What’s really holding back clean energy policy?

July 29, 2020

No matter how you slice it, the U.S. love affair with fossil fuels is ending. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and more than two-thirds of voters favor giving federal stimulus funds to renewable energy companies. Meanwhile, public support for coal, oil, and gas is waning. More and more corporations, universities, and other institutions are divesting from fossil fuels and taking climate change seriously, as they see the writing on the wall for the planet and their own bottom lines. So, what’s still holding us back from moving more rapidly to the clean energy future we need? Put simply: power, money, and influence. To kick the engine of change into high gear, we need to flex our muscles as citizens, consumers, and constituents—especially over the next 100 days.

The fossil fuel industry has a tremendous grip on our political system, and you don’t have to dig deep (or really at all) to find it. Of the 20 most powerful people holding federal environmental jobs today, most either have direct ties to fossil fuel or related companies, or they have deliberately fought to undermine regulations they’re now supposed to enforce. These include the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose former law firm was paid millions to ease restrictions on coal companies; the head of the Department of the Interior, a former lawyer and lobbyist for Halliburton and other oil and gas companies; the U.S. energy secretary, a former lobbyist for Ford Motor Company; and the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a former energy adviser to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who fought against climate regulations like the Clean Power Plan. Can we really believe that these officials are acting in the public interest?

Revolving door
Revolving doors are pretty easy to spot—both on the street and within a government administration.

Meanwhile, the dark money abounds. Well-known companies like ExxonMobil are hiding behind front groups that spend millions to urge our politicians to support fossil fuels and oppose climate regulation. With this level of funding, it’s easy for the climate denial apparatus to flood social media and other channels with misinformation about the science of climate change. Influential business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are largely in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. The 2010 Supreme Court decision of Citizens United—which opened the door to big money in politics—made it even easier to hide the money, resulting in what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has called the “stolen” decade for climate action.

But we can’t blame it all on partisan politics. Even as some corporations use their money and influence to push the climate denial agenda, companies at the other end of the spectrum—forward-thinking businesses that recognize the urgency of climate action—have largely sat on the political sidelines, and most Americans don’t even realize it. As Sen. Whitehouse points out, these companies talk a good game and have great climate policies within their corporate walls, “but when they come to Congress, they couldn’t give a red hot damn about climate change.” Rather than being an issue of Congressional in-fighting, he says, “it’s a problem of nobody showing up.” As a result, many top lawmakers simply aren’t aware of the growing corporate efforts to tackle climate change, including large-scale procurement of renewable energy and the setting of emission reduction targets.

American Beverage Association website
One example of a trade association you’d think would be flexing its lobbying muscles around climate but isn’t.

Ultimately, we’re not going to get where we need to be—and fast enough—as long as entrenched fossil fuel interests in Washington lead the show, and as long as climate-friendly corporate America fails to flex its lobbying muscles. Those of us who truly care about clean energy (voters, business leaders, and policymakers) need to devote our energies to tackling the bigger picture rather than spending time trying to get every detail of a climate bill right. We need to make it non-negotiable for big companies, big banks, and big business associations to go to Congress and pressure lawmakers to act on climate (a recent virtual advocacy day was a positive sign, but not enough). We need to root out the dark money behind climate denial, whether through investigations, lawsuits, subpoenas, or similar methods. And we need to shift the narrative to one where taking strong action on climate and clean energy is the norm, not the exception, and where legislators know that when they act, businesses and their constituents will have their back.

For citizens, consumers, and constituents like us, this important work can manifest itself in a variety of ways: deeper participation in the democratic process this election season (e.g., attending virtual “town halls,” questioning candidates about their climate/clean energy plans, engaging in virtual advocacy events, volunteering for get-out-the-vote efforts), pressuring businesses with petitions, boycotts, or engaging in public conversation, or spreading credible (emphasis on credible) reporting within our communities and networks.

As the November election approaches, these efforts can help lay the groundwork for a dramatic acceleration in our country’s transition to clean energy if and when the political dynamic shifts. It’s time to double-down, rally the masses, and tell our business and political leaders what sort of action we want and expect—so we can proceed full sail to the clean energy future we need.


A surprising—and essential—ally during emergencies: solar schools

July 22, 2020

Schools grappling with how to plan for optimal learning and safety for students returning this fall should also consider a long-term investment that stands to benefit students and entire communities: solar power. By outfitting educational buildings with energy tech that can operate off-grid, schools can mitigate the effects of natural disasters and other emergencies for both their students and their neighborhoods. Here are some examples of how communities all over the country are already doing it:

  1. Schools outfitted with solar + storage can be a failsafe against power outages. School districts of all sizes are investing in solar systems that enable them to generate clean power at little-to-no upfront cost, and some schools are taking things a step further by installing batteries that can store this energy for later use. After Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, cutting off power for up to six months, donors raised funds to install solar microgrids—basically a solar array, energy storage, and an energy management system—at 10 institutions to provide grid support and serve communities. In the rural town of Tenino in Washington state, the regional utility is installing the area’s first large-scale microgrid, using solar panels on the high school, to provide back-up power when needed. Utilities in Colorado and Santa Barbara, California, are also exploring solar microgrids at schools in anticipation of shutoffs triggered by wildfires and other extreme weather events.
  2. Since 2012, the SunSmart E-Shelters Program in Florida has provided more than 100 public schools with small-scale solar systems and batteries to keep lights and electrical outlets operating so residents can seek refuge in the buildings during disasters. The solar-powered shelters, which can accommodate up to 500 people per school, proved their value after Hurricane Irma hit the state in fall 2017.
  3. In New Jersey, a solar + storage system at Hopewell Valley Central High School allows the school to serve as a warming or cooling station for displaced residents while also powering food refrigeration and emergency lighting.
  4. One of the best examples of designing for community resilience is in Salinas, California, where in 2018 Santa Rita Unified School District became the first district in the country to have 100 percent solar + storage at every school. The six microgrids—installed with no money down—can provide up to seven hours of electricity per battery charge, allowing students to shelter in place during blackouts so they don’t lose educational time. The microgrids also enable schools to serve as powered emergency response centers, or PERCs, that provide key services such as cell phone and electric vehicle charging, medical and triage support, and incident command centers in addition to emergency sheltering. “We have the immediate benefit that every single day, these kids will stay in school and learn,” said Ted Flanigan, president of EcoMotion, which oversaw the project. “And then… in the event of a major emergency, these schools would become huge community assets.”
  5. Schools can also help significantly reduce carbon emissions for the community – not just the school system. In California, Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego is adding battery storage at several sites to save on utility costs and to enable the schools to serve as virtual power plants that the local utility can tap into instead of (polluting) natural gas plants. Across Hawaii, some 1,267 classrooms are being cooled with “solar + storage” systems, helping districts save money and avoid expensive retrofits to central air systems.
Solar canopy at Hopewell Valley High School
The solar installation at Hopewell Valley HS (credit: Advanced Solar Products)

To finance solar + storage, most schools opt for a power purchase agreement (PPA), in which a third party purchases, owns, and maintains the solar panels (and often the batteries), and the school or district agrees to buy the electricity produced for the length of the agreement, often 25+ years. PPAs are popular because a school can install solar with little-to-no upfront investment or ongoing maintenance costs, and typically pays a lower electricity rate. In the case of the Florida E-Shelters, the schools received the systems at no cost because the program received $10 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in addition to funding from private and public utilities.

Given the many benefits of installing solar on schools—and the favorable financing options available—it’s hard to argue against adding both solar AND energy storage. In times of uncertainty, schools can reduce their energy footprints (and costs) while keeping students learning and providing critical support during emergencies. With little-to-no upfront cost, millions in savings, and a boost to community resilience, it’s a no brainer.


It’s time to rethink how we get around

July 15, 2020

Public transit has taken a huge hit from the coronavirus pandemic. Subway and bus ridership are way down, and, in a true sign of the times, some New Yorkers are buying cars for the first time ever. Ride-sharing services are also suffering. Until we can figure out how to use mass transit safely (here are some strategies to get you started), most of us (if we have the choice) will opt for driving. But “carmageddon” doesn’t have to be our fate. In addition to biking and walking, other low-carbon transport modes like electric vehicles (EVs) and micromobility solutions such as e-bikes and scooters are all great options.

By most accounts, biking and walking have been the real winners in the COVID-19 era, offering the perfect combination of “social” and “distancing.” Bike sales have exploded in Europe and across the U.S., with cycling shops from Phoenix to Washington, D.C. reporting sales well above previous levels. In a country better known for its car culture, Americans are buying bikes (including e-bikes) by the droves and—surprise!—enjoying the physical and mental health benefits. In an April survey, bicycle manufacturer Trek found that 21 percent of bike owners planned to ride more during COVID times, while 50 percent said they’d keep riding after the pandemic subsides.

Risk mitigation checklist: mask—check; helmet—fail.

Even more importantly (for our planet and overall health), bicycle commuting is growing, as bikes are seen as a safer alternative to public transit. During lockdown, many cities closed streets to cars or created “corona cycleways,” in some cases making the changes permanent (as in Seattle) to alleviate pollution and encourage biking and walking. In New York, where fewer than 1 percent of commuters travel by bike, these unprecedented times are changing mindsets. “We are absolutely confident we are going to see more bike commuting in the months ahead,” said Polly Trottenberg, New York City’s transportation commissioner. “We are already seeing people who hadn’t biked before are trying it for the first time. We are going to see a lot more of that as the city starts to come back to life.”

In the Netherlands, research shows that commuters who use bike transit—short-term public bicycle rentals that enable them to pedal the “first and last miles” to more central train or bus stations—arrive at their destinations in the same amount of time as driving. In New York, where bike-sharing and ride-sharing services have already eaten into subway ridership in recent years, COVID has merely accelerated the shift in how people get around. “A change that was going to take five to 10 years has basically taken place overnight,” noted Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association.

“A change that was going to take five to 10 years has basically taken place overnight.”

On-demand “micromobility“ options like electric scooters, e-bikes, and (electric) microtransit shuttle services, which have fewer infection risks than mass transit, are also on the rise. As long as strict health and safety protocols can be put in place (disinfection of vehicles, etc.), these electrified options will continue to supplant public transport in some cases, offering an appealing solution for short-distance travel or as feeders to larger transit hubs.

Then, of course, there are electric cars. Despite a COVID-induced decline in car sales overall, the automotive industry continues to see EVs as the future. As we all know by now, a superior product (in this case a superior driving experience, lower total cost of ownership, zero tailpipe emissions, and more)—can be slowed but not stopped. Passenger EV sales reached 2.1 million last year, and by 2022, more than 500 different EV models are expected to be available globally. Already, EVs are displacing 1 million barrels of oil demand per day, helping to keep our skies clearer.

Combined, these transportation trends—a rekindled enthusiasm for walking and cycling, cleaner vehicles, and safer (eventually) public transit—are all elements of a new mobility landscape. Key to making this landscape sustainable is multi-modality, or making all of the transport modes (bikes, cars, and scooters, as well as public transport) work with each other. Long term, the world is moving away from personal, driver-driven vehicles and toward seamless multimodal travel enabled by electrification, driverless vehicles, and shared mobility (a trend that’s happening faster in Asia and Europe than the U.S.). Mobile apps and autonomous vehicles will further reduce our need for private vehicles.

Ultimately, the transport system that emerges from the COVID-19 crisis hinges critically on the decisions we make collectively—and individually—over the coming months. Do we resume our old ways, or do we embrace new approaches that bring us closer to the new mobility landscape? At the systemic level, a key step would be to push for greater support for electrified mobility in the next federal stimulus bill, both to help with the U.S. economic recovery and to boost the country’s long-term resilience. Like any major crisis, the current pandemic offers opportunities for us to reimagine and reshape the world in which we want to live—so let’s make the smartest choices possible.

Originally published in the 7/15/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Video: What Story Will You Tell?

July 13, 2020

Back in January, we kicked off the new year with a campaign called What Story Will You Tell that asked people to share how they planned to take action on clean energy in 2020. The big idea: you have a role to play in the clean energy revolution; one year from now, what story will you tell?

Fast forward to today: we’re halfway through the year (where did….wha?) and it’s time to check back in with those resolutions—or make a “back nine” resolution for the rest of 2020 (never too late to start).

On the campaign page we shared a bunch of ideas and resources to help get the wheels turning, including going solar, driving electric, getting your school to go solar, advocating for clean energy policies, and even exercising civil disobedience. (Many of us may have checked off that last box already this year, for other worthy causes).

A screenshot from the "What Story Will You Tell" campaign webpage
Ideas and resources from the “What Story Will You Tell” campaign webpage

Even at the halfway mark, 2020 has already staked its claim as a year unlike any other in recent memory. Between a ruthless pandemic and an overdue reckoning with America’s original sin, we’ve all witnessed heartbreaking tragedy, pain, loss, violence, and unrest. 

The brutal reality about yet another pressing issue—the climate crisis, however, is that it doesn’t pause or stop while we’re occupied with other important matters. It is, in fact, deeply intertwined with economic, racial, health, immigration, and a host of other major issues.  Because of this we must continue accelerating our transition to clean, renewable energy as quickly as possible. 

Here’s the good news: we can do this. We can get to a clean energy future—and quickly. We’ve got the solutions and the momentum, and you can play a role

So what story will you tell this year? How will you finish your 2020?


Keep the good (clean) energy going: Five reasons to be optimistic

July 8, 2020

When it comes to the clean energy forecast, it’s easy to think the picture is grim at first glance–from industry layoffs and production delays due to coronavirus to the EPA’s rollback of auto emission standards. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the story.

Here are five good reasons to have a healthy amount of optimism about the future of clean energy.

1. Renewables like solar, wind, and storage remain poised to grow over the long term, despite short-term industry setbacks brought on by the pandemic. Though supply chain disruptions, job losses, and other challenges have hit the clean energy industry hard, its momentum can’t be stopped. The sector is expected to account for close to 21 percent of electricity use in 2020, up from 18 percent last year. As a recent analysis noted: “Not only will wind, solar, and storage continue to decrease in cost and become increasingly attractive compared to fossil fuel alternatives, but demand among corporations, consumers, and utilities alike will continue to expand in the future.”

2. After a COVID-19 slowdown, electric vehicles will keep on rollin’ (out of the showroom) especially if the Moving Forward bill that just passed the U.S. House becomes law.  Pre-coronavirus, U.S. EV sales were up to 1.5 million in 2019, with more than 40 different models of EVs on the market from almost every automaker. Despite a projected 43 percent drop in EV sales this year (comparable to the brutal hit on gas cars as well), consumer confidence is expected to return after the outbreak is over. Notably, the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion bill that passed the U.S. House on July 1st, would expand the U.S. EV charging network, among other good stuff.

From a world powered by burning things to one powered by clean, renewable energy.

3. Fossil fuel industries are encountering massive, structural setbacks, making room for large-scale adoption of cleaner, cheaper renewable energy sources.
Coal was already in structural decline, but decreased demand brought on by coronavirus have sent both coal and oil spiraling downward. On top of this, two huge natural gas pipeline projects registered huge defeats thanks to sustained efforts from environmental groups and indigenous tribes: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (a $3.4 billion attempt to perpetuate Americans’ dependence on natural gas) was abandoned by two east coast utilities, while construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was halted in response to a judge’s ruling. These changes help further pave the way to mass adoption to renewable sources like solar, wind, and electric power.

4. States continue to forge ahead with bold policies. A few weeks into the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA) launched its 100% Clean Energy Collaborative, a project that aims to help states accelerate their clean energy goals through information-sharing among its 14 state members (plus Washington, D.C.). CESA isn’t your grandmother’s state environmental coalition. As reported by CleanTechnica, “It is spearheaded by states that wield considerable influence over the U.S. economy and, for that matter, the global economy.” Virginia just became the first Southeast state to join their ranks. In addition to states, over 160 U.S. cities have pledged publicly to work toward 100 percent clean energy goals.

5. New polls show that most voters want clean energy solutions (even conservative Republicans). In a new consumer poll, 70 percent of voters say federal stimulus funding should go toward renewable energy, not fossil fuels. A new Pew survey finds widespread support for clean energy across the political spectrum remains stable. For example, 80 percent of conservative Republicans said they support solar power.

This doesn’t mean that we can sit back and watch from the sidelines. On the contrary, consumer demand and citizen advocacy is needed now more than ever to help accelerate this transition as much as possible during this critical decade.

Generation180 is here to help with new information, tools, and resources you can use to get in the game and keep the good energy going.

Originally published in the 7/8/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Clean energy is contagious (no mask required)

July 1, 2020

If you’re thinking about putting solar on your roof or buying an electric vehicle (EV), chances are you have a friend or neighbor that’s already done it. Research shows that clean energy actions are contagious (the good kind of contagious, like smiles). If we see our peers adopting solar panels or other clean energy technology, we’re going to want it too. It’s basic human psychology, and it’s helping to push clean energy to the mainstream. So hop on the bandwagon—there’s room for everybody.

Peer influence is a key reason why, for decades, Americans have been buying bigger houses, driving more SUVs, renting more storage units, and generally living more energy-intensive and stuff-filled lives. The more we’ve seen our neighbors “living it up,” the more we’ve wanted to too (although, on average, we were happier in the less-consumptive world of just a few decades ago). Fortunately, as we  now face the climate crisis, the same social contagion that’s led to excess in our lives can push us to make smarter choices for our health, our lives, and the planet.

Smoking is a case in point. It wasn’t long ago that going out on the town meant inhaling volcanoes of secondhand smoke and navigating the cigarette butts underfoot. But once smoking got a bad rap (aided by bans, lawsuits, and pressure on cigarette companies), it quickly became uncool to dangle a death stick from your lip. Peer effects played a tremendous role both in ramping up smoking (think Audrey Hepburn with her long black cigarette holder—she smoked nearly three packs a day!) and subsequently in reducing the prevalence of the practice, helping to bring adult smoking rates way down.

Fast forward to today’s clean energy revolution, and the same effects are apparent. A decade ago, we didn’t see many solar panels in our neighborhoods, and the “first movers” who had them were generally deemed eco-freaks. But as the solar contagion takes hold—bolstered by supportive policies and no-money-down installation options—homeowners (and their neighbors) are jumping on board. SolarCity, a leading U.S. installer, ranked Fort Collins, Colorado, as the “most contagious” solar city in 2016, because as much as 69 percent of the company’s local installations came from referrals from friends or neighbors. “It appears that the notion of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ may now also mean getting rooftop solar,” observed Jacob Corvidae with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Solar adoption tends to spread in geographic clusters, as neighbors demonstrate to their peers the financial and other benefits of harnessing the sun’s power. In California, studies found that every new solar installation in a neighborhood can, over time, lead to several additional ones, and that solar panels that are visible from the street have a bigger effect on peer adoption than ones that aren’t. A survey in Texas confirmed that just seeing solar panels in your ‘hood can spark the contagion. In Connecticut, researchers concluded that the “neighbor effect” was an even bigger determinant in a household’s going solar than income levels, political views, or proximity to a large population center.

The same viral spread is apparent for other clean energy choices, from EV purchases to household energy efficiency. In Hawaii, researchers found that for every 26 Tesla EVs sold in a zip code, the peer effect of just seeing the vehicles around the vicinity generated at least one additional Tesla sale. Similar psychology is at play when utilities provide comparison data in electricity bills: customers who are told how their usage compares with that of their neighbors tend to reduce their power consumption.

Peer pressure alone won’t fix the world’s climate and energy (and global pandemic) problems—as individuals, we’re enmeshed in powerful systems that are often beyond our direct control. But by taking action in our own private spheres, we can influence the wider public and corporate policies that are needed to accelerate change. As we’re seeing with the Black Lives Matter movement, and increasingly with the wearing of face masks, positive feedback loops work: the more we see other people doing something, the more we do it, and our collective actions, combined with raising our voices in political advocacy, add up to the point that governments and businesses are forced to respond—and the snowball rolls onward.

The bottom line? Clean energy contagion is real. If you’ve already made the switch to EVs or solar, don’t be afraid to spread it—you may be shaping the “new normal” more than you realize. If you haven’t yet made the switch, there’s probably a neighbor happy to talk about her experience (bonus: we’ve compiled some great reasons to go solar or drive electric).

Individual action matters—more than we might think. As more people invest in solutions like residential solar and EVs, push their neighbors to do the same, and raise their voices to support policies that spur even more adoption—the faster we can transition to the healthier, safer, better future we all need to get to.

Originally published in the 7/1/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter