refutes the lies spread by CONG-that solar is expensive, inefficient, and unreliable; and many other untruths -- and shows that the solar industry can become a far greater source of jobs than it already is. Praising the pioneers who are pushing solar forward, Kennedy also decries the rampant political pandering that keeps us dependent on dirty and dangerous forms of energy. Now is the time to move away from the declining sources of the past and unleash the unlimited potential of the sun.

  • Written by one of the world's leading solar entrepreneurs
  • Powerfully lays out the case for solar power, which author Danny Kennedy calls "the biggest untold economic story of our time"
  • Filled with eye-opening insights and inspiration
  • Click here to read the press release

 

Solar power's detractors have been proclaiming that the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra proves solar is just a hippie pipe dream. But as Danny Kennedy points out, Solyndra's downfall actually proves the opposite: the company failed because it wasn't able to compete in a red-hot industry, not because solar isn't ready for prime time. In this succinct, hard-hitting book, Kennedy proves that solar can save money, create jobs, and protect the environmentand only politics and perception stand in its way.

Signs of solar's ascendency are everywhere. The industry employs 100,000 people in the United States, twice as many as in 2009 and twice the number of coal miners. In 2011, Warren Buffett invested $2 billion in a solar farm, and General Electric bought a start-up solar manufacturer, announcing, "By 2020 this is going to be at least a $1 billion product line." Production of solar-generated electricity rose by 45 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, while electricity from natural gas rose only 1.6 percent and coal declined by 4.2 percent.

But powerful forces are still arrayed against solar power, and that's why Kennedy wrote this book. We need a rooftop revolution to break the entrenched power of the coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas industries (which Kennedy calls King CONG) and their bought-and-paid-for allies. Kennedy systematically refutes the lies spread by CONGthat solar is expensive, inefficient, and unreliable; and many other untruths -- and shows that the solar industry can become a far greater source of jobs than it already is. Praising the pioneers who are pushing solar forward, Kennedy also decries the rampant political pandering that keeps us dependent on dirty and dangerous forms of energy. Now is the time to move away from the declining sources of the past and unleash the unlimited potential of the sun.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Danny Kennedy


Danny Kennedy is a global authority on environmental issues and a successful clean-tech entrepreneur. His accomplishments have earned him numerous awards, including Innovator of the Year by PBS’s Planet Forward for pioneering an easy-to access and aff ordable residential solar solution. Kennedy has worked on climate and energy issues for more than two decades.

At Greenpeace he initially focused on ending new oil exploration in the Pacific; and as the leader of the organization’s California Clean Energy Now campaign, he helped create the state’s solar policies, which provide substantial market support for solar businesses and help Golden State citizens go solar. In 1996 Kennedy founded and directed Project Underground, an organization committed to protecting the human rights of people abused and exploited by mining and oil operations.

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.

Tireless in his eff orts to evangelize the mass adoption of solar power, Kennedy serves on the boards of Th e Solar Foundation, a global research and education organization in Washington, DC, and Solar Mosaic, a solar-focused, crowdfunding startup in Oakland, California.  Kennedy lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Miya Yoshitani, their two daughters, and seven chickens.

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Prelogue: An Energy Primer

Chapter 1: Sunny Side Up

Chapter 2: Empires of the Sun: Dirty Energy's
Petty Politics

Chapter 3: Role Models of the Rooftop Revolution

Chapter 4: Take a Walk on the Sunny Side

Chapter 5: Hot Jobs

Chapter 6: Energized

Epilogue: Fire 2.0: My Ride on the Solar Coaster-So Far

Notes

Additional Resources

Acknowledgments

Index

About the Author

About Sungevity

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Rooftop Revolution

CHAPTER 1

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 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 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.”

And what are some of these “big things”? For starters, the cold hard cash being pumped into the industry is where the smart money is going. Just before Christmas 2011, Google invested $94 million in four large-scale solar photovoltaic projects, edging the total amount the search giant invested in clean-energy projects toward $900 million. Not to be beaten, and always one to place a bet when assets are artificially depressed, investment guru Warren Buffett dropped almost $2 billion on California’s Topaz Solar Farm, which will sell solar electricity to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the local utility company, and generate electricity for about 160,000 homes. Globally, investment in renewable energy was up to $260 billion, from $243 billion in 2010 and $186.5 billion in 2009. Solar got half of that. Indeed Bloomberg New Energy Finance recorded the trillionth dollar of investment in clean energy since its records started in 2004.

So, though the Solyndra scandal was the big solar-energy industry newsmaker in 2011, several more-significant events point to the globe’s movement from dirty, centralized electricity production to clean, local power. Some of them were as significant as a sea change, though the weatherpeople in the mass media may not have spotted them, one being the economic aftermath of Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which caused a meltdown at the country’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. This proof of the risks of nuclear power drove yet another nail into the coffin of nuclear energy in the United States.

Nukes are all but done here because what banker today could legitimately finance a nuclear power plant? No one will finance one unless the money comes from socialized governments willing to take on the risks with public funds. I’m not saying nukes are completely dead; in February 2012 Southern Company, an electricity generator, announced plans to build two nuclear plants in Georgia, but this construction is possible only because it is being prepaid by consumers at the rate of $3 per month. This mandatory way of capitalizing the plants will be augmented by Department of Energy loan guarantees that are 20 times what Solyndra got. The point is really that one of the biggest pieces of financial news that has yet to be clearly reported is that there’s little chance that new nukes can compete with clean electricity from solar panels.

At the same time that the media was missing this big shift in the markets away from a nuclear renaissance, reports showed that major economies throughout the world were moving to clean-energy sources, but this trend was rarely addressed in mainstream outlets. For every negative Solyndragate scoop, there should have been three times as many stories on how advanced economies were getting their juice.

Germany now gets a whopping 20 percent of its power from clean, sustainable energy, including solar power, and the country has become a laboratory for the kind of electricity supply that the world will benefit from in years to come. At age 41 I’m old enough to remember when fossil-fuel industry-sponsored experts told us that no more than 5 percent of the electricity grid could possibly come from renewable—so-called intermittent—resources. Then, when innovative people pushed the envelope, the numbers were raised to 10 percent and then to 15 percent. Now in Germany—one of Europe’s few strong economies—more than 25 percent of energy comes in the form of wind and solar electrons on many days. The rest of Europe didn’t want the Germans to hog the solar spotlight, and now many other places have at times adopted a higher density of clean electricity in their grid than even Germany—such as Denmark (more than 30 percent), Spain (35 percent), and Portugal (50 percent). Italy installed more than enough solar power for a million homes in 2011, despite its fiscal worries.

In Crimea, Ukraine, a Vienna-based developer, Activ Solar, built the world’s largest solar park, a project of more than 100 megawatts in capacity—one-tenth the size of a nuke—and worth about 300 million euros (US $387 million), according to reports. The Perova plant consists of 440,000 solar panels, spans 500 hundred acres, and will generate enough peak-load power for the electrical needs for all of Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.

And what do these nations get through the adoption of clean energy? Not blackouts and higher electricity bills but rather employment and price stability. Germany in particular has benefitted from this, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, becoming a center of excellence for the export of hightech products, and providing lower-cost electricity for its population than energy that comes out of the conventional grid—all while shutting down the bulk of its nuclear-power-plant fleet.

In spite of the staggering advances Germany has made, politics is besieging it. The country is experiencing a backlash against renewable energy, led by fiscal conservatives in the German parliament who believe that the incentives for solar power will cost too much in the future. The debate is sure to wax and wane, and even at this high-tide mark there’s going to be some flux. Although the conservatives are reducing the rate of payments for solar power, the benefits of solar incentives have already taken effect, and the German population understands this. More people support it politically because they’re making money from the shift. So no matter what changes the Bundestag wants to make, there’s no turning back.

The German economy is on a positive path. The country is moving from boiling water with stored-solar-power supplies to getting electricity by other sustainable and economically beneficial means. More importantly, 50 percent of Germany’s solar panels are owned by individuals and farms, not big corporate generators. As one writer put it, this is a good thing: “Decentralized power generation, more relocalization and reregionalization of economic activity, the world is getting smaller while more connected and therefore in a way bigger at the same time.”

Poised for Progress

While these groundbreaking shifts have been taking place in Europe, China, and the United States, the world’s reigning superpowers have brought about important changes of global significance in the electricity market. The year 2011 marked the first time in history that these powerhouses invested more money in renewable energy than in fossil fuels. The main driver of this has been the fact that solar power has fallen in price to be equal to, or even less than, much of the electricity we pay for in our current grid.

In California, one of the nation’s most expensive electricity markets, a homeowner’s peak electricity use, on average, cost more than $0.18 per kilowatt-hour in 2011 and went as high as $0.35 per kilowatt-hour. Solar-leasing companies save the average consumer more than 15 percent, depending on the cost of installation and financing. Every state is different, but the economics are improving all the time, and by 2015, according to projections by the Department of Energy, two-thirds of US households will save money by using solar electricity.

The main driver of the cost reduction in installed solar panels is the fact that the core component of solar-power systems—the silicon cell—is, as we’ve discussed, now being produced in volume. We’ve seen this happen before in the computer hardware industry with the commoditization of the silicon chip, a slightly different-sized product but surprisingly similar from a manufacturing point of view. As integrated circuits or semiconductors became much cheaper, microprocessing—the service they provide—became more widely available for less, and microprocessors ended up in everything from cars to phones. Like silicon chips, solar cells continue to drop in cost and become more powerful as time goes by.

THE PRICE OF ELECTRICITY
Made from Solar or Fossil Fuels

image

This is incredible news for people and the planet. Solar panels are now being mass produced, and consumers are benefiting from cost reduction due to volume production, much like with cell phones and other electronics. For every doubling of the manufacturing capacity of solar panels, there’s been an 18 percent price reduction of the end product. The investments made in solar-product manufacturing by China, Korea, India, Germany, the United States, and other countries over the past five years have broadly tripled the production capacity, bringing down the end-product price more than 50 percent. That value is passed on to you in the price you pay for the electricity coming out of these products.

Just as the mass production of silicon chips drove down the price and increased the affordability and the availability of computing power, so too will the reduction in the price of silicon cells make solar power universally available and affordable. This will unleash an era of economic possibility as to how we can use solar power, which, today, some say is silly. Who knew that your oven or clothes dryer might serve you better with a microprocessor? Similarly, a self-powered solar cell phone or a case that charges your laptop will be something we can have in the near future. To some degree, you can choose your own solar adventure, for the solar-powered future is at hand.

But don’t think this all will come easily and without lots of metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears. We can’t be complacent and wait for it to happen, for as far into the woods as we’ve traveled chasing our societal fossil-fuel addiction is as far out as we have to walk toward the sun. To win the energy battle, we need to organize, get solar on our homes, and demand positive energy policies. We solar citizens must stand up and be counted, as do the people employed in the industry and all of those who want to pursue the many commercial opportunities that low-cost solar makes possible. Spawning easy and affordable solutions for low-cost solar hardware will take lots of genius, human hours, and solar entrepreneurship—from financial whizzes and software engineers to creative marketers and, most importantly, passionate consumers.

For decades to come, the massive makeover of our inefficient, stored-solar-power (aka fossil fuels) conversion grid to a future-state direct solar, sunshine mesh needs to be designed, financed, built, and maintained—all of which will take time and a huge amount of work. Happily, a huge amount of work means an equally big number of new jobs in existing trades and professions as well as in innovative categories, like the “remote solar designer” position that Sungevity created: engineers who design a solar system for your home using software and aerial imagery so that they never have to bother you at your house.

Adoption of solar power is a key solution both to the economic downturn and to the climate change calamities caused by our dependence on ol’ King CONG. Just as the rise of the steam engines from the mineshafts of England was a harbinger of the Industrial Revolution that swept the globe, the mass adoption of solar power will transform our economy in ways that are broadly beneficial. In the past few years, solar job creation has outpaced the greater economy tenfold. Meanwhile, the fossil-fuel electricity-generation industries shed 2 percent of their employees. There are now more than 100,000 workers in the US solar industry, which means they outnumber coal miners in this country.

We’re playing in the big leagues and can’t drop the ball. To win the game, we need to stay in the game—and to do that we have to build political momentum and economic vitality. Our efforts are already paying off. The conservative intergovernmental International Energy Agency (IEA) is now predicting that by 2050 most of the world’s electricity could come from solar power. The keyword here is could because it all depends on what energy policy our nation chooses, what we as voters and consumers demand, and the kinds of solar businesses our best and brightest build over the next few decades. The IEA forecasts that we could create astounding wealth and opportunity—a many thousandfold increase in solar adoption in just 40 years. As a campaigner with Greenpeace, I spent years protesting the lack of consideration that the IEA gave to clean energy, and now the agency is even more bullish on solar than I am!

Imagine for a moment how much work we could create with 50 percent of our electricity coming from different forms and applications of solar power. The solar industry currently produces less than 1 percent of electricity and employs 100,000 individuals. Does that mean 5 million more people would soon be solar workers? Probably not, because with scale comes efficiency (meaning some of the work could be done through automated technology), but certainly many millions would be engaged in the industry. A study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed that making the United States a 100 percent solar nation would create nearly 10 million jobs. So even if the solar industry were to displace every employee who makes a living working for Dirty Energy (an impossible scenario), we would still have a net gain of 7 million jobs—and we hope that there will be places in the solar industry for those who leave Dirty Energy (see chapter 5).

Some of these job gains will be in the opportunity that solar power unlocks in adjacent spaces: in building and roofing materials, in financial products banking on the sun, and in digital and software companies needed to harness this potential and adapt it to our current condition.

Why Solar Will Win

I believe that everyone is going to go solar because it’s better—not just better for the pocketbook, not just better for the planet, not just better for jobs or the economy or security but because it’s the best idea ever—better than the wheel and the automobile and human flight and Google.

The idea is spreading that solar power is better than fire. It provides the services we get from fire without burning stuff first. This reality is catching on and will soon be ablaze. Indeed, I believe going solar is a shift in what it means to be human. It’s our next big step.

So far, evolution’s great achievement was getting past eating raw food that we could “hunt and gather” and instead cooking it so that it wouldn’t spoil and therefore lasted longer. Humans’ lives improved by leaps and bounds with that one change. And with a cooking fire we could also warm a cave, change our habitat, and light up the night, which changed our lives for the better. And then we used our ability to light fires to boil water to make electricity. And in many ways that has made our lives better still. Fire is good. And fire in a wire, as an electric current, is even better—no local pollution, no smoke. For many billions of people, it’s a blessing. Besides warming us, cooking our food, and lighting our way in the dark, electricity allows us to travel on trams and trains and planes, entertain and educate ourselves, and even connect with our friends using social media. The amazing thing about solar-panel technology is that it allows us to do all of that without boiling water first.

This book is about change—how that next evolutionary step will come to pass, the economic and social drivers that will make solar use commonplace, the businesses that will cause the Solar Ascent to happen, and how you can help bring about these changes. I’ve seen the worst of the “fossil-fool” economy, but I’ve also seen the potential of solar while starting one of the fastest-growing companies in the sector, which is the fastest-growing sector in the economy. And from all I’ve seen, what I know is this: We need the Solar Ascent. We need solar advocates, activists, entrepreneurs, and consumers to bring about this change. And who are the revolutionaries who will lead the charge toward sustainability, health, and prosperity? In one big powerful honest word: us.

Let’s do this!

What You Can Do as a Rooftop Revolutionary

image Experience firsthand how you can benefit from the power of the sun. Get a solar quote (www.sungevity.com) for your home and encourage others to do the same.

image Check out the annual American Solar Energy Society’s National Solar Tour (www.nationalsolartour.org) to see homes just like yours, powered by the sun.

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Endorsements

"If you want bad news, turn on the TV. If you want good news, read this book. Rooftop Revolution lays out, in clear and engaging language, how we got into the energy mess we're in and how we can get out-benefiting the planet, creating jobs, and saving homeowers money. It's a win-win-win scenario that we would be nuts to ignore."

-Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff

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