Solar Homesteads

The Democratic establishment, led by Barack Obama, are scared of defending renewable energy as the last chance of avoiding climate catastrophe, which it is. Messages must be positive, they think. (Winston Churchill after Dunkirk did not agree.) The goal of American technological leadership looks more frayed by the day, as Chinese solar panel manufacturers wipe the floor with their competitors. That leaves energy independence and job creation, which are fair enough but not inspiring.

They are missing a striking feature of one technology, solar PV. This turns households into energy producers, not passive consumers of energy supplied by large corporations. They acquire a long-term financial interest in details of energy policy – like spot market pricing, net metering and renewables obligations – previously reserved to a handful of engineers and financiers.

Consider poor Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey. In the days when climate change was recognized by his party and renewable energy a bipartisan cause, he started a pro-renewables policy that has made his small and northerly state the second US. state for solar PV, with 15,578 installations. Now he’s stuck, and refuses to follow the party line.

It isn’t just that there’s an industry of installers and suppliers, with growing clout. 10,000 installations at least must be on New Jersey house rooftops, with plenty more being planned. Solar householders don’t just have a financial interest in maintaining pro-renewable policy; they have a psychological one too. Installation is complex in the American Permit Raj, so householders have invested time and trouble. Their roof makes a public statement to their neighbours of civic responsibility: we are doing our bit. Like Christie, they are trapped by their own investment, in a good way. Trashing renewables, as the Tea Party GOP is doing, insults them personally by ridiculing them as impractical idealists. And aren’t these pioneers likely to be opinion-formers and models for others?

The other renewables also create lobbies and vested interests, but in the traditional way. Backyard wind turbines are a quixotic niche; the typical wind farm is multiple turbines of at least 1.5 megawatts, so they are put up and run by largish firms. Landowners get rent, municipalities get taxes. communities get construction and maintenance jobs. The same pattern holds for CSP, geothermal, biogas, hydro, tidal, and wave, which all fit into a conventional corporate model.

Solar PV is different, in a way that taps into powerful American narratives. The original Homestead Act was passed in 1862, codifying the Free Soil principle of the Northern abolitionists: the vast lands stolen from the native Americans would be settled by small independent farmers, not slave-owning planters. After the defeat of slavery, conflicts continued between homesteaders and ranchers. Western films slotted these conflicts neatly into archetypes of the small man ruggedly asserting his independence against greedy and cynical aggressors in an beautiful but unforgiving landscape. The community is sometimes indifferent, sometimes supportive.

My suggestion is to wrap support for renewable (and especially solar) energy into this narrative of the brave homesteader. The enemies are the weather (dust storms, tornadoes, and drought), and the evil barons of oil and coal. The hero or heroine is defending himself/herself and his/her nuclear family, but also a wider principle of right and solidarity. The ads and songs almost write themselves.

Footnote: homesteading is currently the slogan of radical greens and survivalists aiming at complete self-sufficiency. Fair enough, but given the history they have no exclusive claim to the term and its resonance.
PS, update: in related news, heartwarming story about Grameen’s booming microsolar scheme in Bangladesh: 1m small loan-financed, revenue-generating systems at $400 a pop, serviced by a small army of women entrepreneurs.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]