Five Things to Keep in Mind About Solar Politics

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By Carter Lavin
PV Solar Report guest contributor

The politics that surround and shape the solar industry can be confusing and hard to navigate. We as an industry must have a richer understanding of these politics so that we may shift them to our advantage. While politics are fluid, these five themes can help guide your understanding of why the solar industry is the way it is, how that situation can be altered, and which groups are making changes. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and I look forward to hearing what you would add to it.

1) The solar industry is ridiculously outspent in Washington, D.C.

Lobbying money floods D.C., and it should be no surprise that fossil fuel interests are much bigger spenders than the solar industry. Fossil fuel interests outspent alternative energy interests by seven times on lobbying in 2013, and by 30 times on political contributions in 2013 — and solar only makes up about 15 percent of alternative energy lobbying.

Solar fundamentally cannot win the money game. The value of the entire U.S. solar market in 2013 was $13.7 billion, while the two largest American coal mining companies made $10 billion that same year. Solar is growing, but it will be a long time before our presence in Washington is comparable to that of the fossil fuel lobby.

The good news is we don’t need as much money as the fossil fuel industry, since we have popular opinion on our side. However, we can’t afford to be completely silent in the money fight. Being right and popular can help bridge some of the money gap that solar faces, but we must still have a strong presence in D.C. and on the campaign trail, and that takes money.

Who to watch on this: Expect to see coal mining companies, natural gas fracking companies, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) get more involved. Look out for solar installers who are heavily involved in the financing space like SolarCity, SunRun, and Clean Power Finance to get more involved, and expect stronger pitches from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) team.

2) Our business allies aren’t necessarily our political allies

Some of the country’s largest banks, technology companies, insurers, and material manufacturers are involved in the solar industry in some way – but they are not involved politically. In fact, Google, one of solar’s most visible business partners, is a member of ALEC, one of solar’s biggest political enemies.

Having large corporations involved in solar grows the industry and attracts positive media. But do not confuse that with political support. At Intersolar, a representative for a leading financial firm in solar said his bank would leave solar if the ITC expired, but that they are not fighting for the ITC extension. These large corporations showing interest in solar is big news for us, but small potatoes for them. Unless solar becomes a critical part of their revenue stream and they are unable to easily redirect their resources to other industries, our business allies will stay on the bench politically.

Who to watch on this: Keep an eye on large solar users, car companies with EV options, and vendors to solar businesses that might follow GM and Dupont’s example and join SEIA. Unions and business communities might be swayed to get involved in local issues if they’re framed properly. For example, if union labor is used heavily for a region’s utility-scale projects, that union will probably be more interested in using its political capital to support solar policies.

3) Our political allies aren’t necessarily our business allies

Although the industry has tried to distance itself from its eco-focused past, our best political allies are still members of the environmental community.

Traditionally, the environmental community helps push pro-solar policies in broad strokes (RPS, community solar, anti-fossil-fuel policies) but doesn’t get involved on the finer points. That’s understandable, since streamlining permitting doesn’t exactly fire up their base, and the solar industry is best suited to push for industry-focused policies.

Who to watch on this: Sungevity, Vote Solar, the Sierra Club, and Climate Hawks Vote. The Sungevity-Sierra Club partnership has raised about $1 million for the advocacy group and gotten over 1,000 homes to go solar. The Sierra Club has also gotten involved in fighting for streamlined solar permitting in California. Meanwhile, Climate Hawks Vote is working on getting pro-solar candidates elected and pushing elected officials to be more active on climate issues like solar. Expect to see more solar/green partnerships.

4) We can win on the state and local level

Nothing is getting done in D.C. The action is in state houses, county seats, and your local city hall. Luckily, most policies that affect soft costs (the cost leader for solar projects) are set at the state and local level. On top of that, these smaller fights are cheaper, faster, and easier to win.

Vermont and Washington recently streamlined their solar permitting rules, cutting $1,000 (~$0.19 per watt) off of every residential project. Neither state has a power solar lobby, but it was a relatively easy win because neither had a strong organized opposition and it’s hard to hate cutting red tape. California is working on streamlining permitting on the state level now with AB 2188, and there is no reason every state or county can’t work on this as well.

Who to watch on this:Vote Solar, SEIA, state-level solar trade groups, and regional installers. Vote Solar has led the way on permitting issues, and SEIA is getting more involved in state fights and coordinating with their state-level counterparts too. Regional solar installers are getting more vocal and might bring pro-business allies. Keep an eye on utilities – they can be the industry’s best friend or worst enemy.

5) Our inherent structure works against us

While distributed power is great for the grid, it translates poorly to political power. We are a geographically dispersed industry with thin profit margins, and comprised of small shops. Each of these factors holds the industry back in terms of political power on all levels.

Thin margins across the industry make it hard for companies to dedicate limited resources to government affairs (but they aren’t low enough to justify not paying for SEIA’s low membership fees).

The average solar firm employs about nine people, which makes it hard to turn out a crowd of solar workers. Plus, solar installers tend to not cluster tightly when they can avoid it. So when it’s time to flood a public hearing, attend a rally, or even unify an industry-wide message, the coordination costs for solar are very high.

Being made of small shops that aren’t tightly clustered hurts us in legislative districts, since we lack critical mass in any given district. Our geographic distribution hurts us in the Senate too. For example, while 50,000 more people work in solar than in coal mining, we lack coal’s concentration on the state level. One-third of solar professionals live in California, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the massive size of the state. Meanwhile, one in 25 people in Wyoming works in coal mining, and 35 percent of the state’s economy comes from coal, oil, and natural gas extraction.

Who to watch on this: You. You are the person who can help change this. Get your friends and colleagues off the bench, and together we can make this happen. This is the hand we’ve been dealt; it’s not great since we have big money, entrenched interests, and our distributed nature working against us, but we can still win. If we grow fast, get involved, empower our active allies, and bring our passive allies into the fight, we can win political battles in city halls, state houses, and Congress.

CarterHeadshotCarter Lavin is Solar Marketing Group’s business development manager and helps renewable energy companies analyze the market, articulate their messages, and connect with their targeted audiences to achieve their marketing and communications goals.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed on this site by persons not affiliated with PV Solar Report reflect the judgment of the author and not necessarily that of PV Solar Report.