Sachu Constantine of Vote Solar

It is estimated that over 2.5 million homes are equipped with solar panels in the U.S. And the popularity of capturing the natural power of the sun to heat and cool our homes is on the rise – according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) solar panel installations have increased by 43% in just the past couple of years. This week’s guest on Sea Change Radio is Sachu Constantine, the Executive Director of Vote Solar, a policy advocacy organization committed to expanding access to affordable solar energy. Constantine provides an update on net metering legislation in California, gives us a glimpse into what’s happening in the community solar space, and looks at hurdles to solar that the Trump Administration mounted.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:15 Sachu Constantine (SC) – We will always run up against the issue that when you buy a solar panel. And you buy all the equipment that goes with that solar panel including, including a battery you are buying 25 years of energy, that in and of itself is a difficult proposition.

00:32 Narrator – It is estimated that over 2.5 million homes are equipped with solar panels in the U.S. And the popularity of capturing the natural power of the sun to heat and cool our homes is on the rise – according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) solar panel installations have increased by 43% in just the past couple of years. This week’s guest on Sea Change Radio is Sachu Constantine, the Executive Director of Vote Solar, a policy advocacy organization committed to expanding access to affordable solar energy. Constantine provides an update on net metering legislation in California, gives us a glimpse into what’s happening in the community solar space, and looks at hurdles to solar that the Trump Administration mounted.

01:26 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Sachu Constantine. He is the executive director of vote Solar, Sachu Constantine. Sachu, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:42 Sachu Constantine (SC) – Thanks, Alex.

01:43 SC – Great to be with you.

01:44 AW – So we’ve had your predecessor on Adam Browning several times talking about the work that Vote Solar does. But now that you’ve taken over as Executive Director, why don’t you remind our listeners the mission of your organization?

01:58 SC – Thanks for the opportunity to come on. Adam has been a mentor and a real leader in our space and I’m, I’m really honored to be sitting in this seat at Vote Solar. Vote Solar is a 20 year old nonprofit advocacy organization.

02:10 SC – We have worked at the state level to make solar a mainstream energy choice to really improve. The value proposition for customers, for communities, for the country around solar, and quite frankly, we’ve been incredibly successful at that under Adam’s leadership and now under my transition leadership, we are making solar unaffordable. Ubiquitous choice that customers and utilities and communities can all make, and that has been our goal. All along, climate change has been a north star. We are expanding our mission to talk about energy choices, energy burden and energy justice, and I think it’s really important to our final vision, which is a strong, robust, resilient energy economy powered by renewables like solar and wind that is available and useful and helpful to everyone in the country.

03:04 AW – And on a day-to-day basis, what pies are you getting your fingers dipped into in in terms of policymaking?

03:10 SC – Yeah, that’s a great question. Vote Solar’s bread and butter has always been working at the state level, working at Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs). Those commissions which decide how utilities get to run, get to earn profit, get to deploy resources. So we act as expert witnesses in proceedings around net metering or integrated resource planning or portfolio planning or transmission planning at those state levels we also are actively involved with legislative campaigns around clean energy bills, of course, state legislatures have a big impact. We’ve seen it recently in Illinois, which I hope we can talk about, and certainly in California with legislative leadership and regulatory leadership, that’s where Vote Solar operates. We maintain a staff of real experts in the important fields. On energy and rates and now, as we said, energy, justice and justice partnerships. These are our skill sets and we deploy them where decisions are being made at the state and regional level.

04:10 AW – So you mentioned energy justice and that’s something that we’ve hit upon in the past, but I’d like to dig more into it. We think about 1/3 of the country rents their homes and for the first decade plus of the solar boom. Those renters were largely left out of the equation. What’s changed for those renters in in the last five years?

04:36 SC – Sure, and you’re speaking to a big problem, a historical problem. It’s an agency problem. Who gets to decide about their energy choices? Renters don’t often have that choice if you live in a multi-family building or if your business is in a multi-tenant mall right, you don’t have the agency to to choose solar, let alone the financial resources. So several things have changed and they’ve been part of the discussion from the get go from let’s let’s take 2007 as a starting point. When the California Solar Initiative started, we had elements in that incentive program for multifamily buildings. We had specific carve outs for low income. Or income qualified residential multifamily buildings, but it was a very small portion of it and we were working out how did you provide this value to them? So one thing that’s happened is that those early efforts have become more and more sophisticated. We do have more virtual net metering available to renters. We do have programs that are designed specifically to get landlords to think about the value proposition of solar, to put solar on their buildings or subscribe to communities. Solar, so that the renters living in those buildings can still benefit from the solar economy. So that’s that’s one thing that’s happening. That’s kind of a natural progression. We need to do more of that. We need to see more community solar, and in fact, the Inflation Reduction Act that just passed has several provisions that will help advance community solar. Market community solar is the idea that OK, I can’t put solar on my roof, but I can have solar in my community or somewhere in in the surrounding grid. I can have a solar field and individuals can subscribe to the output of that solar field, so it’s like they’re having a virtual solar plant on their home. It just happens to be in a field somewhere on a school, on a government building, and they can get good value out of that. We’ve seen attempts to do that in many, many states, California, Colorado. Add solar gardens. Florida has a program for that through FPL and Duke, we’ve seen community solar in many, many other states, so that’s one thing that’s going to help renters and that’s really important. But I want to differentiate that idea, which is a justice question, from this new centering on energy justice that I mentioned. You mentioned that 1/3 of people in the country are renters. Well, a huge percentage of the country. As you know, from 10% to as many as 40% in regions also are people who face an energy burden, an energy burden where a significant portion of their income is spent on energy and utilities. They have trouble paying their bills. They’re at risk for cut offs. They are the ones who are receiving often the worst service or maybe the first to lose power in a storm or an outage or other grid event so that. Energy burden and energy vulnerability, the injustice of the system that we have built so far falls on them, so we’re centering on them. Meeting their needs will actually help us meet the needs of the larger grid it is also true that many of those same communities, low-income communities, rental housing districts within cities or poorer agricultural communities. They are the ones that suffer the most from fossil fueled climate change. They are the ones who face the first burdens, the first impacts, and so we want to make sure that those communities, their needs are centered. And I will tell you, from our point of view, this is both a justice question. This is the right thing to do, but it’s also. So been incredibly powerful for us in building political coalitions at in places like Illinois where we just passed monumental pivotal climate change policy with the climate and Equitable JOBS Act. In Illinois, before the Inflation Reduction Act, it was the biggest thing going in the country. It’s still really important, but it passed because of a coalition with energy partners and the strength of that coalition is really important as we negotiate towards our North Star of a clean, resilient world powered 100% by clean energy.

08:40 AW – So, in terms of defining community solar, would somebody who checks the box from their utility, maybe paying a little bit more for PG&E in San Francisco, let’s say, and they’re getting solar from PG needs grid, although they don’t have rooftop solar. Would they be considered part of community solar when we’re divvying up that pie or not?

09:05 SC – Yes, absolutely. That is a that is a form of community solar. That is, you know, they had these deep green and really deep green options for, for utility supply. And you’re right, they often came at a premium. Well, that’s not what we want. Because as an individual solar owner and I have solar on my roof, I’m actually saving money. And there’s no reason why a renter should be forced to pay a premium for this very low cost source of energy. So again what we’re seeing is that these community solar programs and you described one that was that was prevalent certainly for a while, they’re evolving into better deals where you can, you can sign up for a community solar program, get that offset against your energy bill, and it should be actually saving you money. Not at a premium, because solar is in fact, the lowest cost energy resource out there now we know there are, there are transmission and distribution system costs and those all need to be accounted for. But really, what we want to see community solar evolved to is where if you can’t put solar on your roof, or if you can’t afford all of those upfront costs, you can still subscribe to a clean energy solar community solar program and get your energy in the same way that I as an individual solar owner get to that. That’s the goal and we are seeing programs like that. Develop, there will be an array. This is this is not a one-size-fits-all. There going to be many different iterations of this somewhere you have huge solar plants that are what we would traditionally think of as a utility solar plant and a portion of that is subscribed to these kinds of individual customer programs.

10:40 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the Executive Director of Vote Solar, Sach Constantine. So Sachu, maybe you can highlight how policy makes such a difference when we’re talking about penetration rates of solar. We did a piece, we had Tim Dickinson, the journalist from Rolling Stone who did a piece on Florida and their laws that were prohibiting the panels from being leased. You had to buy them, which made it very expensive upfront costs. So the Sunshine State, Florida, which I think had the second best solar profile in the country was like right in the middle of the pack in terms of penetration rates. I think it’s been shifted since we did that piece several years ago. But maybe you can kind of give us a rundown of how important policy impacts the work that you’re trying to do in in trying to make solar more ubiquitous.

11:37 SC – Sure, and you know the Sunshine State that the great irony of that is never, never lost on me. It always fascinates me that the state of Florida has been so difficult to get solar in place, and it does highlight what affect policy can have, very often with a technology like this startup phase technology 20 years ago. Policy is the push or the seed that helps this new startup grow and let’s you know, quick history lesson. Every mass energy market has started with policy supports. We have decided we’ve made a policy to lay pipelines, to lay transmission lines across the country. We decided to do that when we when we started to electrify homes. And just a a quick note, some of the first electrified homes in this country were built as. Income subsidized housing. They were built as public housing, where we incorporated some of these modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and electricity. That quickly became a mass general market phenomenon.

12:42 AW – And that’s mandated in a lot of places now, right?

12:46 SC – That is correct. We’re seeing, we’re seeing now once again that if you build public housing, some of these best, most modern practices are being required and in fact the the California Building Code is now really pushing us towards a solar ready state where all new construction has to have solar on it. Those kinds of policy supports, those pushes are really important for an early phase disruptive technology like solar, but it’s also important that to acknowledge that policy can be a real barrier. When you have protective policies in place that protect a utility monopoly, and this new technology is threatening that monopoly, we need to address those barriers. We need to get those barriers out of the way to a reasonable extent. Of course, the utilities play an important role, and they need to they need to be protected in that role. But they shouldn’t be able to force a customer to buy that panel just to be connected to the grid. They shouldn’t be able to force punitive charges onto customers just because they want to choose solar as their energy choice. So to the extent that policy can can help, that’s great and we want to see incentive programs, good, good net metering policy. We want to see interconnection policies, we want to see industrial support for solar and all of the related technologies, including storage and wind, and we also want to get rid of those policies which allow you to deflate the demand for solar to much broader, much more sophisticated policy interaction across all of these fields, permitting interconnection compensation rates, building codes. And as you’ve seen recently, of course, it even matters what our import export policies are. Those can have a profound effect as well.

14:25 AW – So there are still homeowner’s associations that will prohibit the use of rooftop solar? That seems pretty insane.

14:33 SC – I think insane is the right word. It’s certainly an overstep on the part of those HOAs.

14:38 AW – And is it legal?

14:40 SC – In court, they’re losing. We see them losing. It is, it may or may not be, quote legal, but it is certainly unjust.

(Music Break)

15:31 AW -This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Sachu Constantine. He is the Executive Director of Vote Solar. So Sachu, what are some of the other barriers to entry for most rooftop solar potential owners or users?

15:50 SC – We need to streamline permitting. We need to streamline the decision to go solar. I just want just as an example, in other countries in Australia and Germany and Japan, industrialized countries, high wages, pretty high property values, they’re installing solar at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost that we’re installing, so we need to simplify in order to bring the total cost down. That is absolute and we can do that. We can do that through better permitting processes, better customer acquisition and better interconnection policies, but we will always run up against the issue that. When you buy a solar panel and you buy all the equipment that goes with that solar panel, including, including a battery. You are buying 25 years of energy. You’re putting all the money down right now. If you’re buying it, you’re putting the money down now for 25 years of energy, a stream of payments that we would normally spread out over 25 years. That in and of itself is a difficult. So we’ve had many tools to help with that. We’ve had incentive programs and they’ve worked, they’ve they’ve brought the cost of solar down. They’ve really made it acceptable in many, in many ways given the stamp of the government to it as a safe, well performing technology. The industry has done a lot to improve their efficiency. All that’s great, but things like the ITC, the 30% tax rebate that you can get for buying that energy forward right now. It helps the country, helps our clean energy goals. So you’re getting a reduction in the first cost and it’s simple. You buy the solar or you get that 30% ITC that is a huge part of making this more accessible. Now still we’re going to have people who don’t have access to the financial to the capital to put the money down, who don’t have good credit ratings, who have many other burdens that they need to pay for. We need to figure out ways to finance that so we are seeing green banks and  programs directed at low income communities, investment community investment funds coming out of the IRA and other places. That are going to help with those first costs because that’s the hard thing. That’s why leasing and other financing options that the industry has put forward and try to develop. That’s why they’re so important, these solutions are there in front of us, we just have to decide to make them. It is a hard decision. You’re buying an asset that’s going to be on your home or certainly you know in your set of assets for 20 to 25 years. And I think we need to acknowledge that by simplifying wherever we can, making it as clear as we can what the value proposition will be and really sticking to that, you know, we can’t go around changing the value proposition willy nilly.

18:27 AW – Yes, making customers view things in the long term when there’s short term benefits is challenging.

18:36 SC – Very challenging. Absolutely I will. I just want to say a word. You know, there are lots of panels out there. There are many options to go solar. By and large, these are strong companies with strong success records. The differences between the panels are relatively minor. You might go with a very high efficiency panel, which will cost a little bit more if you have a small roof or maybe you like that, that look a little bit more and you’re willing to pay a slight premium for the efficiency, but you could go with any of the general market panels out there and they are all performing very well. We have seen nothing in the in the last 15 years of deployment that suggests that we have widespread quality problems. In fact, these systems may be overperforming overtime, lasting longer than we think and performing better than we think in some cases. Certainly early on there were there are always going to be quality issues. That’s true with any industry and we’re seeing similar trends with batteries.

19:33 AW – I want to dive into net metering. It’s an issue that we’ve talked about several times on this show. We focused on Arizona and their policies, trying to prohibit people from selling back the energy that they accumulate via their solar, their rooftop solar setup. California has been along for the solar boom. The state has transformed into a much cleaner grid over the last decade. But now there’s some forces that want to rollback a lot of the incentives that gave people an idea that this could be giving them a revenue stream. They could be selling their energy back to the utility, but if you can briefly kind of summarize what’s happening now and then what vote solar is advocating for moving?

20:25 SC – You listed off many of the benefits of rooftop solar, and I could go into great detail about them. Let’s start with that proposition. Rooftop solar is a beneficial technology. It helps the grid. It helps individual customers. But it was an early startup, so, so 15 years ago we put a policy in place that had several legs to it. To help get solar going, that included the tax credit, the national tax credit. A eventually, a 30% tax credit included direct incentives through the California Solar Initiative. It included streamlined interconnection, and it included net metering. That was the process by which you generate electricity, you use some of it on site and what you can’t use right at that moment you sent back to the grid and you got compensated for that and they just netted it. They subtracted it from your bill, so they gave you a credit, a net credit for that export and subtracted it from your bill.

21:19 AW – So if you were away for the month, not using your energy, you actually could make money.

21:24 SC – You would have a revenue coming in, right?

21:26 AW – Or your energy costs would be negligible.

21:29 SC – And in fact, even in the summer, typically a solar customer, even with a relatively small system, is overproducing in the summer months when the sun is shining the most, that they can’t use all that energy. And they’re under producing in the winter and so you balance that out over the year that was that was the proposition behind net metering. Now in in truth that was a that was a very simple, elegant and also beneficial policy. You were getting retail rates for your electricity that you exported and that’s great. Overtime it became clear that this was going to work. We saw the solar market growing and we started to worry about well, maybe it’s too rich, right? Are you paying your fair share for the maintenance of the grid at large? If you’re just getting to net your energy down to zero, are you paying your fair share? It turns out that solar customers are actually paying. They typically historically have been contributing to the cost of service. Above what it costs to serve them, so they’ve they have been providing net. Benefits, but still this was a rich incentive. So over time we took away pieces of that. We started to reduce the tax since the tax credit, we started to take away the incentive interconnection cues. You had to go through a little bit more of a process. We wanted to still streamline that’s actually really important, but we thought about addressing the export compensation, or the net metering portion of this and the Commission. Initially moved on this several years ago, couldn’t arrive at a final conclusion cattle what we call then M2 decision, which basically continued at a retail rate but started to add in things like time of use rates so that your solar was valued more closely to the time of day that it was it was available to the grid – slow reforms. And now the Commission is looking at this again, and they, the utilities have brought up the argument or that there’s a there’s a very big, they call it a cost shift, that solar customers are imposing costs on other costs. Members, vote Solar has been in this argument the entire time. We’re arguing that no, first of all, that any cost shift is is minor and can work both ways. That there’s a benefit coming from those solar customers as well as as them saving money for themselves and proposal was put out that would have really hurt the solar market. It was going to impose high fees, was going to reduce that export value to what’s called the avoided cost, and it was going to force customers to pay those extra fees and and even change their old agreements if they were an existing customer. The Commission is looking at some alternatives to that proposal. Right now we’ve put in vote solar, a proposal which basically does several things. It says no punitive charges. We shouldn’t be charging customers to go solar any more than we would charge a customer to put an efficient refrigerator in their home or to switch to a heat pump. We wouldn’t charge them for that. We don’t charge them for the energy they use in their air conditioner and for having an air conditioner, that’s not something we do to other customers. So we want to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We want to make sure that the decline from the current value of solar exports to this avoided cost, which is what it’s worth to the grid. Is gradual that we can make an adjustment over time that we don’t send it over a Cliff like you described, Arizona. What happened when they had this punitive, sudden change in the value is that the solar industry shriveled, jobs were lost, industry fled the state, customers could not access solar all at the behest. Of the utility who didn’t want this competition. That’s exactly what’s happening here in California and what we’re trying to advocate against.

25:06 AW – So it seems like these moneyed interests who are not in the solar industry, the competitors and the fossil fuel industries come to mind. They are the ones who are pushing back against obvious benefits like net metering, if you can kind of give us some of the bullet points that come to mind if somebody asked you: the last four years of the Trump administration and having a president who was unfriendly to renewables, what were some of the most pernicious policies in place that kind of tripped up progress in in the solar industry over this last four years?

25:42 SC – Well, I think starting from now going back, right, I think the the solar, the solar tariffs, this trade issue that that started under, under the Trump administration, it was unfortunate, right, you had efforts to cut off the cost of affordable solar panels from some of our trade partners in the name of some real injustices that happened in the Uighur provinces in China and certain problems with the China supply chain. We were also hurting exports from other countries, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, Philippines, other places, so that was a big. That was something that was terrible over the last few years. I think the the pushback from utility. He’s on the deployment of solar to customers, which was not in any way really opposed by the administration and was picked up by punks as a real problem that has that has rhetorically been difficult to overcome.We’ve presented lots of evidence as to why these cost shifts are. Are either minor or in fact work the other way? I think that Trump administration failed to really push any of the clean energy plan elements that would have helped elevate the value proposition of solar, right? So we had, at the end of the Obama administration, a really strong attempt to regulate carbon emissions and to put a proper price on the cost of gas, natural gas in particular. And that was scuttled during the entirety of the Trump administration. It’s coming back now in various forms, and that’s really important. So, so the biggest problem over the last four years has been this rush to gas, this attempt as solar becomes more and more economic, both rooftop and utility scale the rush by utilities to invest in Long live gas or fossil technologies, those are all going to become stranded assets, and I think the fact that those are on the books, that is in and of itself a barrier to clean energy to a transition because we have to carry those costs. People have to pay for these four misguided investments and expanded gas pipelines and expanded gas. Cities at the same time that we’re asking to make a transition to a clean energy economy, I think that’s a real drag on where we want to go.

27:49 AW – He’s the Executive Director of Vote Solar. People can go to votesolar.org to learn more and support the efforts of his organization. Sachu Constantine, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 SC – Thank you, Alex. Great to be with you.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Stanley Turrentine and Ray Charles. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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