LET’S BE ENGAGING
We as a “youth” movement have accomplished much. We have mobilized tens of thousands of individuals over the last several years to help educate communities, enact positive local policy, and create lasting relationships with green organizations. This has aided in branding our message as a generation ready to create a clean energy economy. Our message has been clear and simple: create a strong energy policy that will use green jobs to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy through wind turbines, hydro-electric power and solar photovoltaic. However, government and industry continue to do business as usual producing energy via coal, oil and nuclear, making us only work harder and longer to off-set these enviornmentally damaging actions. Unfortunately, this has caused our philosophy to become merely a reactionary one.
THE PRICE OF YOUTH
No one expects much of us because not only are we new to this matured energy structure but also because we have yet to engage these industries in a manner that would allow today’s youth to obtain viable green jobs. As a movement, we claim to want these green jobs but lack the ability to actually create them. The popular mind-set that policy is the silver bullet to achieve this only reinforces our reputation as a “youth” movement. Many see us as naive, incapable of creating real world change even at the most basic level. Quite simply, we need to transition our movement and people into a competent and integrated workforce that has the necessary job skills to drive and sustain a green
FROM REACTION TO ACTION
I had the privilege to spend seven days at the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) Conference and Solar Photovoltaic Training last week; May 17-23 . It was an experience that altered my view on the clean energy economy and how our movement can achieve such transformation. I believe our tactics and strategies must shift. It is no longer sufficient to carry signs or call our representatives on issues we deem important. We must begin to engage the driving forces behind any economy: specialized workers, unions and industry. It’s on us to become skilled in areas of economics, engineering and design so that we can lead with our installations as well as our voices. Our shift must include strategies to create localized, equitable and ethically just forms of private and public revenue streams. Our goals and processes need to be redesigned so that we are assisting in developing industry and workforce rather than passing federal policy. Policy is important to be sure, but after spending time with ASES and contrasting that with our own culture, it is evident that our movement requires more ingenuity and resourcefulness in order to overtake the fossil fuel economy.
In order to achieve industry success of renewable energy, we must first understand the social and technical infrastructure. I spent the first four days of the conference receiving comprehensive training on solar photovoltaic (PV). There were two main tracks: start ups(beginning) and fast-tracks(experienced) . I was slated for the beginner track. The focus of the PV training was specific to Grid-Tie (connected to the utility) systems, which is the most popular installation, or roughly 85% of US systems. In our particular track, there were about seventy-five individuals. I was the youngest in the training and clearly the only individual representing a non-profit. Most participants were white and male. Many were baby-boomers who were either looking to adopt a new component to their small business, were unemployed or were seeking a quick entrance into a money-making market. Ironically, I did not come across any individuals that mentioned the environment, corporate greed or energy independence as a motive to enter the solar industry. (In a recent study from Gaian Worldwide, “90% of Americans think we as a country should develop and install solar PV.”)
Clearly there’s a disconnect. We as a society want solar photovoltaic in every community, but we don’t realize that we need to understand how it works in order to legitimately make an impact. How does the sun’s energy get transferred into electricity that powers your home? How many kilo-watts does your house use during the day/month/year? How much are you paying your local utility for power? Gaia Worldwide research found that about 22% of houses in the US can effectively deploy a solar PV system for electricity, so this technology will not do it alonea. The answers to these questions and the basic understanding of PV are vital when talking competently about solar PV’s potential to overcome fossil fuels.
Which brings up a recurring theme throughout the event: Grid Parity. Grid Parity as defined by Gaian Worldwide, is the concept of when renewable energy (in this case solar PV) is equal to or cheaper than grid power (mostly fossil fuels) for electricity. On the commercial scale, coal is about 2 cents per kilo-watt hour and solar PV is 5 cents per kilo-watt hour. Some states such as California, Hawaii, Wisconsin and New Jersey are either there or very close to evening out this imbalance (http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy10osti/46909.pdf). Utility companies are very good at making sure we are unaware of opportunities to produce our own power so that we will stay away from their financial
bottom line. That must change.
ARE WE THERE YET?
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Germany currently leads the world in producing solar photovoltaic power (measured in kilo-watts), with almost 38% of the world’s production (nrel.gov). The US comes in at 4th at 7% of global solar PV production. Germany, a country that has roughly 3 hours of sunlight a day on average (Arizona has 6, Michigan has 3.5, as comparison) has dominated the global industry despite the misconception that cloudy climates cannot produce quality PV energy. Germany has accomplished this because they have reached Grid Parity and have hurdled an even more important obstacle, national standardization for incentives. This is the major problem within the US solar PV industry. Throughout the US, each state, county and local municipality has different incentives, rebates and codes that drive the solar PV market. The current influx of these ever-changing incentive and rebate structures has made the solar PV industry very difficult to understand and to capitalize on. Yet, ingenuity, determination and persistence continue to drive the industry. According to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), “the global solar photovoltaic electricity market counted an additional increase in installed capacity of about 7.2 GW in 2009, reaching a total capacity of over 22 GW world-wide,” all during the worst economic depression since the 1930’s.
In 2009, the US saw some of the most impressive numbers in the industry:
- US Solar industry revenue grew 36% to almost $4 billion
- The solar industry supported 17,000 new US jobs
- US solar manufacturing grew 7% in 2009 despite recession
- Solar Electricity surpassed 2.200 MW in total capacity
- Annual solar electric installations grew by 37% from 2008
*souce: american solar energy society*
These are very positive signs. Predictions have the US market taking back the global production by 2015 as solar PV becomes a more stable hedge against rising energy prices (as utility rates rise 5-7% a year across the country and as big as 9% in some states). PV prices have declined an average of 5-7% a year for the last 20 years as incentives and support continue to drive the market. Polysilicon, the main raw material used in over 80% of all solar panels manufactured globally is derived from the most abundant material on earth, sand! However, an industry ready to become a realistic player in the energy market can not be operated and managed without the generation closest to
WE’RE WITH IT, SO WHO’S AGAINST IT?
Today, BP and Cheveron are the biggest investors and players in the solar PV market. But that market only makes up for .5% of the US energy use. Those sitting next to me during my training also did not seem to share the same feeling of responsibility of altering who and how global business is operated. Nor did they share the same feeling of responsibility to create domestic energy independence. While these were talented and educated individuals, they seemed to lack understanding of the change that is necessary for energy and societal transformation.
Although we might differ on values and principles, we must actively engage and embrace our generational partners. They are an untapped ally in our pursuit of a clean energy economy. We also need to infiltrate these industries to develop empowering skills. How can we demand solar PV, wind and other renewable energies but not engage in the very industries that control these outcomes? Are we content with just asking our representatives and political leaders to make change happen? And if by some miracle they do, will we be prepared and have the skills necessary to step into a “green job?”
We cannot continue to only organize and mobilize without providing the proper access for the jobs we want to create. Will not the same inequality and injustice occur in the renewable job workforce if the same people of today’s workforce are operating and working it? We need to be the ones preparing ourselves and others to enter these roles and do so in a manner of humility and leadership. Without us, without our imprint on this industry and other renewable energy sectors, our movement will fail to accomplish that which we seek.
Creating a more mature movement that engages in industries via conferences, trade skill trainings and local renewable energy businesses will allow for those skeptical of our work to be more accepting of our ability to achieve tangible change. Providing opportunities that extend further than our current political endeavors will diversify our capabilities as activists and prepare us for entrance into the new economy through the means we seek the most; green jobs. The role of vocal advocate no longer will do. Let’s diversify our campaigns, our trainings and become the visionaries that not only assist in building the clean energy industry, but become a working part of it as well.