At the Intersolar conference in San Francisco this year, I opened a presentation on new solar and storage business models by highlighting recent milestones for the industry: The United States now has an impressive 44.7 gigawatts of operating solar systems, solar became the No. 1 source of new electricity in 2016, and in April 2017, for the first time ever, solar energy generation out-produced nuclear. I invited the audience to pat themselves on the back.
It’s good to stop and celebrate the progress we’ve made to date. We’ve come a long way.
But, of course, we have a long way to go in the United States before the dream of 100 percent clean energy becomes a reality. Some countries have already reached this goal, not just modern industrial countries like Norway, but even Costa Rica, which until recently was a largely agricultural economy. And in the United States, many institutions, companies and cities are 100 percent renewable or will be within five years, including Georgetown, Texas; Ithaca, New York; Stanford; American University; Google; and Whole Foods.
While I expect this trend to continue, with solar as a large component of the mix, it is not happening fast enough.
As a 25+ year veteran of the solar industry, I often get asked for my thoughts on what can be done to establish solar as a more thriving, mainstream industry. First and foremost, we need to keep a laser-like focus on installing new solar (and now solar and storage) projects. At the same time, we need to view ourselves as visionaries, people who don’t just wait for the system to adjust but who take active steps to push solar to the tipping point.
Here are five ways that companies, or you as individuals, can take the concept of a 100 percent renewable-energy-powered system -- with solar as a core component -- from a dream into the mainstream.
1. Recruit motivated young people to join the solar industry. My alma mater sends more than half of its graduates either to Wall Street or into consulting jobs. (It is unclear to me what sort of expertise a twentysomething consultant or banker has to offer.) Let’s build channels to shift all that untapped talent into solar. You can speak directly with curious students by volunteering in your alma mater’s career services office, opening their eyes to the extraordinary opportunities in our industry. Or you might reach out and mentor students from your athletic team, glee club, theater group, fraternity or sorority, or volunteer to speak at a local elementary or high school. You’d be surprised at the level of interest young people show in sustainable energy.
2. Actively work to attract more women to solar. We need to get the word out that solar is not the old boys’ club that the oil and coal industries once were -- that “booth babes” and women in cages do not belong at solar conferences. According to the Solar Jobs Census, in 2016 there were 260,077 employees in our industry, but women made up only 28 percent of that workforce. Considering they make up half the workforce, this gender imbalance is unacceptable. The industry needs to do better or it will miss out on a huge pool of exceptional talent.
3. Volunteer to speak at community gatherings, inspiring people with the promise of a clean energy future. There are many venues eager to engage speakers, including rotary clubs, libraries, community associations, and houses of worship. You’ll likely find a receptive audience and have fun.
4. Discuss policy with people in industry and your local, state and federal legislators. Policy is what enables solar technologies to reach their full potential and value to society. Don’t give in to the pessimistic attitude that you have no say in government; your voice, added to others, can move solar to the tipping point.
5. Support political leaders who use fact-based information to craft and advocate for sound energy policy.
A clean energy future is within our grasp, but it’s going to take vigorous, ongoing effort by all of us. I hope some of these ideas motivate you to step up your own game. For my part, I look forward to working with you for the continued success of our industry -- and the future of our planet.
Tom Leyden, a 25+ year solar veteran, is currently Senior Director of Distributed Electricity and Storage at EDF Renewable Energy.