Yann Brandt’s SolarWakeup: “We are the change that the 20th century monopolies fight to keep away”

We’ve been beating the drum for several years about the need for cleantech to play “full contact” against the fossil fuel lobby. Back in December 2010, for instance, Tigercomm Founder and President Mike Casey argued that the growing success of solar and wind power had caused “dirty energy industries [to spend] significant resources to harden the marketing and sales environment against cleantech’s success.” Casey related key lessons learned from a panel of cleantech communicators convened during the 2010 Solar Power International (SPI) trade show:

  • Cleantech is now in a full-contact game with dirty energy, which is playing accordingly.
  • The attacks by dirty energy are serious, coordinated, and are beginning to get traction in public opinion research.
  • And, the attacks matter. By generating, stimulating, or exacerbating customer concerns about readiness, cost and reliability, they are affecting the marketing and sales environment for large and small companies.
  • More than probably any other industry, cleantech has a strong interest in collective brand defense.
  • Individual cleantech businesses and investors can’t rely solely on their trade associations, much less on environmental groups or on simple public goodwill, for their advocacy. It’s in each cleantech player’s financial interest to help to mount a more concerted effort to push back against detractors.

Today, with the clean energy industry having grown by leaps and bounds since 2010, and with the fossil fuel sector more worried than ever, those lessons are, if anything, even more relevant. In that context, Yann Brandt’s SolarWakeup for February 12 really hit the nail on the head.

A long form piece by Rolling Stone about solar energy. More importantly about the forces that we, as an industry, are up against. We can label it as utilities, Koch Brothers, etc but on a deeper level, we are the change that the 20th century monopolies fight to keep away. Capitalism embraces but at the same time rejects disruption but the market will ultimately prevail no matter where regulators or politicians get their money from, things work out. That being said, the time it takes to create change can be slowed so we have to remain active participants in the process with time, people and money.

Very well put; Yann Brandt really has a great gift for summarizing changes in the landscape.

As for the Rolling Stone piece Brandt refers to, it’s entitled The Koch Brothers’ Dirty War on Solar Power and it’s superb. The focus is on the battle raging in states across the country — and particularly in Florida, the aptly-named Sunshine State, with “the best solarity east of the Mississippi, and the third-best rooftop solar potential in America” — “as the solar industry faces unprecedented regulatory obstruction.” With solar power prices plummeting, and with the clean energy industry “beginning to compete with coal and natural gas on economics alone,” the fossil fuel industry accurately senses “a grave threat” to its profitability, even its very existence. In response, it’s fighting back hard. We’re seeing this in Nevada, with its “perplexing war on solar.” And we’re seeing it in other states, like Arizona, as well.

In Florida, for instance, solar power “has been boxed out by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that reap massive profits from natural gas and coal,” and that “wield outsize political power in the state capital of Tallahassee, and flex it to protect their absolute monopoly on electricity sales.” Those IOUs are fighting back hard because they correctly view the rise of distributed power resources like rooftop solar as “a disruptive – and perhaps existential -threat” to their traditional business model. As David Roberts has written, utilities have two fundamental choices in the long term: “innovate” or “go extinct.” In the shorter term, however, it appears that many utilities are choosing a third option: fight the inevitable shifts in their world with everything they’ve got.

Clearly, this will be an expensive, and ultimately losing, battle for fossil-fuel-heavy utilities. Whether they realize this fully or not is not clear, but at the minimum they appear hell-bent on slowing clean energy scaling. The question, just as it was when Mike Casey wrote about this in 2010, is whether cleantech will play “full-contact” with these guys. That means fighting back hard – and effectively – to ensure that solar, wind and other rising energy sources scale up as quickly as the superb underlying economic and technological forces dictate. Or, as Yann Brandt put it, although “the market will ultimately prevail,” the issue is how long the fossil fuel folks can drag out their own demise.

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