FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 056: John Farrell – One organization is working to bring power to the people. Literally.

In this first of a special two part interview, John Farrell, Director of Energy Democracy with the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, describes the challenges and barriers we face in shifting to clean local energy and the programs his leading think tank believes will move us toward a more equitable energy future. 

Here are a few of the insights from John…

“….we’ve just found that there isn’t any alignment with either political philosophy that there are folks on both the left and the right that can enjoy and benefit from our work. And especially as antitrust and anti-monopoly issues have really risen up, and the power of big companies like big tech companies or big utility companies. We find allies in both places concerned about the size and the political power of these institutions and the need to break them up, or to regulate them in a way that gives more access to markets for all people.”


“We want decision-making power to be democratized. We want people to be able to have a way individually and collectively to make decisions about their energy system. So it’s not just about, can I put solar on my own roof, but can I, as a member of my city or my community invest in clean energy, can my city say, we want to make decisions on behalf of all the residents of our city, where we’re going to buy energy? Can we use our buying power? You know, can we make public Costcos of the energy system if you will, in order to drive down the price and to get better access to the clean energy we want.”


“… when this utility is making plans to build new power plants, you have to take into account what customers are going to do on their own.”


You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Useful Links

ILSR

ILSR Self-Reliance States Program

Community Powered Scorecard

ILSR Community Power Interactive

30 Million Solar Homes

Overview of the State of Minnesota Public Utilities Commission filing regarding utility planning

Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Hello, hello. This is Bill Nussey, and a very warm welcome to everybody in the Freeing Energy world. We’re recording this in late February so being warm is of particular importance for so many people, as our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone across the United States who’s struggling with a lot of things, but particularly relevant to us with getting steady electricity. Glad to have all of you here. Thank you as always so much for sharing your time with us.

Bill Nussey:

We have a really, really interesting conversation, one that I have not exaggerating have been excited about getting for many, many years. As you all know, Freeing Energy is all about local energy. As I like to say, hashtag local energy now. If you go back and you look at some of our earliest writing and some of the things we talked about you may remember that our guest has been quoted several times and linked to in his articles. He is one of the most prominent voices in the local energy movement, and he may tell us otherwise, but as far as I know, the term was invented by him and his organization. Certainly they made it famous and I unabashedly, unapologetically have used it for our work here at Freeing Energy as well, that is local energy. He’s an expert of experts. He’s speaks all over the country and we are really excited to have him today.

Bill Nussey:

I’d like to welcome John Farrell, the Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the leader of their Energy Democracy initiative. Welcome John.

John Farrell:

Well, thank you so much for having me. And I just have to say credit to David Morris, one of the co-founders of the Institute for really talking about local energy back in the mid 70s when we were founded, and Amory Lovins of course, from Rocky Mountain Institute. His book, Small is Beautiful; the origins of a lot of the thinking that we have around local energy today.

Bill Nussey:

Yes. One of the earliest books that I read as well. And Amory, I saw his TED Talk years ago, and it was probably the first idea about what a powerful economic driver was behind the shift away from fossil fuels, and as a business person that really appealed to me. So great roots.

Bill Nussey:

John, we’d love to get a quick background on how people ended up in these clean and local energy careers. Where did you grow up? What’s your backstory?

John Farrell:

Yeah. I’m born and bred in Minnesota. So family’s here, friends are here. Spent an ill-favored six months in Washington, DC. It was my out of state experience and it was enough for me, and I was happy to come back here and have lived here and raising a family here in Minneapolis. I love the seasons here. I love having winter, summer, fall and spring, even though some of those are shorter than others in our climate, just because there’s such a wide variety of things to enjoy in the outdoors and all those seasons here.

John Farrell:

Yeah. In terms of getting into this career, I just had to say I really stumbled into it by accident. I was always interested in environmental stuff in college. But I was a political science major, really thought the politics was the interesting stuff, and there was such a wide range of issues. But I took a really amazing energy policy course from Professor Elizabeth Wilson at the University of Minnesota in graduate school and it was all of a sudden like, “Wow this is really interesting stuff. You can really get into the weeds here. There’s economics and supply and demand stuff, but there’s regulation and role for governments and all this kind of stuff.” She’s now moved on. I think she teaches at Northeastern now, but she has little profits going around all over Minnesota energy policy land who were attendees of her class.

John Farrell:

When I graduated from the university, I was just looking around for different options. I had a spreadsheet. It was 50 different organizations and 50 people I knew and kind of trying to connect the dots-

Bill Nussey:

I’ve done those. I’ve done those.

John Farrell:

… how to network my way into something. And when I called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and just said, “Hey, I’ve heard of your organization. Kind of interested in what you do. Can I do an informational interview?” They said, “Well, we have an energy policy position open. Why don’t you just interview for it?” And I did. That was 15 years ago and here I stand.

Bill Nussey:

I love it. I love the fact that you are a bold Minnesota fan. John and I are on a video call now as well, and I noticed that he’s got the sleeveless vest and the plaid shirt on, but I think the real giveaway that shows your true affection is you say the name of your state with Minnesota. I’ve many, many good friends in Minnesota and they are all equally passionate about where they live and they all say it the same way. We’ll get … later in the conversation. I think Minnesota is not only a great place for outdoors and cool ways to pronounce the state, but also because of some really leading edge thinking at a state level on what’s possible. That’s another great reason to build your organization there.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s start with the organization that you’ve been at for over a decade now. One that I read regularly and open up all your newsletters and feverously read all of the reports you guys put out on the energy side particularly, it’s the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You guys on your website, describe the mission, and I will read it. “Local Self-Reliance means that people are able to exercise power over our lives, how we provide for our families, how resources are shared and allocated in our communities and how decisions made by government and corporations and businesses affect all of us.”

Bill Nussey:

I love that. It seems as American as it gets, and it’s a powerful mission. How did it come into being and what else do you guys work on besides energy?

John Farrell:

Yeah. It was a group of three fellows in Washington, DC in 1974, Gill [inaudible 00:06:17], Neil [inaudible 00:06:17] and David Morris, who had an interest in kind of responding to the growing centralization of the economy in those days. There’s this fun word that we like to talk about sort of like induction for new staff; subsidiarity. I think it actually comes out of the Catholic church tradition. The idea is that when you make decisions, you want to make them in a group or with the people who are closest to the impact of those decisions. And that really is the nexus of the work that we have wanted to do for decades now, which is how do we take all of these big, complex pieces of our economy and ensure that the folks who are most impacted by them, the folks who are closest to the impacts of those decisions get to be the ones involved in making them.

John Farrell:

So we have work in the retail sector, where we advocate for local and independently owned businesses, in banking, where we talk about community banks and the ways that they can invest and support local economies, in waste, we work on recycling and composting. Obviously in energy, where many of your listeners are interested, where we work on decentralized and distributed energy resources. And then also in telecommunications, where we try to figure out how do we get affordable internet access to everyone? What we’ve discovered through all of these things is that local resources, whether it’s public ownership or partnerships, or just more competitive markets, are the things that enable that kind of local control and entrepreneurship.

Bill Nussey:

That’s great answer. I love the mission. I really do. It’s very appealing to me personally. I’m a big believer in markets and communities and making decisions and being responsible for the results of the decisions you make. But on the other hand, I think there’s also a huge tension with looking after communities and making sure that not only do we make decisions for ourselves, but we make them for everyone around us at the same time. There seems to be a lot of divide on these topics politically particular in the last couple of years. How do you guys think about all the political machinations going on and where do you think that your vision appeals to and all that kind of thing?

John Farrell:

I think it’s really interesting because our vision can appeal really to people across the political spectrum. You see, especially in the energy sector or in telecommunications, there’s a very strong libertarian streak, right? This idea that we can do things ourselves, that we have the power to connect ourselves to develop our own energy, that in the business sector, we think that we want more small entrepreneurs to be able to create businesses and to employ folks in the local economy. But there’s also an element that appeals to liberals around the power of the public sector, that we are big believers that government and government at the right scale to the problem, shouldn’t be wielded. I’ll give one illustration of the way that we can both agree and disagree with folks.

John Farrell:

Around the Green New Deal, for example, really prominent policy. If you even say the words, you’ve basically identified yourself as a liberal these days or as a progressive.

John Farrell:

One of the key planks in that policy is around public ownership, but it’s specifically around large scale public ownership, like taking the Tennessee Valley Authority, this huge public power generation authority in the Southeast and saying, “Let’s make more of those. Let’s use those to leverage their power. Buying power and build tons of large scale solar and wind power.” And what ILSI would say to that is we love the idea of public ownership. There are 2000 city owned utilities across the country that are making decisions locally for what’s best for that community and it can make those choices about solar and wind and everything. And many of them have. Like Georgetown, Texas said, “We’re going 100% renewable.” But we think it’s a terrible idea to create that big infrastructure and to try to do it as the government just because in the same way that a big corporation can do things and be unresponsive, we think that big government can also be unresponsive to the needs of folks.

John Farrell:

So we’ve just found that there isn’t really any particular alignment with either any particular political philosophy, that there’s folks on both the left and the right that can enjoy and benefit from our work. Especially as antitrust and anti-monopoly issues have really risen up and the power of big companies, like big tech companies or big utility companies, we find allies in both places concerned about the size and the political power of these institutions and the need to break them up, or to regulate them in a way that gives more access to markets for all people.

Bill Nussey:

Wow. I feel like I’ve just witnessed a flying pig. It’s actually a powerful idea that makes a lot of sense to me personally. It’s hard to actually draw a bright blue or bright red line around it. I mean, this is like the future. This is this cutting edge is some new solar cell. The fact that we can have a powerful idea that’s attractive to both political parties, as it should be, as it’s warranted, I love it. It makes me, frankly, honestly, feel even more passionate about the mission that you guys are on and the free energy is on because this idea crosses the political spectrum. It should appeal to everybody because it’s a really good idea.

Bill Nussey:

I also think it’s a struggle with the concentration of power in very large institutions. It is interesting to watch that both political parties have agreed that some of the large tech companies, the industry I come from, maybe has more influence. Maybe they don’t agree on the ways in which it influences, but they seem to come to agreement that there is more influence than either party likes. Who knows? Maybe local energy will become as it should the single unifying goal to pull all the political silliness out of some of the conversations and get us towards making the world a better place. Thank you. I’m really excited, John. I was a fan of ILSR before; I’m double now. Thank you.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s talk about the energy side of what you guys do. So you are the head of the energy democracy part of ILSR. Just by the way, energy democracy is an awesome term. It’s one that I’ve heard mostly used in low income regions of the world, like Africa and India, but I think it’s incredibly applicable to everywhere. Tell me a little bit about what you guys are doing in energy democracy part of ILSR.

John Farrell:

Yeah. The idea really is to bring our broader mission around building local power and fighting corporate control into the energy space. About five years ago, as we were thinking about how to describe our work in the energy sector to other folks, I happened across this term that other folks were using. We started with calling it democratic energy, which I really liked, but it was too easily confused with the Democratic Party. And so we said, “Let’s flip that around because energy democracy is maybe not quite as clear by itself as a term, but it avoids any of those unfortunate allusions to any particular political party or political point of view.”

John Farrell:

I wrote a blog post at the time to kind of explain both what we thought the term meant and how we felt that that needed to be exercised, and it really does bring home that same idea of in the energy sector. In the energy system, we want decision-making power to be democratized. We want people to be able to have a way individually and collectively to make decisions about their energy systems. So it’s not just about can I put solar on my own roof, but can I, as a member of my city or my community invest in clean energy? Can my city say we want to make decisions on behalf of all the residents of our city where we are going to buy energy? Can we use our buying power? Can we make public Costcos of the energy system if you will, in order to drive down the price and to get better access to the clean energy we want? I think even more importantly than that though in terms of the end vision, is how do we write the rules that are going to get us there?

John Farrell:

When I was hired at ILSR, we had two wings of the institute. The one that I worked at was called The New Rules Project. It was really specifically focused on this notion that it’s the rules and the policies that shape the market, that impact what we’re going to get out of our society. You see that so clearly at the national level when we talk about anti-monopoly or antitrust policy, we’re basically saying the rules have broken down that the companies that are in that space have learned to exploit them and that they are too powerful relative to their competitors. So they can either buy them up or crush them, but there is no longer an opportunity for everyone to thrive.

John Farrell:

So we think that energy democracy means let’s figure out how to create the rules of a system so that people can have that decision-making power and can use it. Maybe that means it’s a really innovative set of private companies that are delivering services. Maybe it means there’s a public sector competitor. Maybe it means folks organize their community and they want to buy-out and have a public monopoly, but that each community makes that choice for itself, that we don’t make that at some federal or national level, but that we keep that decision-making power decentralized.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a great mission. I think the energy sector needs that as much as anything. Two of the statistics I like to talk about in a book about electric utilities is of all the industries in the United States, electric utilities have the smallest research budget of any; less than one 10th of a percent. And in contrast to that, of all the industries in the United States, electric utilities have the third largest lobbying budget federally. And since most of their businesses are regulated at a state level and state lobbying is typically not disclosed, it’s probably a fair bet that utilities are actually in sum total the largest lobbyists in the United States.

Bill Nussey:

That juxtaposition between the lowest R&D and the highest lobbying says a lot about the industry’s focus. I don’t think anybody who’s voting or spending money on electric bill would be really happy with that kind of fact. And so I like to point it out. We’ll talk later about what does this mean, and if you and I were kings of the world, or you were king of the world, what would you do? But I do think that it’s something that bears a lot more attention than it gets. And you guys have done a great job at the Energy Democracy of bringing some of that attention. You’ve written some great papers on it, which we’ll also talk about.

John Farrell:

Let me actually give you an anecdote about this too I think that illustrates that point you made about research and development. I was invited to speak in Tucson Arizona a number of years ago. Folks were organizing there. We’re talking about ground zero for the best solar resource in the entire country. And the utility there, Tucson Electric Power, who was continuing to make investments in natural gas power plants and saying like, “Oh, we don’t want our customers to do solar, and we don’t really want to do a whole lot of solar either. Our master plan for the next 10 to 15 years is a lot more gas and a little bit of solar.”

John Farrell:

I gave a public talk and then I met with some city leaders and some community leaders. And then I was invited to a forum and I didn’t know at the time, but a utility employee was invited there to listen and then to have like a few minutes to do a rebuttal. So he stood up and he started to explain how he disagreed with me, although he wasn’t able to refute anything I’d said about the economic benefits of doing solar or doing it locally. One thing he said I thought that was super interesting was that it came down to the rules of the system. What he said about his utility that he worked for Tucson Electric Power was, “We come to work each day to do what we did yesterday. Like we had experiences with deregulation back in the 90s or whatever, where we tried to innovate and it didn’t go well and everybody lost. And so we don’t do that anymore,” essentially is what he was saying.

John Farrell:

To me, it just perfectly illustrated the problem that we have with this sort of small C conservative nature of electric utilities. It’s not even necessarily the market rules, but it’s also just the people and the institutions at this point that are roadblocks. So that even if you give them the license to do something different, they’re not going to take it because the kind of people that they’ve hired, the kind of culture they have within the institution is simply not prepared to figure out how to do something differently.

Bill Nussey:

Obviously there are many exceptions, but I think it’s a broad truism and it’s a self-perpetuating problem because so many of the regulators that oversee the utilities are so risk averse that it’s difficult for them to carve out and take the kind of even tiny, risky, innovative projects that most every other industry thrives on. It’s a very difficult problem to unlock. I think the good news is that with the work that you guys are doing, and I’ve counted 15,000 startups in clean energy now, a stunningly large number, that there’s a lot of innovation happening outside of the traditional, highly regulated tight loop with the utilities and regulators, and the only place you can do that is local, which is the 100% reason why I got into this space. That’s where the innovation is going to happen. That’s where the utility monopolies typically don’t reach. They play a big role, but they’re not quite as tight there. That’s what I get excited about, and that’s what our listeners are interested in.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s talk about some of these programs that the Energy Democracy group has put out. There were three I picked out. You guys have a lot. The three I want to talk about is the Self-Reliance States Program, the Community Power Scorecard and the Community Power Interactive, and then we’ll wrap up with on your programs is the one that I think we’re all most excited about, which is a 30 Million Rooftop Initiative.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s start at the top. Tell us about your Self-Reliance States Program.

John Farrell:

Yeah. Well this actually was originally a report I wrote back in 2010, and at the time it was sort of the first ever atlas of state renewable energy potential. We were hearing a lot about the potential for clean energy at the time, solar was a blip on the map, but wind had been growing significantly. There was a lot of debate about where the grid should be going and at what scale it should be doing it. What we really wanted to look at is to overlap our understanding of renewable energy potential with where we make decisions. I mean, energy policy is essentially 50 separate fiefdoms in the United States. There is some federal energy policy, specifically incentives for both fossil fuels and for solar and wind power, and there is some regulation of interstate commerce on transmission lines, but generally speaking, the rules are made at the state level.

John Farrell:

So we said, “What if we actually map what the renewable energy potential is at the state level so we can give some very generic guidance to states about, can we even get there? Is clean energy a resource that we can use to get to our end goals of meeting everybody’s electricity needs.” What we found at the time was that broadly about two thirds of states in 2010 had the potential with current technology to do it, and that compared to the prices on the electricity system that wind and some solar and some other things would probably be pretty competitive with the existing sources.

John Farrell:

10 years later, last year, we decided let’s update this report. What’s changed? We know that the cost of solar has gone down by 90%. Cost of wind power has come down significantly as well. What if we do this look all over again, same technologies, but 10 years later?

Bill Nussey:

What did you find?

John Farrell:

We found that now it’s down to four states that can’t get to 100%, but they can get to 80% of their electricity supply from renewables. Really that’s what we’re talking about. When we do all these crazy debates on energy Twitter, or anywhere else among the energy advocates, we’re talking about getting to 80% practically speaking. We know that that last 20% is going to be complex in terms of a low carbon grid system, one that’s primarily renewable energy powered and low cost, but we know that we can do it in almost every state. There’s just a couple of exceptions like Florida, which apparently has hardly any wind, but they got an awful lot of sun for example.

John Farrell:

One of the things just to note that we didn’t look at in our report that we just left out because we know it can power every state, is we didn’t even look at solar on the ground. We said, “Let’s look at wind power,” which is much more affordably generated by tall turbines, and so we didn’t really look a whole lot at small turbines because the big ones really are very cost-effective. And we said, “Let’s look at just rooftop solar.” But we didn’t even think about all that solar you could put on the ground. And the truth is almost every state with less than half a percent of its land area could get 100% of its electricity from ground mounted solar.

John Farrell:

We knew that the true answer is 100%, but we were looking at this from the perspective of if we get it in state, if we can prioritize local generation, how much can you get? And the answer is almost all of it and at a very good price.

Bill Nussey:

Awesome. I think that the world has come a long way to generally accepting that possibility, although I love the fact that your lens was through the local angle. I think it’s well worth folks taking a look at that, and the links to this will be in the bottom of the podcast on our website.

Sam Easterby:

How can distributed solar help improve our grid and save consumers billions? The answer is complicated.

Sam Easterby:

First, you have to unravel how investor owned utilities make money, then examine how their planning process is designed to preserve their century old business models instead of adapting to the inescapable trends shaping local energy. And the Institute for local Self-Reliance along with their partners have done just that by taking a critical look at existing planning models and creating a new, more balanced utility planning model, which more accurately accounts for the incorporation of rapidly increasing distributed generation resources.

Sam Easterby:

They make their case in a lengthy filing with the State of Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. In part, the group writes, “With current models, optimizing a resource plan to include distributed resources requires identifying the benefits to the system, but separating the costs to the utility from the cost to the consumers who own the generation and using only the utility costs as a model input.” This filing is a giant step toward reshaping the conversation with electric monopolies and is helping communities take charge of their energy future while pursuing maximum economic benefits in the transition to 100% renewable energy.

Sam Easterby:

Want to step up and lean in on this conversation? Check out the links to this ILSR effort in the show notes on freeingenergy.com for this podcast to learn even more. And don’t forget to like and share this episode of the Freeing Energy podcast.

Sam Easterby:

Now back to Bill and John to hear more about other ILSR programs.

Bill Nussey:

So Community Power Scorecard; you’ve narrowed the local intensity of that a little bit.

John Farrell:

Yeah. So in the way that Energy Self-Reliance state serves as sort of an atlas of where you can go, the Community Power Scorecard is the intended to help tell you here’s how you can get there. It’s a suite of eight to 10 energy policies that you enact at a state level. The idea is to say, which states have developed the energy market rules ultimately that are going to accelerate us along that path to renewable energy that maximize the economic impact, that maximize the opportunity for local energy development and for entrepreneurial-ism.

John Farrell:

It includes things like community choice policies. I mentioned before ILSR’s mission is to let folks act individually and collectively. So Community Choice Energy lets a city take on energy decision-making, energy purchasing decisions for a community to say, “We don’t want to buy fossil fuel energy” Or maybe, “In this community we really don’t like nuclear power.” Or maybe, “We have some other kind of thing we want to buy, like hydro-power because there’s a lot of it near our town,” or something like that. “But ultimately let’s make that decision locally about where we want to buy stuff.” And that includes being able to say, “We’re going to encourage more people to put solar on their roofs.” Or, “We’re going to work with local developers to put it on every school in the community or every library,” or what have you.

John Farrell:

It also includes other rules around distributed solar. So does your state’s energy policy have a specific goal for distributed solar? Does it provide incentives? Does it make it really easy to interconnect those projects to the distribution grid and make sure that the utility can’t use its power to block those systems from being able to come to market?

John Farrell:

Unfortunately not as many states as we’d like score very highly on this scorecard. I think it’s about, if I recall correctly, about three get an A, another 12 or so get a B, and the rest are sort of either middling or failing. So there’s some work to be done, but I’m confident that we are going to continue to see improvement in the way that states approach energy policy.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a great scorecard to know about, and hopefully folks will take some time to go look at it and understand and check where their state sits.

Bill Nussey:

I’ve been in the technology space for years and could be naive or optimistic on my part, but I believe ultimately that when technology is involved, and solar is a technology, batteries is a technology, policy ultimately has to follow the technology trend. And I think policy has led the energy industry because short of things like fracking, there really hasn’t been any dramatic changes in the technology in 100 years, but that’s all changing particularly with solar and batteries and to some degree wind. So I think that they will force the policy. I just hope it doesn’t take a couple of decades. That’s my mission, and very much yours to make sure that we get this done as soon as we can. Everybody wins. Everybody wins.

John Farrell:

It’s funny because we actually see this happening already. A perfect illustration of this is about 30 states or so, utilities are monopolies. We’ve said the government has given them the right in a totally anti-American fashion, and we can talk about that a little bit more too, not have any competition to deliver electricity-

Bill Nussey:

In Georgia. Sorry.

John Farrell:

Yeah right, Minnesota too. There’s lots of states like this.

John Farrell:

The government then oversees the utility’s plans for the future grid basically saying, “Okay, well, because you’re regulated, because you’re a monopoly, we’re not going to just let you choose whatever you want to do; you have some goals that you have to meet that we’ve established in state policy. So you’re going to draft a plan every few years and it’s going to say, ‘Here’s our 10 year plan or a 15 year plan for the grid’.”

John Farrell:

What’s striking is that in almost no cases around the country, do utilities plan for what customers are going to do on their own. We first came across this a few years ago. We actually made a time-lapse map. And I highly recommend you check it out on our website, of distributed solar installations, rooftop solar installations in California. It’s a time-lapse graphic. It starts in 2010, about the time that they started their Million Solar Rooftop Initiative and ends in, I think 2018 or 2019. It’s just incredible to watch the dots appear. We took it out of their 30,000 line spreadsheet where they publish all of the different distributed solar locations.

John Farrell:

What we’ve done since we did that graphic is that we pass it around in places where we intervene with these public regulators about the utility plans. And we say, “Look, when this utility is making plans to build new power plants, you have to take into account what customers are going to do on their own. Nothing you say in this room can prevent a customer from putting solar on their rooftop. They’re going to make that choice on their own wherewithal based on the money that they have available and whether or not they think it can save them some money by investing in it. A couple of million folks have already done that in this country and they’re going to keep doing it.”

John Farrell:

We’ve actually just published some modeling work that we’ve done. This gets very much into the weeds. We try to pull it up to this level of when utilities are making these decisions, we need to leave some room for uncertainty. You can’t just say, “We’re going to build this gas plant; we’re going to need it,” we need to actually be able to think more clearly about what customers are going to do for themselves. What choices are they going to make and how are we sort of filling in the gaps as opposed to telling them like, “Here’s our plan from the top down,” that everybody’s going to respect.

John Farrell:

It really is, I think incredibly important that we not only think about what are the market rules that even allow distributed stuff to happen, but that we have to learn to model and think about it. There are so many technologies. We’ve seen that S curve of diffusion. Whether it’s TVs or cell phones or whatever, once stuff gets interesting, people really start investing in it. And solar is going to get on that curve in different places at different times, but it’s going to make a big impact.

Bill Nussey:

You talked about there’s a couple million homes in the United States that have rooftop solar, and it feels like the potential for that is really substantial. I’m really excited today to hear your thoughts on the program that you and some of your partners have launched. It’s a great name. It’s a great aspiration. I’m all on board with you. You’ve called it 30 Million Rooftop Solar. Tell us about this program. How did it come into being? What are you guys trying to do?

John Farrell:

Well, it came into being I think like so many hopefully good ideas, but it really came out of thinking and trying to emotionally wrestle with the moment that we were in about a year ago with the spreading of COVID-19 and the stay home orders and the lockdowns, and then I live in Minneapolis and George Floyd was murdered by police here just a couple of miles from my house. I was out on a walk with my kids and there was literally ash falling from the fires, from the rioters who were responding. Some of whom were just there for, as they were thinking a good time or to create havoc. Most of the people out there peacefully protesting. But without getting too much into that, to just say, I was having a lot of feelings about what was going on.

John Farrell:

A National Guard helicopter in order to put out a car fire on the freeway actually came and scooped the water from the lake in my neighborhood, right across the street. I was out in my front yard watering a dumpster so that someone couldn’t set fire to it because we had a construction project, a home improvement project going on. So I’m watering the debris from my project and I’m watching this Black Hawk helicopter come and pull water out of the lake to go put out fires, and just thinking about like, “hat meaning does my work have in this time? This is a crazy moment.”

John Farrell:

I kept thinking about, “We do local energy and we do all these rules and stuff, but who really cares? Who really cares about solar at a time like this?’ And all of a sudden I had this thought of like “There’s this growing attention to the climate crisis.” And not necessarily that everybody’s like oh we finally believe the science of climate change, but people, whether it’s Texas and this deep freeze they just encountered or wildfires in California, folks saying like, “Maybe I don’t totally agree with everything that’s going on, but crazy stuff is happening. And maybe we should try to do something that makes it less crazy.” And we’ve got this coronavirus epidemic that we have no handle on it at this time, basically, other than we know it got to our shores and it’s building and we don’t even really know how to respond to it. And back then, we didn’t even know if we should be wearing masks or not.

John Farrell:

The third thing I was thinking about of course, was relative to what had happened to George Floyd was thinking about, “This is not the first or the last time this is going to happen. And our country is still trying to wrestle with this history of racial inequality. And how do we address that?” I’m sitting there thinking about this and I’m also probably in the back of mine somewhere, although I didn’t think the exact words at this time, Pew Research has put out polls and there’s 90% support for solar. There’s almost nothing more popular in America than solar energy. Everybody loves it. Everybody wants more of it.

John Farrell:

My thought was, “Is there some way we can address all of these problems with something that everybody likes?” So I was thinking, “Okay, so solar, we could do more solar. What scale of solar would it be? What would really move the needle on this? What would help to address all of these different problems? Is it five million? We’ve got a million solar homes at this point or two million, is it five million? Is doubling it enough? What would actually speak to folks?”

John Farrell:

I kept thinking about what I want to do at least as good as whoever else around the world is leading on this. And you can look in a couple of different places.

John Farrell:

One is already in the United States, is in Hawaii. They have had just an explosion in customers installing solar just on the economics. Electricity is super expensive there. It’s mostly generated by burning imported oil. About one in four, maybe even one in three Hawaiians now has solar on their home because it simply was more cost effective to generate it themselves than it was to buy it from the utility company, even if they had to take out a bank loan to do it.

John Farrell:

And then in Australia where they similarly have … electricity is not as expensive. They got a pretty good solar resource there, but they just have better policies than we do in the US frankly, around solar. About one in four folks has solar on their homes.

John Farrell:

So I thought, “You know what? We should scale our ambition to the same level that other countries are getting at.” So 30 million homes is about one in four American homes. That’s where that number came from. And with a really strong focus in our goal of saying let’s focus in those solar deserts so to speak, the places where we haven’t already seen solar developed.

John Farrell:

We know that with any technology, wealthy folks can act first. They’re always the ones who can get the fancy Tesla car or the plasma TV when that was a thing or whatever else. But let’s try to make sure that if the federal government is going to have a plan for 30 million solar homes, that we get to the folks who haven’t been able to participate yet, knowing that frankly from your econ 101 thing, the more money you give to people who absolutely have to spend it right away, the more they’re going to put that right back into the economy, it’s going to benefit everybody.

Bill Nussey:

That’s great. You guys have a bunch of partners. In fact, Anya Schoolmen was a guest on our podcast last year. You’re working with Solar United Neighbors. How did that coalition come to?

John Farrell:

So full disclosure, I’m already on the board of Solar United Neighbors, so Anya and I have worked together and respected each other’s work for many years. Her story of her son and his friends starting a solar co-op in Washington, DC is just one of the best stories I think in the energy business about-

Bill Nussey:

It is the thing of solar legend.

John Farrell:

Absolutely. It’s solar self-reliance, it’s communities organizing. It’s a great economics lesson in terms of the power of bulk purchasing. So they’re out here already organizing folks in these solar buying co-ops, doing rooftop solar, getting involved in policy, having people fight for solar rights, so they were a natural partner for us.

John Farrell:

The second partner is the Initiative For Energy Justice. We knew that in the working of this proposal, we really wanted to focus on, as I said, those solar deserts or those communities where they’ve endured the worst of the environmental pollution and degradation from the fossil fuel economy or where they just haven’t had the resources to get into the clean energy economy. They’ve joined us to help us make sure that this program does good by as many people as possible, that we can get solar for everyone.

John Farrell:

We’ve got low income solar champion, Jason Edens. For 20 years he ran a rural Minnesota nonprofit that focused on getting solar to low income folks. We think that’s a really important piece of this. And he’s been absolutely instrumental in making sure the policy and the work that we’re putting together comes out the other end.

John Farrell:

And then the World Resources Institute, which just has an incredible depth of policy and economics knowledge of how this industry works. Has been helping us kind of run the numbers and make sure that when we talk to people about what we’re trying to do, we can actually add it all up.,

Bill Nussey:

Well, it’s a really cool program and the timing couldn’t be better I think. And having spent a lot of time in my career in marketing, I really have to admire the name because it is the goal. So what are you guys trying to do? 30 million homes. I think we could do a lot more homes than that, but I love the focus on the folks that will have the hardest time affording it and making that a central part of the mission.

Bill Nussey:

I’m looking forward to having, Steph Speirs, who’s the Head of Solstice, on a future podcast. I think it’s a really important part of this story. The democratization of energy isn’t just something in the US; it’s also across the world. There’s a billion people that have no electricity at all and another billion and a half that have very poor access to electricity. So as we think about the solutions, they echo across every part of the world and across billions of people. It’s a very powerful idea that energy is something you can take care of yourself if given the right support and it creates independence. I think that for individuals, for families, for communities, for states, cities, I think it’s a powerful idea.

Bill Nussey:

Really excited about that work you guys are doing and count us as fans and supporters however we can play our small part.

John Farrell:

Yeah. Thank you so much.

Bill Nussey:

Well, John, there is so much to talk about and we’re only halfway through. So for better, for worse, we’re going to break this into a second podcast and we’re going to wrap up here, having talked about all the great programs that you guys have in place, and we’ll pick it up again on another podcast where we’re going to take a deep dive on the role of utilities and economics of local energy, which I think is something you guys have shone a bright light on, and I think a lot to be learned by everyone listening in.

Bill Nussey:

Thanks a bunch for your time so far, and there’s more to come.

Sam Easterby:

Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy podcast, personal stories from the clean energy movement. Visit freeingenergy.com to learn more about clean local energy.

Sam Easterby:

I’m Sam Easterby. Bill Nussey is my co-host and the founder of the Freeing Energy Project. The Freeing Energy podcast is made in partnership with Frequency Media. Subscribe to the Freeing Energy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. Make sure more people learn about clean local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts.

Make sure more people learn about clean local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts.

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