The meeting was in a back room at Norton’s Steakhouse, a quarter mile from the Anaheim Convention Center. The invite-only nature and the lack of signage made it feel a little like I was attending Fight Club; fortunately I had a connection who had tipped me off.
Among the forty or so bodies crammed into the standing-room-only space I spotted some of the most influential people in the solar industry. SEIA Chair and long-time SunPower executive Tom Starrs had a casual, cat-like presence in the back of the room, and California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA) Executive Director Bernadette Del Chiaro was standing against the wall, her posture betraying her characteristic mix of energy and poise. Vote Solar was also well represented, as was Sunrun, and the top solar lawyer in Arizona was standing by the door.
In the front Mosaic founder and CEO Billy Parish gave an introduction to the purpose of this meeting: to introduce a new organization that is taking on a previously under-developed area of the solar industry: organizing solar consumers. In doing so he brought forward the man who is leading this effort, veteran political organizer David Rosenfeld.
Bringing together PV system owners on policy issues is not new idea; groups such as Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed (TUSK) in Arizona, which are largely comprised of homeowners, have existed for years. However, two years ago CALSSA began organizing solar owners explicitly as consumers. By March of 2018 the 800-member strong organization had raised enough money to hire Rosenfeld as its sole staff member, and rebranded as the Solar Rights Alliance (SRA).
If that acronym sounds familiar, this is intentional. “The vision behind the organization is the NRA,” declared Rosenfeld at the meeting. “You get a gun, you become a member of the NRA. You get solar, you become a member of the SRA.”
What is also unique about SRA is that unlike other advocacy groups with a specific ideological bend – such as Conservatives for Energy Freedom – SRA is intentionally as broad as possible. “Our members may disagree about a lot of other things, but they agree on their right to generate their own electricity,” Rosenfeld told pv magazine. “We want this to be the biggest tent possible for people who have solar or want to get solar.”
According to Billy Parish, the theory of change at work here is the more people that financially benefit from clean energy, the faster the transition. He estimates that including workers, there are 3 million people who benefit directly from clean energy in California.
Rosenfeld’s estimate is in that ballpark. Right now there are 850,000 net-metered PV systems in California, the vast majority of them residential systems. Given an average household size of 2.9, this means nearly 2.5 million people living in homes powered by the sun – and another 300,000 – 450,000 each year.
Since Rosenfeld took the reins in March, SRA has ballooned to 7,000 members. By Parish’s estimates of his success with an email blast to owners of PV systems that his company has financed, as many as 3,000 of those may have come from Mosaic alone.
But anyone working in political advocacy knows that for membership organizations size without engagement is meaningless. With 5% of its members making donations, SRA seems to be off to a good start.
The test of SRA came during the week of the meeting in Anaheim. Governor Brown had not yet signed SB 700, the bill that would extend the Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), despite it having been passed a month earlier. The solar industry was getting nervous that a veto was on the horizon. SRA sent out an email to its members, and Rosenfeld estimates that around 500 sent an email to the governor. More significantly, an estimated two dozen called the governor’s office within 24 hours.
By the end of the week, SB 700 was law.
Rosenfeld is far from satisfied with the current growth of the organization, and says that recruiting new members is his number one priority. He wants to sign up at least one person from 10% of the more than 800,000 or so households that own PV systems, which would grow the organization more than ten-fold to more than 80,000 members.
This will take money, and like many small non-profits SRA is running on a shoestring. There are no dues and the organization is still mostly funded by the solar industry, although an estimated 5% of members contribute financially.
Aztec Solar was an early sponsor of the organization before it even became the SRA, and since that time four of the largest players in the California residential industry have backed the effort: Sunrun, Vivint, SunPower and Mosaic. SRA is still looking to raise another $30,000 by the end of the year to continue and expand its work in 2019.
On the horizon, there are also thoughts of taking SRA national. “SRA is a framework we can replicate,” notes Billy Parish. “Let’s be bold, and let’s win.”
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