Solar power is a huge success story. A longtime solar champion explains how it happened

Adam Browning, departing leader of Vote Solar, shares insights from his 20-year career as a pioneering solar advocate.

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
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There aren’t a lot of positive, hopeful stories competing for attention in the U.S. 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 U.S. electricity today, analysts say it could provide close to half by midcentury. 

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.

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Adam Browning is stepping down from the helm of Vote Solar after 20 years with the advocacy group he co-founded. (Image courtesy 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.

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. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, condensed and lightly edited.

David Roberts: Tell me the Adam Browning origin story. How did you gravitate to this particular field?

Adam Browning: 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 movable feast that I continue to look back on and think about, and that experience continues to nourish.

After that, I joined the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, the Region 9 office, and worked there for about eight years. The origin story — not of Adam Browning, but really of Vote Solar, which is probably more to the point here — was 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.

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 chair of the California Energy 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, we should try to put this on City Hall. We need to have governments take the lead.” 

Through that beer and subsequent diagramming on napkins, 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 economically. 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?

Second, we had this campaign where you could actually do solar — which again was then 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? That 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.

Roberts: So were people planning for it? Like the Department of Energy, when it did projections at the time — were people saying solar was going to grow into something big? Or was it viewed as a niche thing for the century? 

Browning: I would compare it to the algae technology 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. 

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?

Browning: There are often times when you have policy that promises an outcome and fails to deliver on it. Here was something that was an absolute bull’s-eye. 

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. 

In September, Illinois passed, finally, a bill that will require 100 percent clean energy. That makes the 10th state. Well over 35 percent of the people who live in this country now live in a state where carbon-based electricity 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.

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.

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. If they like solar, we’re not going to tell them why they like solar. Let them bring that to the campaign itself. 

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?

Browning: Can you see similar cost declines in other climate-necessary technologies? I would argue yes, 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, and for heat pumps, which are nascent.

Roberts: Make heat pumps as sexy as solar, Adam. That’s your next goal.

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, 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 this: Does it make your life better? 

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 Wi-Fi-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. 

Roberts: Yeah, that’s my dream. 

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Visit Volts to read the full (much longer) transcript of this conversation or listen to the audio, which also covers Biden’s efforts, federal versus state progress on clean energy, Jigar Shah at the DOE Loan Program Office and more. 

David Roberts is editor-at-large at Canary Media. He writes about clean energy and politics at his newsletter, Volts. Previously, he covered the same subjects at Vox and Grist.