Sep 17, 2021 • 1HR 2M

Volts podcast: 20 years of solar advocacy, with Adam Browning of Vote Solar

Lessons learned and what's ahead for solar.

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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In this episode, veteran solar advocate Adam Browning reflects on 20 years of running campaigns as the founder and leader of Vote Solar, one of the scrappiest and most successful solar advocacy organizations in the US. Browning, who is stepping down from leadership this year, helped grow the group from four people to 40, and along the way he’s learned a few things about how nonprofit campaigns can succeed against better funded opponents.

Full transcript of Volts podcast featuring Adam Browning, September 17, 2021

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David Roberts:

There aren't a lot of positive, hopeful stories competing for attention in the US these days, but one ray of light — if you'll pardon the pun — comes in the form of solar power. During the 21st century it has plunged in price, to the point that it is the cheapest available source of power in most big energy markets. Though it provides just 3 percent of US electricity today, analysts say it could provide close to half by mid-century. 

Adam Browning has lived through every stage of this extraordinary ongoing story. He co-founded Vote Solar, a nonprofit that advocates for solar energy at the state level, in 2002, to push for solar on public buildings in San Francisco. 

Adam Browning. (Photo: Vote Solar)
Adam Browning. (Photo: Vote Solar)

Since then, he has helped build a team of 40 people that operates across the country and has led numerous campaigns for state policy and regulatory changes. For as long as I’ve been doing energy journalism, I’ve known Adam and Vote Solar to be reliable sources — smart, practical, and results-oriented. I read all their emails, which regular listeners will know is high praise.

Now, after 20 years, Browning is stepping back, shifting to an advisory role and handing off day-to-day leadership of Vote Solar. Given his long experience, I thought it would be interesting to talk to him about what he has learned, how much things have changed for solar, and where solar and climate advocacy need to go next.

Adam Browning, welcome to Volts.

Adam Browning:  

Thanks, really pleased to be here.

David Roberts:   

You’ve been at this for 20 years now. Tell me the Adam Browning origin story. How did you gravitate to this particular field? It must have been relatively soon after you were out of college; it must have been one of the first things you did and stuck with it. Tell us how you got into all of this.

Adam Browning:  

You're too kind. My youthful demeanor — I’ll have to tell my stylist. It wasn't quite right out of college. I've never had a plan that I put into place; I've always moved from the thing that seemed really interesting to me at the time, and then was open to that next opportunity. 

After college, I did Peace Corps in West Africa, which was in many ways an incredibly formative experience, a moveable feast that I continue to look back on and think about, and that experience continues to nourish. After that, I joined EPA in San Francisco, the Region 9 office, and worked there for about eight years. The origin story — not of Adam Browning, but really Vote Solar, which is probably more to the point here — was really born out of spending a good chunk of time with the federal government doing environmental protection. I was doing a lot of enforcement and inspecting smokestacks, and fines were exceeding limits in some ways.

David Roberts:   

This would have been during the Clinton years, yes? 

Adam Browning:  

Yes, and then a little bit of the Bush years. So that experience was a wonderful introduction to how environmental protection works and doesn't work in this country. 

When I was nearly 30, I had a beer with a college buddy, and he was working for then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. This friend, David Hochschild, is now a California energy commissioner, the chair of the Commission. He had just put solar on his roof at home. At the time, solar was really expensive, and there wasn't much of it; it was very much a hippie pipe dream. But he put it on his house and was enthralled by it. And he was like, “Hey man, we should try to put this on City Hall. We need to have governments take the lead.” 

Through that beer and subsequent napkin diagramming, we came up with the idea of a revenue bond to put solar and energy efficiency on public buildings in San Francisco and then use the avoided energy costs, the energy payments, to pay down the bonds, so you have long-term, low-interest capital. It all penciled out. That turned into first a campaign to get it on the ballot as a ballot initiative, and then a citywide campaign to pass this ballot initiative. That was Prop B. This is back in 2001. 

That experience was really galvanizing, transformative for me in a couple of different ways. One: this idea of solar as an emission-free technology. I’d been spending all this time trying to control smokestacks; how about if we just didn't have any at all? That really dropped for me.

Secondly, we had this campaign where you could actually do solar — then, again, really expensive — but we could do it cost effectively, the way that we'd had this scoped out. That just gripped the imagination. We had legions of volunteers throughout the city; people were really excited to be a part of something larger than themselves. That ballot initiative passed by 73 percent of the vote, which was really high in those days. 

Then we started getting calls from around the country — how can we do this in our city? — which was when we decided to quit our jobs and take this grassroots campaign to a much larger campaign. We had this theory, we had analyses that showed that the way to get cheap solar was through economies of scale: you needed to buy a lot of expensive solar, you needed to show a long-term market for this technology, in order to induce the manufacturers and would-be manufacturers to invest their capital into scaling up factories and the whole supply chain.

David Roberts:   

Solar has changed so fast: the technology, the prices, the social mores around it, how it's viewed. So take us back to 2002: Was anybody even thinking about solar? Was it viewed as just a hippie affectation? How much did it cost? What was the world of solar like in 2002? 

Adam Browning:  

So back then, solar was about $9 a watt.

David Roberts:   

We're closing in on $1 a watt now, is that right? 

Adam Browning:  

For the actual panels themselves, you're looking at 25 cents a watt. Utility-scale installations are well under $1. So essentially, nearly an order of magnitude less expensive right now.

There was 163 megawatts total installed in the US. So, yeah, back in them old days, people knew of solar; I think it was understood as something that had some degree of promise, but again, the cost put it out of reach for being taken seriously as a long-term, significant portion of our energy resource.

David Roberts:   

So were people planning for it? Like DOE, when they did their projections at the time — were people saying it was going to grow into something big? Or was it viewed as a niche thing for the century? 

Adam Browning:  

I would compare it to the algae that you see Exxon always advertising. It was ARCO and Mobil that had these investments in solar; Shell did as well. There were many really wonderful, well-meaning people involved in that, so I don't mean to diminish the seriousness of their efforts. There were a lot of oil majors that were investing in it. DOE was putting money into serious research and development. But it all seemed very far off. It was this thing that did not yet exist, and we all hoped that someday it would. 

Solar then suffered from the start-stop-start-stop of market incentives. Particularly in the California Central Valley, there were installations around with the large parabolic troughs, SEGS plants that had seemed promising, and as soon as everybody scaled up to respond to the incentives, they were then pulled. You never could take advantage of that momentum.

So the early history of solar, again: a lot of research and development, not a lot of smart, long-term market support to bring it to scale. 

In early years, that underestimation of solar's potential really helped in many ways. Like when you scored the federal investment tax credit, no one thought it would really take off, so it scored really low, and that was actually helpful for it to go through.

David Roberts:   

So you have wildly expensive solar that you can make cost-effective in certain limited applications. You have cheap, patient capital and entities willing to wait for it. I'm sure it was just a series of short-term campaigns at first, but at what point did you have a long-term plan? In retrospect, was your plan as optimistic as reality turned out to be?

Adam Browning:  

I would say no, the plan was not as optimistic as reality turned out to be, although it was very specific and accurate as to what would happen. There are often times when you have policy that promises an outcome and fails to deliver on it; here was something that absolutely, bullseye. 

We had analyses of comparable technologies. Solar is basically a semiconductor; you had examples of integrated circuits that were developed and funded by the military, who was willing to pay an enormous premium in order to have a technology that was much lighter than the capacitors it replaced, and through that investment really brought down the cost through economies of scale. So we had examples of other technologies. 

We had this report from KPMG Netherlands that Greenpeace had paid them to analyze; it said, in essence, that if you brought about a global market that could support a factory that would deliver 500 megawatts a year of solar panels, you would be at grid parity. That was directionally accurate, but we now have factories that are much, much larger than that, of course.

So the cost drop of solar exceeded expectations, though it was definitely bumpy. Even though we had predicted this effect by virtue of what these policies would do, this whole long-term market demand, at the same time, we didn't really anticipate that we would be passing legislation this quickly that would require 100 percent clean energy. 

Yesterday, the Illinois House passed, finally, a bill that will require 100 percent clean energy. It's expected to pass through the Senate on Monday. That makes the tenth state; well over 35 percent of the people who live in this country now live in a state where carbon-based electricity is illegal, will be legally mandated to phase out by a certain date. That's on the basis of having this scale availability of cheap, zero-emission power.

David Roberts:   

It was not that long ago that the idea that any governmental entity of any size would target 100 percent clean energy was absolutely out of the universe. Early in my career, I remember projections that solar would catch up around 2070; coal was still expected to dominate well past 2050. The scale of the changes is really hard to cram in your head. 

But now the energy wonk community has developed a pretty good sense of how you scale up a technology and make it cheaper. There's a more formalized understanding of that; solar is the model now of how you go about doing it. But of course, back in 2002, you didn't know that.

So I'm curious, when you were thinking about advocacy, what was your plan? What was your instinct about what kind of policies would be both politically possible and efficacious at scaling this up?

Adam Browning:  

That's a great question. In the beginning, when we first launched, we were like, OK, we’ll do a bunch more of these city-led initiatives: the power of energy democracy to drive choice in energy supply. Solar was this perfect technology because it circumvented the decisionmakers; you could put it on your own roof, you didn't have to wait for the utility to make the right decision. You could take that power and do it yourself. 

So we initially said, we're going to do a bunch more of these city-led efforts. We got our grant from the Energy Foundation, $50,000, our first grant, and we started looking at some of these other cities, and it was like, oh, wait a minute. Actually, there is state-level policy infrastructure that enables people to be able to install solar upon their own roof and generate their own energy, and those were the preconditions for being able to do a city-led initiative. So that caused us to reevaluate our strategy and really focus on the state-level policy infrastructure. 

When you're looking at a solar market, you're only as strong as your weakest link. It's never the one thing; it is the four or five things that you have to link together. So one of the key insights that we had early on was that the solution was really at the state level; that was where most energy decisions are made, and you're much closer to democracy there. I don't know how to pass anything through the federal government. I don't know that anybody does. But at the state level, on the legislative side, you are much closer to being able to actually influence the outcome of legislative battles. 

The other large piece of this, of course, is regulatory, through the public utilities commissions. Our first effort was the California Solar Initiative. This was something that a wonderful advocate, Bernadette Del Chiaro, who headed Environment California then, had been working through the legislature for many years, and it kept not being able to pass.

We then, in collaboration with others, worked really hard to get it through the California Public Utilities Commission. So you had then-Governor Schwarzenegger, who really stood out as a strong leader for this, establish a goal for a million solar roofs. It was an ability to get it through the public utilities commission to implement that — that ended up being about a $3 billion effort to incentivize rooftop solar with a really elegant market design through these declining incentives that got you down to grid parity, when you wouldn't need any incentives at all afterwards. 

David Roberts:   

When did that pass? What year was that?

Adam Browning:  

It was around 2004, 2005, that we finally got those through. That was then also passed through the legislature afterwards and confirmed, which was quite helpful. 

But that was a really big eye-opener for policymakers and for energy nerds everywhere. That was a large chunk of money, designed to last over 10 years; that was this signal to the manufacturers of the world, to the installers of the state, that this industry, this market is going to be around. There is a commitment to it, time to scale up, go big. 

Then once you have the fifth-largest economy in the world commit to it, it no longer seems so esoteric. Both Japan and Germany then also were really strong leaders as well, so it was definitely a global effort. But California really helped catalyze that in the early 2000s with this type of campaign.

David Roberts:   

After California — which in terms of progressive policy, is the low-hanging fruit — did you continue on trying to expand in California, or did you move on to other states? What was the plan of attack?

Adam Browning:  

A little bit of both. There's a story of how you actually run and grow a nonprofit advocacy organization. So you are fundraising; philanthropy is the lifeblood of your efforts, and you have to be able to fundraise in order to feed your ambitions on this. For many years, we were two people, three people, four people. We were very small. It wasn't until 2008 that we were able to open an east coast office.

So I would say, over the course of Vote Solar's history, we had a 70/30 split. The majority of our efforts were in places where we thought we could get traction, that there was a political appetite, that we could have a real line of sight to success. Then we spent a non-trivial part of our time in lonely places where there wasn't much going on, but if we didn't help catalyze, if we didn't plant the early seeds, it wasn't going to happen. Somebody needed to do it. We always wanted to be an organization where we weren't just, me too; we wanted to be involved in fights that weren't going to be won but for our involvement. That was why we also put so much investment in places that it took a long time, a long fuse to actually pay off. 

So immediately after California: Arizona, New Mexico, and some of these sunnier western states, then really invested in a lot of the east coast policy as well. We opened an office in New York in 2008. Then, gradually, a couple of the midwestern and southeastern states. It was the Turner Foundation that brought us into Florida and Georgia, where there wasn't much going on at the time. But we sent one of our best, smartest advocates down to scope out a plan for how we could help catalyze something in Georgia. That campaign was completely different from what we did and what we looked like in California, but in collaboration with some awesome local advocates, we were able to help move the needle there as well.

We are now 40 people working in about 26 states across the country; over 20 years, that's been a lot of growth for a very different organization than we started. 

David Roberts:   

To focus in on these early years: Were you 100 percent about advocating for policies? Was there any communications campaigns or, god forbid, awareness campaigns? Or were you a strictly policy advocacy shop?

Adam Browning:  

I think you've written beautifully about “change doesn't happen just because you're right.” So there's a huge power-building component to this. I can't overemphasize how much collaboration and partnership with local place-based, community-based organizations in everywhere we've worked has been absolutely crucial to success. 

Vote Solar as an organization brings pretty deep sophistication around solar policy and then brings some campaigning expertise, as well. So our model has typically been this inside-outside game, where if you're doing legislation, passing bills, you really need to power map who can actually get something done, what kind of campaigns are they going to be receptive to, building all the information necessary in order to get it passed, and then, of course, following the lead of the local organizations that have the relationships, that have the local voice, that have the power as to how that actually happens. 

Similarly, for the regulatory campaigns, these are legalistic processes in public utility commissions. You have to have a lawyer intervene, have standing, create a docket full of math, full of actual demonstration of facts. You never win just because you're right. You also, at the same time, have to build an outside game, a parade that these policymakers can jump in front of and be responsive to. You need to make sure that policymakers know what the public wants and that they feel accountable to answer to them. That takes a lot of communications work, a lot of grassroots organizing work, a lot of partnership with community-based organizations. 

Increasingly for us, this has been also about environmental-justice communities. Over the past five years, everything that we have done has been with equity groups and environmental-justice campaigners, listening to them, establishing partnerships with them, and following their lead on these campaigns.

David Roberts:   

Over 20 years, you’ve run a lot of different campaigns in different places with different people you're targeting. If you had to generalize, what is it that makes a campaign successful? What are the markers that distinguish your successful campaigns from the unsuccessful ones? What needs to be in place?

Adam Browning:  

Winning, for one. But that's a little too flip.

I actually love campaigning, and the parts of it I like are finding creative ways to get people engaged. So much of environmentalism has been about no, and not about, but what do we say yes to. So an organizing ethos of Vote Solar was centered on, this is something that people want. In fact, we poll around the country, and this has been consistent over the past 20 years with some fluctuation in the numbers, but directionally, supermajorities of people in this country on both sides of the aisle want to see this transition.

David Roberts:   

This is something that is utterly remarkable about solar, and, especially in 2021, almost unique: It polls through the roof. It always has. Were you ever surprised by how resilient and broad that support is? It seems to defy political gravity in a way almost no other issue I can think of does.

Adam Browning:  

It is remarkable, and we always tried to lean into that by letting people bring their own reasons for why they should go solar to the campaign and not defining it for them. In places with different political outlooks, different hues, the words that we used were different. Some places, this is about freedom; some places, it's about jobs; other places, it's about climate. You need to be very thoughtful as to how you talk about the rationale behind it, but we generally tried to leave a space where people could bring their own rationale. They like solar, we're not going to tell them why they like solar. Let them bring that to the campaign itself. 

To further reflect on your initial question around what distinguishes a good campaign, I think a good campaign engages people. Positive messaging, giving people that positive alternative, what we want to do, a bright outlook — people want to be a part of something larger than themselves. I think that is a core insight into the human psyche. 

David Roberts:   

I've heard a lot of people around campaigning and the activist world say some version of: it's easier to make people angry than it is to get them to support something. It's easier when you have a clear thing you're saying no to. Do you think that's wrong? Or does solar just have some sort of magic fairy dust that switches that over? 

Adam Browning:  

What you describe certainly powers most of my political giving and my presidential election campaigning on my personal side, so I definitely feel you, I get that. I'm not immune to that. We definitely articulate, ”Why aren’t we seeing more solar? Who's blocking it?” and it definitely creates the accurate picture of why we're not seeing more. You can campaign against that. 

That said, we've done things like had billboards outside of the Capitol that had the tagline, right after the Gulf oil spill, “When there's a huge spill of solar energy, it's just called a nice day. Yes on bill X.” That got in the paper and had ripple effects. We had airplanes pulling sky banners that said, “This is the prescription for oil addiction” at the same time that we had large rallies with people dressed up in doctor outfits. I guess you had to be there, but it was funny at the time. 

We tried to work in Texas; Texas is a hard place to work. But we were sponsoring a bill and did analysis that showed how many jobs there would be if this bill passed, and then we ran ads in the Midland newspaper saying, “Help Wanted: 10,000 workers for the solar economy. Call the legislature and tell them to pass X.” Again, that then turned into a press piece on witty campaigns that had a much larger impact than the $230 for that help-wanted ad in the Midland Tribune. So those were parts of the campaigns that I really enjoyed.

The thing about nonprofit campaigning is, you are always going to be outspent. You are always going to be out-lobbied. You need to figure out how to bring people-power to it. That is the part that I have enjoyed the most: solar in so many ways is democracy in energy and environmental decisionmaking. We’ve tried to make that true.

David Roberts:   

I have been gritting my teeth waiting for polarization to swallow solar’s popularity too, as it has swallowed everything else in our public life. But as far as I can tell, it's mostly held up. I’m wondering if you’ve seen any movement in that direction; are you seeing it start to polarize? Are you seeing it associated more now with democratic socialism whatever, or is it still defying political gravity?

Adam Browning:  

I don't think solar is immune, per se, to being attacked, to politicization. Look at Solyndra, which was an absolutely manufactured scare-quotes scandal of an entirely successful program that made money for the American people. That wasn’t organic, that was — as many things in our politicized culture — advocacy-driven, cynically so.

But I have not yet seen this. Right before the 2016 election, in September, there was a Pew poll that showed that 87 percent of would-be Trump voters supported solar and 92 percent of would-be Clinton voters supported solar, despite the obvious division between the two. 

I do think that solar needs to continue to earn and hold its social capital and abandons that at its own peril. I do think part of the pathway forward is trying to recapture manufacturing for just that reason; we cannot offshore our supply chain if we expect solar to supply nearly half the power of this country going forward, which is why I think passing the Ossoff bill is absolutely critical. It's our last hope for reshoring the manufacturing.

David Roberts:   

That's a great segue to my next question. The solar campaigns focused heavily on state-level policies: net metering to encourage rooftop solar, renewable portfolio standards to ramp up the percentage of solar. Those have been wildly successful; as you say, something close to half the population lives in a state now with these requirements. You have the policy pull for solar in place. So what's the next frontier for solar advocacy? Is it a turn to manufacturing and materials? Where do you see it going?

Adam Browning:  

There are three main things, and I could keep adding on, I could go to 10. But let's just stick with these three right now. 

One is: the original premise behind my thinking around Vote Solar is, once you made it cheap, it would just continue under the gravitational pull of economics. Solar PPAs right now in sunny spots are like 2 cents per kilowatt hour. They're just crazy, it's awesome. Yet you still see places where they are trying to build ginormous new fossil fuel. Duke Energy, for example, largest utility in this country, knows very well how cheap solar is. It's made these public commitments to net zero by 2050. Their press announcements are wonderful; their plans that they file with regulators tell a very different story. They're trying to build massive amounts of new gas plants. It is still necessary for advocacy to have a seat at the table and drive deployments. 

We just saw the DOE come out with their solar roadmap for 40 percent by 2035. That will require, according to their numbers, 30 gigawatts a year of solar deployment through 2025 and then 60 gigawatts a year through the next decade after that.

David Roberts:   

For reference, it's about 15 GW a year now. So we have to double that for the next five years, and then double that for the next 15 years to get to that target. It's pretty big.

Adam Browning:  

It's all totally doable, but it won't just happen because it's cheaper and cleaner. There are still entrenched interests that want to continue to profit from the fossil-fuel infrastructure and legacy that we have.

David Roberts:   

When I say to people that it’s cleaner and cheaper, their natural first question is, well then why isn’t everybody already doing it? In a market, it's capitalism, economics ought to be dictating things; at least that's people's intuitive sense of it. So what are those forces now causing utilities or states to still push for fossil fuels, even if it is true that they could get cheaper, renewable energy?

Adam Browning:  

I think there are two things here. One is, in much of this country we have vertically integrated utilities. That is to say that you have a monopoly: they own the wires, they own the generation, and they in essence get paid based upon how much capital they deploy. There are regulators that are there to approve their investments as prudent and in the customers’ best interest, but there is a real capital bias towards getting a return on equity for how much money they spend. So that's a big part of it. 

The other part of it also leans into ease, or laziness. When we go into an integrated resource plan, this is when a utility says, “We want to build X,” and if it's gas we'll say, “Well, renewables are cheaper.” First they say they want to do it for economic concerns; then, when we show them renewables are cheaper, they next say, well, we need it to keep the lights on, we need it for reliability. So the moat we have to cross here is cost, but that's the real castle keep: reliability. Because for policymakers, this is a career-ending thing to get wrong. It's a big trump card they play. 

I was going to lay out the three things that we need to work on: We can run a system nationally with majority renewables in terms of variable generation, and we need to make some changes to make that work. We need to introduce a lot more flexibility into the system. Partly that's batteries; partly that is a focus on demand flexibility, essentially paying people to change when they charge or give them incentives to be good grid citizens. We can talk more about that if you’d like. It is also to some degree some transmission that helps expand balancing areas, interconnects the load centers with the best generating profile. 

So the reasons why we don't see this happen just because it's cheaper and cleaner and better for everybody have to do mostly with economics, in terms of perverse incentives inside of utilities. It is a lot easier to have a gas plant; you just flip a switch on rather than transforming the system to be more flexible and resilient.

David Roberts:   

OK, so you said three areas for solar advocacy these days.

Adam Browning:  

The last — I should have led with it as the number one — is inclusivity. As we make this transition from fossils to renewables, we absolutely have to make sure that it benefits and includes everybody. We cannot continue to replicate some of the inequities of our fossil fuel system. 

Over the past five-plus years at Vote Solar, we've completely changed how we go about planning our campaigns, how we go about the policies that we work on, and it has really benefited everybody by making this transformation. When we look at some of these largest, most comprehensive climate bills, none of these would have happened if it weren't for the leadership of the environmental justice community. This goes from California’s SB100 to the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, to, as of this week, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in Illinois. 

Across the board, beginning with developing partnerships with the communities that we wish to serve, co-creating the policies to make sure that they include benefits for everybody that everybody can participate in, just builds these much stronger, much more powerful coalitions that can get big things done.

I firmly believe that this is the path we need to double down on as we continue to move forward in getting that further deployment of solar. Broadly speaking, the more beneficiaries, the more power building you have in order to make big changes happen.

David Roberts:   

Solar is everybody's favorite success story. It's one of the few things that give me any hope at all. The tech and the economics and the advocacy all worked together really well for solar, in such a way as to really turbocharge it, and it's been amazing these last 20 years.

But of course, solar is not the only thing we need for climate mitigation. So how much of solar’s success is unique to solar? This adaptability to different values, this image of wholesomeness that is seemingly undentable: how much of what has made solar advocacy work can be transferred to other pieces of the puzzle that we need for clean energy, like home power management and storage? Is solar's mojo transferable?

Adam Browning:  

Yes — and, that's a two-part question. One of the things that's been awesome about solar is these monumental cost declines, from something that was 10 times more expensive than the alternative to something that is quite a bit cheaper than the fossil alternative.

Can you see similar cost declines in other climate-necessary technologies? I would argue, absolutely. I would also argue that longtime readers of Dave Roberts will know that the path forward for success is to electrify everything and run it all on renewables. So having this cheap renewable energy is a foundation for our hopes in other sectors as well. 

But if you're looking at mobility, batteries have come down 87 percent in the last decade, and they are far from done yet, both with the battery technologies that are currently extant and the new ones that are all being worked on. I think you could make a similar argument for the electrification of buildings, for heat pumps, which are nascent.

David Roberts:   

Make heat pumps as sexy as solar, Adam. That's your next goal.

Adam Browning:  

Sexy is one thing, but the first question is, can the technology get cheaper through scale? Absolutely. Both the hardware as well as all the soft costs associated with the workforce knowing what the heck it is and then being able to efficiently install it, removing all the bugs and the permitting and etc. So there's a ton of work that can be done to reduce those costs. 

The other part of this — and I think the key to sexiness — is, does it make your life better? Tell me, what's Tesla's advertising budget?

David Roberts:   

Right. Zero.

Adam Browning:  

They shoot a car into space and they go on Twitter, and that's it. It has zero advertising budget because it is absolutely compelling. All the reservation lines for the Rivian trucks; the F150, when they went electric and you could charge your house with it, their reservation lines were absolutely huge.

I went to the launch of the Tesla Model 3, and nobody had ever seen a picture of it, no one knew how many wheels it had, and Elon got over a billion dollars worth of free money in terms of $1,000 down payments on reservations. Before anyone had even seen a picture of it! So yes, at least in vehicles, it's definitely sexy. 

When it comes to home automation: I'm a customer of OhmConnect, which is this company that's trying to help reduce grid costs when the grid needs it most. First it was just by changing behavior, sending people a text and asking them to turn off lights. But now, all my major loads are on wifi-enabled plugs, and when the grid needs it, it automatically turns off my freezer, turns off my fridge.

Now, when my kindergartener daughter opens the fridge door and the lights don't go on, she's like, “hey, Daddy, it's an Ohm hour.” We all know every time that happens, for every 15-minute increment, we're making a quarter. Every time they touch our Nest, we're making 75 cents. So you can expect to make somewhere around $300-$400 a year. You don't lift a finger, it's all automated.

So, is getting paid to do nothing sexy? For some people, it is. 

David Roberts:   

Yeah, that's my dream. 

Have you changed your mind at all about the state focus? If anything, it seems even more apt now than it was when you settled on it. Is that still your primary hope for climate progress?

Adam Browning:  

We do have a generational opportunity right now to get something done with this Congress, especially if we were to get rid of the filibuster, as longtime listeners and readers of your insight well know.

I do think there is a way to get to what would effectively be an iteration of what has worked so well in the states: a federal standard for clean energy. You could make that happen. The entire Biden administration has surprised me with their ambition, and it is just rife with superstar leaders. I'm a committed west coaster, but I definitely have some FOMO; working with those people would be awesome. So this is the best scenario that we're going to see on the federal level that we could possibly imagine for quite some time. 

We've had a longstanding rule of thumb that if your plan involves the federal government, or if your plan involves Congress, you're gonna need another plan. That has always stood us in good stead. But with Jigar Shah over at the Loan Program Office, they're doing some really cool and innovative financing that will create some durable models that will exist beyond his tenure there. The federal government has a lot of money and a lot of power and can do a lot of good; getting stuff through Congress is just another matter entirely. So let's hope we can get something through, but then double down on the states. 

We're going to continue to have to have state-level advocacy going forward, and we have proven time and time again that you can make big things happen that will have additional impacts elsewhere: by bringing down costs; by bringing the jobs that will, again, impact places where you're not doing it directly; by advocacy; with solar, solar is cheap. There are utilities in Indiana right now that are going ahead and doing their own math and really digging deep on solar, and you just love to see it.

David Roberts:   

I want to ask about your experience founding an organization and then running it for 20 years as it grows from two people to 40. Navigating that shift, from “we're a tiny band of people who all know each other and are good friends” to an actual organization that’s something like a bureaucracy with levels and managers, is a very difficult transition no matter what you're doing, but especially in the nonprofit world, which is difficult to survive in the best of circumstances. What do you feel like you've learned about how to build an organization? What have you taken away in terms of managerial wisdom?

Adam Browning:  

That is a great question, and we could do another hour podcast on just that. I don't think that this is something unique to the nonprofit side; there's a literature replete with founders that are good at starting things and less good at scale. For me, I didn't have many models of what a good boss looked like, what successful management structures look like. That was exactly it: we began as a couple of passion-driven, like-minded people, and then grew. 

There were three, maybe four, big step changes of complexity, where what worked before broke and I had to either learn something new or get out. I tried to take that seriously, to continuously ask myself, am I the best person to run this organization right now? I had to grow a lot. I had to learn a lot of new skills. I had to learn a theory and practice of management that I was not born with. It has been far from a smooth road, but it's been a lovely road full of a lot of those learnings that we've all grown from.

But you’ve got to fundraise all the time, and you have to show success in order to be a successful fundraiser all the time. It’s part of what it means to run a nonprofit. Some of the historical regrets I've had were, frankly, being so far attuned to looking at all the external opportunities and wanting to have impact and knowing that I could make change if I hired another campaigner here, or regulatory person there. I wish throughout I had invested a lot more on infrastructure, on the human resources side. We had so many lovely, idealistic, mission-driven people that were constantly overextended and overachieving under budget. There's just a lot more foundational work to a larger organization that I wished I'd invested in earlier. 

As I step down from Vote Solar, I want to put in this plug: as we look back over this history of success and achievement, this is not my success and achievement. There is such a legacy of awesome alumni and current team members that have made all of this happen. So the extent that I was able to do this was my ability to provide the resources and then to get out of the way of wonderful people doing wonderful things. Trust your people, give them the resources they need, figure out what is blocking them and what their problems are, and then focus your effort on fixing those. That would be my best lessons learned.

David Roberts:   

What is it from all this experience that you would like to jump back into and do again? Or, what is it that you are looking to do differently now that this 20-year chapter is over?

Adam Browning:  

That's a great question. For me, the time is ripe right now for me to step aside for a couple of reasons. One is, I do want some new adventures, some new experiences. I am so grateful for this experience, it has been a labor of love every step of the way. Yet I also have a feeling that I want to take on some new challenges. 

The flip side of this is, it is time for some new perspectives, some new voices, someone with radically different life experiences that looks at the world in a different way to have a chance at running what I think is an incredibly impactful organization. I am encouraged by that type of change. I think it's healthy. As I've shared my decision internally, it's been like a jolt of adrenaline running through the entire org as we've seen everybody step up, step in, and step forward with their individual ways of leadership. It's just lovely to see.

I think this is going to be healthy for this organization that I will continue to support for the rest of my life, and I encourage everybody else to do so, because it is a necessary organization going forward; I'm just not necessary to it, is what I came to the conclusion. 

For me, I’d like a little rest for a bit. This fall isn't in the end turning out to be like I thought it would be, travel isn't in the cards for me right now. But that's OK. I also find I am invigorated by the challenges of climate, I am going to stay in the climate space. I am definitely mission-driven on this front. Look at what we did collectively around solar: there was something that needed to exist but didn't yet, and with a global campaign, we made that happen. There are a lot of other similar blank spaces in the climate sphere, things that we know need to exist, but don't yet. That's where I'd like to focus my efforts. 

I feel like I'm an entrepreneur at heart. I am kicking around some private sector ideas that I’m going to look to pursue. My entire life has been on the public service side, and I think I would like to try the private side. But in my heart of hearts, I'm a campaigner, I'm an advocate, I love the rush of going out against all odds with the plucky band of joyful solo warriors and winning.

David Roberts:   

If listeners are looking to get into this the same way you did 20 years ago, where are those blank spaces where they could make a real impact?

Adam Browning:  

There's a lot of people that will have their own list of these, depending on how far you pull back the lens. 

I'm on the board of this awesome organization called Power for All, which is in many ways Vote Solar but for the billion people on this planet that don't have any access to electricity at all. There is the ability and the potential to bring decentralized renewables to provide electricity and electrified services in many different business models. It's just an incredibly dynamic space. That is a passion project of mine. 

When I look closer to home here, the challenge of introducing flexibility into the grid, whether it be through storage or demand response, it does feel nascent compared to where it needs to be. If you read the RMI reports on clean energy portfolios, I'm absolutely convinced that demand response is a gas killer. We need to have it. The policy models for it feel like solar 2007: there's competing different business models, we do not have good transactional space for the value that it can bring. That's a policy problem that needs to be solved. The opportunity for huge scale is there, but there's a lot of roadblocks in the way. 

I look at electrification of transportation. I'm not a super car guy, but I do think that this premise of interconnecting tons of really large batteries onto the grid provides an opportunity for solving so many other problems, through managed charging as well as potentially, in the future, vehicle-to-grid charging, and a couple of other things besides. That is an enormous opportunity for bringing in efficiencies and bringing down costs for participants and nonparticipants alike that needs a lot further exploration. 

I could go on and on. But those are some of the ones that are top of mind for me right now.

David Roberts:   

Well, thanks for that perspective, that's really interesting. Maybe in 20 years, there'll be another Adam at the end of another 20-year career and we'll find that demand response is sexy and ubiquitous.

Adam Browning:  

You know, here's hoping.

David Roberts:   

Thanks so much, Adam, for taking the time, and thanks for your 20 years of work.

Adam Browning:  

Both this hour and the past 20 years have definitely been my pleasure. David, thank you for being such an incisive and insightful reporter in this space. No one does it better than you. I've enjoyed reading your stuff for the last 20 years as well.

David Roberts:   

Well, I'll get you that check later. Thank you for that. Thanks a lot, Adam. Goodbye.

Adam Browning:

Take care. Bye.