Unifying the Solar Community: Let’s Get Our Message on the Benefits of Solar to the Forefront
By Lisa Leipzig
Dear Solar Colleagues,
On a recent road trip, I drove from my home in northeast Ohio to central Pennsylvania for a business meeting. Along my turnpike drive, a solar project was visible from the road. Not far past that solar project were billboards expounding the benefits of coal and stoking fear of renewables. It was a visual of the stark contrast of energy ideologies.
Several years ago, I gave a seminar on wind energy development to a college class. I explained the many benefits of wind power, including the benefits to landowners, communities, and climate. A student commented “This is amazing! Why don’t you let other people know about these benefits, too?” Fair question.
Fast forward to my turnpike drive, and a similar question comes to mind: “How doesn’t everyone know the benefits of solar power?” To my 230,000+ colleagues now employed by the solar industry – let’s do this better, let’s get the message out there!
It’s an exciting time for solar development in the United States. The amount of solar in the electric grid at large was 4%1 in 2021 with 113.5 GW installed – enough to power 21.8 million homes annually. Over the last decade, the industry has grown 42% each year on average, and with the increasing coupling with solar energy storage, the industry is potentially on the verge of massive growth.
Should recent Commerce roadblocks be eliminated and the reconciliation bill (f.k.a. the Build Back Better Act) pass, the policies in the bill would increase solar growth projections by 31% over the next five years! For more information regarding the historical growth of the solar industry, see this Primergy blog post.
It’s a timely opportunity for the general public to form an opinion of this technology, but without proper messaging, their opinions are formed without valid information. As an industry, it’s time to bolster our outreach. If we don’t, we risk unnecessary stakeholder opposition and project development delays. We risk being out messaged by the coal and fossil fuel industries.
Solar colleagues, it’s our job to unify the message.
The Unified Solar Messaging
I propose we unify our solar messaging to ensure the following benefits are clear and commonplace:
- Solar is proven and cost competitive with alternative energy sources
In 2021, 53% of new generation projects 2 installed in the United States were solar. The cost of solar projects has decreased by 70% over the last decade 3, and in 2020, solar officially became cheaper 4 than coal and gas. This allows solar projects to be installed competitively with other technologies.
- Solar provides reliable power especially when paired with storage
Solar projects generate the most electricity during the mid-day hours when electricity use is often the highest, making it an efficient, zero commodity cost generator. Battery storage technology allows any extra energy not used during those peak hours to be utilized later in the day.
- Solar benefits local landowners and communities
Solar projects are land intensive and provide landowners with a stable source of revenue; enhance the property tax base thereby supporting local schools, community services and infrastructure; and provide local construction jobs.
- Solar energy is good for the planet
Historically, the energy sector comprised 75% of global manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Solar’s greenhouse gas impact is 4% that of coal, and that includes the full scope from raw material extraction to disposal. One 150 MW solar project avoids approximately 248,000 metric tons of CO2, equivalent to removing nearly 54,000 cars from the roads. Moving our energy sources to low carbon sources matters not onlyfrom a safety aspect but also tax and ratepayer perspectives. The annual average frequency and cost of catastrophic weather events is increasing – during the period from 1980-2020, there were seven weather events per year averaging nearly $46M/yr in costs, whereas the 2016-2020 period included 16 events per year with an average annual cost of $121B.
As inhabitants of an already too warm planet, we simply do not have the time for the not-in-my-backyard mentality or ill-informed opinions about our work. To my 230,000+ colleagues, it behooves all of us to be proactive, boundless and resounding in our messaging. So how do we get this message out, loud and clear?
Leveling the Playing Field
We need to work together. There are nearly two hundred registered oil and gas entities that spend between $100-$150 MM on lobbying annually.5 This is demonstratively larger than what the renewable industry spends. While there are only half the number of contributors associated with renewable energy industry – companies and trade associations combined – they provide only a quarter of the monetary contributions, ~$25-20 MM annually6 over the same period.
The fossil fuel industry’s direct contributions to congress also completely dwarfs the alternative energy sector. In 2022, alternative energy sector provided ~$1.5 B in direct contributions7 to members of congress, compared to $7.9 B contributed from oil, gas and coal mining industries.8 Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that we can compete politically, if we don’t compete monetarily.
In 2020, the oil and gas industry spent $9.6 million on Facebook ads alone.9 They are effectively and increasingly using social media to post thousands of ads every year, proclaiming their industry as a solution to climate change. Their unified message is getting across and we have to step up to refute it.
As the renewables industry continues to grow and strengthen, we need to unify under trade groups, which will help consolidate our message in support of renewables. The renewables industry cannot afford slowdowns due to misinformation or lack of participation in mainstream media and communications. We need to rise to the occasion and create a level playing field in the media and political spheres.
Getting the Unified Message Out
Here is how we get our message out:
- Participate in legislative elections by contributing to political campaigns;
- Join trade groups that collectively communicate pro-renewables messaging in an organized, consistent and transparent fashion – both local and federal;
- Organize with a collective voice to promote the positive messaging around renewables;
- As individuals, reach out to our state and federal legislators;
- Actively encourage our colleagues to do the same;
Let’s spread the unified message far and wide. Let’s replace the billboards I saw on my drive with ones expounding the benefits of solar. Let’s answer the question: “How doesn’t everyone know the benefits of solar?”. Let’s do this better.
Sincerely, your colleague,
About The Author
Lisa leads all project development activities, with more than 15 years of experience developing and acquiring utility-scale wind, solar, and storage projects. She’s had integral involvement with the development and acquisition of more than 9 GW’s during her career. Prior to Primergy, Lisa led project development and acquisitions across the US for AEP Renewables.