By Carter Lavin
PV Solar Report guest contributor

Climate activists and the solar industry are natural allies. Both groups want solar arrays on every home, school, and business; solar jobs in every town; and a fossil-fuel-free electric grid. Between the 173,000 solar workers of America, the more than 400,000 solar home owners, and the hundreds of thousands of environmental activists around the country, you’d think these groups would be an unstoppable political force. Unfortunately, they aren’t … yet.

What a partnership could achieve

If the solar industry and climate activists worked together, everything could change. Together we could win critical political victories to speed up the renewable energy revolution, getting to a 100% clean energy electric grid. That would cut U.S. carbon emissions by one-third, reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 70%, and drive over 1 million fracking wells out of business.

Together, climate activists and the solar industry could mobilize politicians and citizens across the aisle to make clean energy even more affordable for everyone, and spur millions of well-paying solar jobs from Key Largo to Fairbanks. Together, we could pave the way for an electrically powered transportation sector, strengthen our electrical grid, and make America energy independent. Together, the solar industry and climate activists could make the nation (and the planet) healthier, cleaner, more prosperous, and more secure.

There have been initial partnerships between the groups, like the Sierra Club/Sungevity and the World Wildlife Federation/Pure Energies sales partnerships, but these only scratch the surface of what the groups can achieve together. Both programs connect environmentalists to solar installers to help them go solar. But so much more could be done if we also flipped that relationship, connecting solar customers and would-be customers to the activist community.

Solar customers and would-be customers come from all over the country and the political ideological spectrum. And while only 48% of Americans think climate change is a major threat to the U.S., 90% want to increase solar energy usage across the country. By working together, climate activists and the solar industry can galvanize a massive network to take positive steps toward growing the solar industry, thereby fighting climate change.

The tricky thing is establishing the mutually beneficial relationship between these groups, which would be the bedrock of this campaign.

Why there aren’t more partnerships, and what each side can bring to the table

Despite their shared interests, these groups have not deeply coordinated with each other.

What are the primary impediments to cooperation?

  • The groups don’t really understand each other. Improving each group’s understanding of how the other thinks and operates will help set the stage for a powerful and durable partnership.
  • Both groups view themselves as extremely strapped for cash.
  • The solar industry is not very politically active.
  • Most climate groups are not used to working with for-profit entities.
  • After decades of being viewed as a costly toy for hippies, the solar industry is now aggressively focusing its messaging in ads and industry talks on how people can save money by going solar, and almost never discusses the climate benefits.

Any partnership between the groups will have to overcome these initial mismatches and entice the solar industry into the political battlefield by focusing intensely on the groups’ shared goals and the potential spoils of victory. While neither group can bring much money to this endeavor, this is an excellent opportunity for a foundation or a large donor to make a gift to jumpstart a partnership between the groups.

Fortunately, funding is only the third most important resource for enabling the partnership between climate groups and the solar industry to win pro-solar legislation. The groups already have the most importance resources for this undertaking.

The solar industry has a vast, but politically disengaged, network of over 400,000 residential solar customers; well over 1 million potential customers who have gotten a quote from a solar installer; and a growing fan base of Tea Partiers and Republican officials in places like Mississippi, the Californian Central Valley, Georgia, and Arizona.

Meanwhile, climate activists have an amazing ability to quickly inspire, train, and engage large groups in the political process. Combining these resources in a streamlined way (preferably with some outside funding) can drastically shift the political landscape toward solar power and positive climate action.

To sum it up, these are the main impediments and advantages of each group:

Impediments to cooperation

What they bring to the table

Solar Industry

  • Scarce financial resources
  • Not used to being politically active or messaging around climate change
  • Actively distanced itself from “hippie” past
  • Needs obscure and often unsexy regulatory and legislative changes
  • Large and geographically diverse disengaged network of customers and would-be customers
  • Conservative allies in states like Georgia and Florida
  • In-depth knowledge of legal and regulatory barriers to solar power
  • Well-liked by elected officials (in a general way)
  • Ability to monetize network members once for large amounts

Climate Activists

  • Scarce financial resources
  • Generally not used to working with for-profit entities
  • Limited understanding of political barriers to clean energy development (since regulatory needs & legal/political processes are obscure)
  • Expertise in engaging and training individuals on a massive scale to become politically involved
  • Large and geographically diverse engaged activist network
  • Ability to monetize network members regularly for small amounts

 

What a productive partnership might look like

At its core, a productive partnership between the groups will have three parts:

  1. Coordination between the groups around campaign specifics like establishing a goal, the target, messaging, and each participant’s responsibilities.
  2. Solar companies, like installers or financiers, plugging in their network of customers and would-be customers to climate activist groups through a solar-specific political call-to-action. This could be as simple as an installer including a link to a climate group’s pro-solar online petition in their newsletter, so the climate groups can then go further in engaging signers.
  3. Continued coordination between the groups to build a deeper and more productive partnership. Getting solar customers to sign on to climate activist groups’ petitions is only a small part of how these groups can work together. There are dozens of other mutually beneficial projects these groups can work on together, like direct lobbying, referral partnerships, and navigating complex regulatory processes. Strengthening the connections between the groups will continue to open doors for both of them.

 

While potentially complicated behind the scenes, this sort of partnership would look orderly from the perspective of a potential solar customer.

For example, when the customer emails with a solar sales person, receives their newsletter, or gets the referral program reminder email, they’ll see a call-to-action in a sidebar or at the bottom encouraging them to tell their representatives to support solar. The call-to-action will have an embedded link to an online petition on a microsite that is managed by the climate activist group. The customer fills out the petition and agrees to receive updates on the campaign, and now they are in the climate group’s database, tagged as coming from the solar installer and interested in pro-solar campaigns.

Then the climate group can continue to connect with that person to invite them to take further actions like calling their representatives, attending a march, hosting a small event, or donating to the cause. In the end, the solar installer has its customer also become a political advocate (who is more likely to make a referral), and the climate group has expanded its network of solar enthusiasts.

Moving ahead

Climate activists and the solar industry face three serious and connected issues:

  • Climate activists are exhausted with constantly fighting against terrible things happening and increasingly feel they need to fight for making great things happen.
  • The solar industry, on the other hand, is unable to translate solar’s near-universal approval into real political successes like protecting its most crucial federal support mechanism, the Investment Tax Credit.
  • Both groups are up against well entrenched multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel interests with deep connections to elected officials through shadowy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Although the opposition is daunting and the logistics of coordinating between the solar industry and climate activist groups can give anyone a headache, the rewards for getting this right are too big for us to pass up. Together, we can bring about the solar rooftop revolution and create climate wealth. All it takes to get this started is one partnership. Neither the solar industry nor climate activists are a monolith, so there are many opportunities for flexible partnerships between the hosts of climate-related groups and solar companies.

Some climate groups are already working on pro-solar efforts and are primed to partner with the industry. For example, there are national climate organizations with campaigns like Greenpeace’s  repower solar campaign in North Carolina, the Sierra Club’s My Generation campaign for rooftop solar, and Friends of the Earth’s Run on Sun campaign in the UK. Other national organizations include Rainforest Action Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, and 350.org. There are also a number of regional groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sunflower Alliance, As You Sow, and the Dogwood Alliance.

Solar companies and organizations that could play a role in this kind of partnership include Solar Energy Industries Association, Vote Solar, a number of state-level solar trade groups, SunPower, SolarWorld, SolarCity, Sungevity, Mosaic, Verango, Vivint, Sunrun, Clean Power Finance, Standard Solar, Sullivan Solar, Astrum Solar, and hundreds of small local installers.

While a broad coalition made up of all relevant parties would be powerful, an energized partnership between a handful of these groups might be all we need to tip the scales in the next few years. Just one effective partnership between a climate group and a solar company can be a model for others to follow or join the coalition.

So this lies with you, readers: call up the people on the other side of the equation and get the conversation going. Let’s make it happen — and together, we can speed up the clean energy revolution.

Since 2008, Carter Lavin has helped dozens of clean energy organizations connect with their audiences through PR, inside sales, social media, and trade shows. Carter has worked in nearly every sector of the solar industry including thin-film and crystalline module manufacturers, trade groups, installation, micro and string inverter manufacturers, off-grid hybrid power systems providers, energy monitoring software developers, and racking. He earned a BS from Georgetown University where he studied international energy and environmental security. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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.