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Empowering electricity consumers with the Vote Solar Initiative

Sun, 29 Jan 2012 20:30:00
Article by:
Thomas Figg
Adam Browning gives San Francisco students a tour of the Moscone Center solar energy system. Photo by Alyssa Newman via Vote Solar Initiative.
The Vote Solar Initiative – a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization – aims to bring solar power into mainstream America.

The Sun is the most powerful source of energy in our solar system. Nuclear fusion rages within its core at nearly 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.
Every second, the Sun sends off at least 385 septillion watts of energy – potential solar power. In only eight minutes, approximately 109 quadrillion of those watts arrive in Earth’s atmosphere.

However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, less than 0.1 percent of the energy produced by the United States in 2010 came from solar power.

Vote Solar works diligently to change that. They remain engaged in state, local and federal advocacy campaigns to remove regulatory barriers and implement the key policies needed to bring solar power to large-scale production.

Adam Browning and David Hochschild founded this nonprofit in 2001. Back then, even less solar power was produced in America – particularly in San Francisco.

Therefore, Browning and Hochschild created Proposition B, a San Francisco bond initiative that financed the installation of solar panels on city hall.

The initiative succeeded.

“It was really fun,” said Browning. He liked the excitement of the campaign and the thrill of the victory.

However, the solar panels never ended up on City Hall. Instead, they were implemented on the Moscone Center and on wastewater plants throughout San Francisco. Nevertheless, Browning and Hochschild achieved their goal of implementing solar power technology in San Francisco.

Hochschild moved on to solar manufacturing, and he is now the vice president of Solaria, a photovoltaic – PV – module manufacturer, although he is still connected to Vote Solar as an advisor.

Browning, on the other hand, was hooked. “I did not want to stop there,” he said. Browning took the helm of Vote Solar as it evolved from local policy to state policy.

Vote Solar hit a home run with their signature program, the California Solar Initiative – a $3 billion state-wide incentive rebate program for customer owned solar power generation.

Through net metering, solar customers’ electricity meters spin forward when they are using power from the utility grid. The meters reverse, spinning backward, when customers are producing more energy than they are using. The customer is billed only for the net energy used.

The program drove down the cost of solar production significantly, and it also increased solar power production throughout California.

The rebate program was so successful that solar users quickly approached a cap on energy going back into the grid at peak times, which was set by the utilities. So Vote Solar worked with Assemblymember Nancy Skinner [D-Berkeley] to pass AB510, which doubled the net meter capacity.

A real tug of war between solar power producers and the public utility providers exists in California and throughout the country. The bottom line is that solar production cuts into the profits of many utility companies.

Vote Solar represents the interest of solar power in California, and the nonprofit works with politicians to influence policy. The organization engages in legal negotiations with public utility companies and is aided by the California Public Utilities Commission – CPUC – to protect the benefits of solar users, keep electricity tariffs low, and make solar energy more accessible.

Their efforts and influence have earned results.

In 2009, the 38th governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, issued an executive order directing California utilities to derive 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Vote Solar is also working on adding more solar to the grid, working with CPUC and lobbying for utility-scale solar generation to bring wholesale solar power to Californians. As a stepping stone toward achieving large-scale solar production to the grid in California, the nonprofit established a Renewable Auction Mechanism, or RAM.

According to Vote Solar, CPUC analysis identifies transmission as the single most significant barrier to development of large-scale renewable projects. While the state works out transmission solutions, the proposed RAM program stimulates immediate activity by establishing a market for smaller renewable projects that can be incorporated into existing utility distribution infrastructure.

While still being very active in California, Vote Solar has expanded its agenda across the country. Browning said that Vote Solar now functions in 15 states, including Arizona, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania. The organization is currently working on overcoming unfair surcharges imposed upon solar users in Arizona, as well as with Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York state. The governor committed to solar energy in his State of the State Address, saying, “Now it is time to focus more attention on exploiting our solar potential.”

Vote Solar has even expanded to the federal level by assisting in the extension of the expiring 30 percent investment tax credit, which is now locked-in until 2016.

Similar to an elite strike force team, Vote Solar is comprised of eight employees who are experts in their respective fields. They work as a squad, led by Browning, who is advised by a dozen experts from the energy and solar manufacturing marketplace.

Vote Solar’s Utility-Scale Solar Policy Director Jim Baak feels that the people he works with are talented, dedicated and enthusiastic. “We're a small, agile organization without a bureaucracy, and the organization that Adam and David created is highly respected and influential,” he said.

Browning also emphasized that Vote Solar is working on new models that reduce conflict with utility companies and that promote cooperation to make solar more sustainable. Browning admitted that there is resistance, as well as barriers to mainstream solar, but he remains undaunted. “We have made a great amount of progress in a short amount of time,” he said.

Browning keeps his eyes on the prize – the “tipping point,” as he calls it, when solar will really take off. Browning compares solar power to the electric car. He said that electric cars were only a dream for many, many years. A lot of people worked really hard – with little to show. Then suddenly, in 2011, multiple major manufacturers offered production of electric cars, including the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius.

“Plug-in vehicles were nowhere, until [now] they are everywhere,” Browning said. “It’s the same thing with solar. It takes a long time to get to the tipping point, but once you get there – boom!”

Additional information about the organization can be found on their website, www.votesolar.org, or by sending an email to adam@votesolar.org.
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