The economic potential of solar energy

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Catching the Sun, a new documentary premiering in Denver on April 19, captures the global race to lead the clean energy future through stories of the workers and entrepreneurs building the growing clean energy economy.
Courtesy of Shalini Kantayya

Catching the Sun, a new documentary by Shalini Kantayya premiering in Denver on April 19, starts with a bang. Thick clouds of smoke shoot into the air and sirens blare over the bellow of the emergency sound system as graphic images show the mayhem of the August 2012 explosion at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California.

In the wake of the incident, 15,000 residents went to local hospitals complaining of health problems, making it among the most disastrous in the refinery’s history.

For environmental justice advocates, including Kantayya, the incident serves as a symbol of the externalities of fossil fuels — not just to the environment but also to the health and livelihood of people and communities.

Environmental justice issues come in many forms; for instance the co-location of low-income neighborhoods to dirty fuel refineries or their proximity to busy thoroughfares, like those along I-70 in Denver. While solar doesn’t play a direct role in mitigating the effects of factory and vehicle emissions, it is beginning to create an energy sector competitive with fossil fuels. Not only does this reduce the need for fossil fuels, but it also bolsters the burgeoning green economy.

The solar industry added 35,000 jobs in 2015, up 20 percent from the previous year. More than 200,000 Americans go to work everyday in solar, which now employs more people than the coal industry. Meanwhile, as oil and gas prices continue to plummet, the fossil-fuel industry slashed nearly 17,000 extraction jobs during that same time period.

In many ways, solar is already a winning story, but Catching the Sun highlights the often-overlooked economic and social justice solutions offered by the industry. The documentary is also a call to action, for Americans and policy-makers alike, to find the audacity to deploy solar technology, especially on the local level.

At the heart of the film is the story of Solar Richmond, a nonprofit hoping to capitalize on the growing renewables sector by offering solar training and green business ownership opportunities for low income and under-employed residents in Richmond. The nonprofit is credited with creating more than 300 temporary jobs and for supporting approximately 50 people to gain permanent jobs in the solar industry.

Among the 400 solar companies in Colorado is a similar nonprofit, GRID Alternatives Colorado, which installs solar electric systems for low-income families, while training Colorado workers for solar installation jobs in the process.

“GRID doesn’t necessarily play a role in mitigating the effects of factory and vehicle emissions,” says Kristina Sickles, development director for GRID. “But by reaching into communities that generally don’t have access to renewable energy or the clean energy movement, we are really opening up a door to education and access, which can change how a community reacts and understands how they are being impacted. They can really be empowered through that education and access to renewables to potentially change the course of the conversation.”

In that way, Catching the Sun argues solar has the potential to democratize energy. Once solar is installed on a rooftop, the power consumer becomes an independent power generator. If the solar array is connected to the grid, it feeds energy back in. But in areas without access to a grid, it removes the need for one altogether.

This is a drastically different model for generating and using energy than the fossil fuel oligopoly that centralizes power in the hands of a very few, which is how you get people like the Koch brothers or the Saudi royal family or the “1 percenters of fossil fuels” as Kantayya calls them.

Shalini Kantayya, director of Catching the Sun.  Courtesy of Shalini Kantayya
Shalini Kantayya, director of Catching the Sun.

But while the solar industry is growing, it still needs clear signals from policy-makers in order for the technology to find widespread adoption. “Right now we have a system where the only way utilities make money is to sell us as much energy as possible,” Kantayya says. “As you can imagine, that has created a death spiral (or downward demand spiral), that’s an actual term that they use in the utility industry for what is happening to their cycle. In order to turn our economy, we have to create some other way for utilities to actually get paid and to incentivize the industry.”

So how do we find the collective motivation to pursue solar to truly revolutionize the energy economy? Kantayya says we need to shoot for the moon.

The first commercialized solar panel, built in 1954, was funded through the space program, enabling the space race by bringing power to the crafts, playing a crucial role in Kennedy’s call to achieve the impossible in his 1962 address to Rice University.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too,” he said.

Kantayya hopes to rediscover this inspirational power of government and use it to motivate the race for a world powered with renewable energy. She says there are certain measures that work to push beyond the status quo to ignite the growth of the renewables market, like net metering or renewable energy portfolios.

In order to increase the amount of renewable energy generated and used, we need to incentivize both utilities and consumers, to set tangible goals with rewards for success and penalties for missing the mark, Kantayya says.

“That is where the idea of the moonshot comes from in our film,” she says. “We need to make this a priority in order to achieve a green economy. It is within our reach. We can transform our energy system and become more financially competitive and nationally secure in the process.”

On the bill: Catching the Sun. 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, AMC Cherry Creek 8, 3000 E. First Ave., Denver. $12.