Dubbed the “Michael Jordan of Solar Policy” by his peers and with special thanks to fellow #Solar100 Leader Tom Matzzie for the nomination, Adam Browning is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Vote Solar, a state-level advocacy nonprofit that works to make solar affordable and accessible to more Americans.
Since 2001, Browning has joined and helped to grow the movement to bring solar to the mainstream across the U.S. He’s recognized as a legendary, veteran force behind the work to expand solar access and has championed what have become numerous policy wins over the course of his career.
In this #Solar100 interview, Browning discusses parallels between community activists and private sector entrepreneurs, lessons he’s learned as a founder and executive director, and today’s most pressing policy battles.
Starting in renewables
Richard Matsui: From serving in the Peace Corps to working at the U.S. EPA running a pollution-prevention program to founding Vote Solar, you’ve dedicated a lot of years to civil service and working in renewable energy. Taking a step back, how did you first decide to work in renewables?
Adam Browning: In 2001, I was working at the U.S. EPA, in Region 9 in San Francisco, which provided a great view on how environmental protection works and doesn’t work in this country. I didn’t know much about renewables at that point, but an old college buddy, Dave Hochschild, was working for Mayor Willie Brown and said to me, “Hey man, I just got solar on my house. Let’s try to get it on City Hall.”
In 2001, solar cost $9/watt, so we needed to ask ourselves, “How can we make this pay off?” We realized that the municipality has the ability to leverage low-cost capital, and we could bundle solar and energy efficiency on public buildings, and structure revenue-neutral projects. The idea turned into a city-wide campaign for a ballot initiative to authorize $100 million in revenue bonds to give municipal facilities a clean energy upgrade. It was an exciting campaign, with armies of volunteers. We won, with 74% of the vote – and that’s what launched Vote Solar.
This was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me. You have this beautiful technology that doesn’t cause any pollution and it addresses, at that point in time, the single largest source of climate-changing emissions in the electricity sector. I had been doing so much work with the EPA on enforcement of pollution regulations—for example what kind of control equipment is being used on point sources. This idea of “Let’s not worry about controlling the smokestacks, and instead let’s just get rid of them entirely,” was enormously appealing for me, as I had spent so much of my life focused on trying to accomplish the former, not the latter. I realized that this was the way to go about creating a new world.
In 2001 we could see the challenge and thought to ourselves, “This is the problem with solar: it is very helpful but very expensive. How do you create cheap solar?” The solution was to get economies of scale—you need to buy expensive solar in order to get cheap solar.
That was the first mission of Vote Solar, and over the past 15 or so years, as a collective effort around the globe, we can say: mission accomplished. As an industry, we’ve achieved economies of scale and have grown tremendously.
Now, we’re in a very different era, and challenges have grown apace. I thought we would work ourselves out of a job once we got cheap solar, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Richard Matsui: It turns out that ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’
Adam Browning: It turns out that there’s actually a really large industry that is really invested in continuing with the status quo and using fossil fuels. The Empire is both an empire and they fight dirty in order to protect dirty. These are some very vigorous campaigns that we are involved in.
Lessons from grassroots organizing
Richard Matsui: I’m reminded of our very first #Solar100 interview with Danny Kennedy, who said, “Entrepreneurs are the classic ‘won’t take no for an answer’ activists, really. They just use business tools rather than community organizing.” First, would you agree with that statement? And if so, what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned from grassroots organizing that you think might be applicable to entrepreneurs in the private sector?
Adam Browning: Funny enough, Danny Kennedy is a founding board member of Vote Solar and someone who I met on that initial campaign to put solar on city buildings in San Francisco back in 2001.
I think there are a few parallels and lessons that apply to both activists and entrepreneurs:
First, the approach of thinking really big and starting really small. You have to have that big, bold vision of how you’re going to create change, and sometimes it just takes starting small—starting in your own space with the things that you can control. Success begets success begets success. Don’t be afraid to try changing the most important industry on the globe, but don’t start there either. Start in your hometown, and then work towards that big, bold vision.
Second, the need to continuously improve in order to solve big problems. I like to tell our team, “Don’t be afraid to continuously look at the problems that need to be solved out there and then try to come up with solutions.” And if the solution works, awesome; and if it doesn’t work, what do we learn from that? I do think social activists and business activists can think remarkably similar in that way.
Third, the desire to be part of a larger movement for change. I have been struck by the fact that, given the choice, people around the globe really want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Whether that’s through voting for solar and getting involved in a local solar campaign, or putting a solar system on your roof to buying an electric vehicle, people want the opportunity to participate in something that is aligned with their values. The feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself is enormously powerful, and I think the more activists and entrepreneurs can tap into that, the more successful they can be.
Richard Matsui: Those are fantastic. And to your third point, we just had our annual company retreat earlier this week, and I think of it as an additional opportunity to step back and reconnect what we do on the day to day to that big picture. Similar to Vote Solar’s team, I’d say our team is comprised of mission-driven individuals who care about climate change. It can get challenging though to feel connected to that on the day to day. I agree that it’s important to connect the individual actions to the big picture, especially if we’re going to try to create the energy and the intensity needed to make progress on these really big, complex challenges.
Lessons from a founder and executive director
Richard Matsui: What have you learned in your role as Co-Founder and Executive Director?
Adam Browning: I’ve been doing this a long time, and there are a couple reasons why I have been able remain so incredibly excited and charged by it.
First, the job continues to evolve. What I did when we were between two to four people is radically different from what I’m doing now that we’re thirty growing to fifty. When we started, I was focused on founding an organization and addressing a smaller subset of policy solutions. I was very much hands-on, because when your team is made up of two people, you do everything. When you’re much larger, your role needs to change because what the team needs is changing.
There were step level changes that were real sticking points where I had to look at myself, realize ways I wasn’t sufficient to what this organization needed, and then I needed to figure out what those new skills and new roles were, and I needed to master them.
I never had a deep interest in theory and ‘the art of management’ per se—I’m mission-driven, I want to see these programs work, I’m an activist, a fighter, and I love to get in and do that dirty work. You’d never see me on a plane reading the book on, ‘move my cheese’ or a management book. But when you start managing people, you need to have a theory and practice of management—it’s not optional if you want to be in that leadership role. Without that theory and practice, you’re hurting yourself, the organization, and the entire cause you’re working towards. Luckily, this is a well-worn path and there are a lot of great mentors that could help me and a lot of great resources. It just became a matter of seeing the challenge and taking it on.
Another reason that I’ve continued to be charged by this work is the team I’m working with. Making sure that you’re bringing on the best, most awesome and most diverse set of colleagues, and really identifying how you can be an organization where everybody feels nurtured and wants to come and work with you is important. I think that is a key skill that everybody needs to learn.
Richard Matsui: Completely agree. And in solar, we get the unique privilege of doing that under intense budget constraints. That’s always fun. I’m really glad we’ve been able to build the team we have.
Adam Browning: Yes, getting paid in karma only goes so far. We need to create sustainable lives if we really want to attract long-term professionals.
Evolution of solar policy
Richard Matsui: When I meet people who come from outside of solar, they often want to know what’s happened in this industry. I tell them that I think of three eras of solar. From 2007 to around 2013, it was all about manufacturing costs. In Asia, that’s where the battle needed to be fought and won—someone needed to figure out how to bring this panel down from $5/watt to $0.25/watt, because until that was done, fundamentally we just had an uncompetitive energy technology. The next era is more of what I’ll describe as the last couple of years, where it’s about sales and financing costs, being like the two remaining soft costs that were really exorbitantly expensive. Perhaps now we’re entering into the third era of solar, where it’s about getting solar to play well with the other children in the energy playground so that we can actually integrate all of this together.
How would you characterize the evolution of the policy space? If you’re asked to explain to someone the broad strokes of the battles you were fighting ten years ago and if that differs from what you’re fighting now?
Adam Browning: I think you can see a parallel in terms of phases with the larger internet space. In the early stages, it was just about getting the internet to work. Earlier websites were essentially glorified Excel spreadsheets. After that it was about getting everyone connected. Then it was about figuring out—at least for some folks—how to make money, how not to crash the world with what they’ve built and what they wrought.
In the solar space, I think the first phase is about “How do we make this thing cheap?” And then, the next phase was really about, “How do we integrate this into the larger energy suppliers, moving beyond just rooftop solar?” There’s a lot of different elements to the third, fourth, and fifth phases. A guiding question is, “How do we run a grid on really high levels of renewable variable generation?” That is not just a technology question, it’s really about reorienting protocols around the consumer—the consumer will be central. Another question: “How do you monetize good grid behavior?” We need not only solar and storage, but we also need to turn all the levers of flexibility, especially on the demand side. A tremendous amount of work that needs to be done there.
I think our biggest challenge right now is tied to lack of access. There are so many places now where solar and clean energy portfolios are cheaper than the fossil fuels, but they are just not being adopted, because we don’t have like a pure monetary-driven dispatch when it comes to generation. We’ve got legacy incentives that are embedded into our regulatory and our energy system that prioritize fossil fuels and spending money.
Right now in regulated environments, you have utilities that structurally get a return on investment based upon the amount of capital they deploy. There is no successful end game for distributed generation or for an efficient grid as long as we keep incentivizing companies like Duke to just to deploy capital. We have to focus on better outcomes for all consumers and that’s why I really think comprehensive regulatory reform, performance-based regulation, is going to be absolutely key to getting to the successful final end game. There’s a lot of different verticals that we’re now simultaneously faced with, but it’s no longer just about how do we make solar cheap.
Richard Matsui: Can you tell me about some of the most important policy battles your team is fighting right now?
Adam Browning: We have a vision of 100%, clean energy by 2050, and we think half of that could and should come from solar. Our vision focuses on how to make this transition to clean energy and how to create a more just an equitable energy system at the same time. I fundamentally believe that we can’t really get to where we need to go unless everyone can see how they can participate in and benefit from this change.
We’ve absolutely seen this in our state-level policy advocacy. For example, with SB100 in California, the advocacy community that came behind that solution was incredibly broad and incredibly diverse. The environmental justice champions were the leaders in that fight. Similarly, bookended by New York this year, we saw the same dynamic. These are two large states, and we wouldn’t have gotten to this type of overwhelming success without a vision and a practice and leadership that really did ensure that we are trying to build something that was worked to serve everybody.
Right now, one in four people living in this country live in a state where it is law to have 100%, clean energy. Of the six states that have passed this legislation, five out of the six were passed in the last thirteen months. So we’re seeing fundamental transformation of state level advocacy. This goal of 100% clean energy clearly is not the only thing that counts, but it is a step level change when it comes to goal setting. Now we can have a real focus on how to ensure that we end up with a customer-centered deployment that serves individuals and their communities.
I’ve been so proud that today, we’re able to announce a settlement with Florida Power & Light for the country’s largest low-income utility with a low-income solar program—it’s 30MW of community solar, designed to serve approximately 10,000 customers in Florida with solar, that will allow them to get their electricity from solar at rates cheaper than if they were to just buy conventional electricity from the grid. There’s an opportunity here to be creative, thoughtful, and move forward with the partnerships with effective communities to work towards an equitable energy future.
Richard Matsui: That’s fantastic. I have two more questions about contemporaneous issues. First, I read this morning that PURPA may be evolving pretty quickly. It seems that if fixed-price contracts aren’t required, that’s probably going to end up killing a fair amount of development. Do you have a perspective on where the industry will evolve, or how we would like our industry to evolve when it comes to PURPA?
Adam Browning: PURPA is a really important tool around ensuring open market access to renewables as well as the individual’s right to generate and consume their own power from a rooftop solar perspective.
SEIA helped to lead and create what is effectively an integrated resources plan (IRP) that assesses future power needs and then ensures that renewables have competitive access to better solicitations to meet those needs. Currently things are completely locked in for fossil fuels, and part of the ongoing state-level battles have been around setting the rate, and then the open ended obligation to buy that power. We need two things: first, a fair way of establishing how much power is needed, and then second, ensuring that there is real access to those markets for renewables. SEIA has been piloting what I think has great promise as a solution.
Richard Matsui: When I think of SEIA, I think national; when I think statewide, I think Vote Solar. Are there issues that either fall through the cracks or simply need more attention, because they may straddle the two worlds?
Adam Browning: Ah man, I’ve got a list longer than your arm and my arm both of things that need more attention. Short answer: definitely. If you think about issues that straddle federal-, state-, and regional-level, how renewables—especially distributed generation—plays in wholesale markets absolutely requires attention. How do we get rooftop solar to be able to have resiliency value? How can behind-the-meter storage provide the real value that we know that it can bring in terms of reliability and resiliency? If I had an extra $10 million, putting it into RTO-level (regional transmission organization) work could definitely go a long way.
Sunrun has aggregated a bunch of behind-the-meter solar in the Northeast, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible. Here in California, the local CCA (community choice aggregator – essentially a locally controlled electricity service provider) called East Bay Community Energy signed a contract with Sunrun to put solar + storage on low-income housing. Those batteries are principally going to be used to manage the time of use rates to the advantage of the residents of that housing, and the way that it’s made economically viable is that those batteries through EBCE are contracted under the CAISO demand responsive proxy program. On the very limited occasions where it’s necessary, this energy will then be deployed to provide essentially local reliability services. This is a great instance of where people are able to, through policy that straddles both states and wholesale markets, achieve solutions that benefit both the customer as well as the grid. It’s a win-win, especially as it seeks to serve underserved communities, and we need to see way more of those. Hats off to the great minds at EBCE and Sunrun, who were able to come up with that contract. We really hope to see that replicated in many places.
Another area that could use additional attention is permitting issues. For rooftop solar, we have the DOE and NREL working on a permitting portal, but then that has to be actually utilized and implemented, not just through states, but really at all the local permitting jurisdictions. We have a situation where rooftop solar is at least twice, if not three times, as much as what Australians are paying for it. There’s got to be something that we all can collectively do, that is partly national- and partly state-level implementation, to create a much better situation. This is an area ripe for more working innovation.
Richard Matsui: Definitely. Last question: Especially given that today’s the day that PG&E shut off power to 500,000 then another 250,000 customers, Energy Twitter is abuzz with comments about how Sunrun, Vivint, etc. are going to have a field day selling solar + storage now to those 750,000 customers. That’s true, and it’s not hard to make that call. I’m curious—looking out a year from now, would you have a sense of longer-term implications that this event is going to cause?
Adam Browning: We’re looking at this largest economy in the world, the global center for tech, and their plan for dealing with wildfire effects is essentially to just turn off power and leave an estimated 2.5 million people without power. It just doesn’t feel like it’s a 21st century solution. Or even a 20th century solution. Maybe this is a 19th century solution. So this is ripe for better thinking and better implementation.
The problem here is there’s a ton of people buying generator sets, and we need to make sure that we move beyond individual solutions. Backup generators of solar + storage is a solution for individuals, and a clean energy solution, too. But you know, 750,000 customers is an enormous number, and frankly, I think we could do a lot better with focusing on a much more reliable grid. If you are de-energizing lines you’re impacting such a broad set of the customer base. It is important to both ramp up much more distributed generation and do so much more intelligently with the entire grid network.
Richard Matsui: I can see how to some extent, we’ll have the private sector participants pushing the generator sets and there will understandably be more of an appetite from the consumer standpoint to adopt these. Is there anything on the policy side that may happen as a backlash to this kind of behavior and the ‘19th century solution’?
Adam Browning: We were working with CALSSA this year on a customer Bill of Rights that would vastly increase solar + storage. Going into this next year, we need to think about how to build a much more resilient and robust network, through real focus on distributed generation.
I would also like to point out that today, the judge in that bankruptcy case revoked the exclusivity of PG&E’s creditors, so you’ve got a bunch more hedge funds, including some really deeply problematic ones, that are fighting over control of our critical infrastructure. If some of these hedge funds get control of PG&E, I will guarantee you that 77 Beale (PG&E’s building address) will be turned into luxury apartments, and the entire utility will be run out of some abandoned stripmall in Vacaville. This is too important for our community to let that happen—we need to have people with their hands on the grid that are aligned with the public policy priorities of the state. There’s just no way that we can work with a company that has control over things that impact us that is not based in the values and the solutions that we want to see.