Why Is Solar So Bad At Lobbying? Posted on May 23, 2017
As some of the people who have fought for solar for the past decade or more, we know the answer to this question. First, even within the industry's national solar trade organizations there is fighting between the commercial, utility and residential segments of the solar industry. Then, there is the fact that most residential solar companies are small in size without large budgets or the experience needed to successfully lobby at the federal level. And, finally, when pro-solar line items do make it into bills, they often somehow disappear right before the finish line even under the pens of DC politicians with a lot of solar in their states. As those who have worked in DC for a while will tell you: “everyones' pockets here are lined with fossil fuel money.”
With the residential solar industry once again moving to a more localized industry that must focus on surviving through referrals and staying small, the largely absent voice of any residential installation companies at the federal level, even within the industry’s main federal lobbying organizations like SEIA, cannot be ignored. The companies rated as the top U.S. “residential solar companies” by megawatts installed cannot be trusted to fight for the small, localized residential solar installation companies. First, some of them, like Sungevity and SolarCity, aren’t around anymore, at least not in their original form and their new forms are still uncertain and untested. Second, most of those companies, such as companies like SunRun and Vivant Solar, make money on their internal financing business models, which provide that they own the solar systems through providing solar power purchase agreements and leases to customers. Such business models, not always, but often, do better under commercial policy tools such as the commercial Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Truly pro-residential policies such as the residential ITC were hard fought wins by a very few, but vocal, members of the residential solar industry, like Akeena Solar, which also are no longer around.
What is the solution? At the same time that small residential solar installation companies (companies size 1 to 80 employees) is the current direction of the industry, in order for these companies to get what they need, they need to get educated on how to lobby, quickly. Although money is a strong motivator for politicians, so are votes and jobs. Companies should always mention how many jobs they create in their politician's district when asking for a policy item. And, in person meetings are more persuasive than letters and emails. Finally, companies should get active with their local solar trade association or work on creating a solar community in their area to band together and network. The residential solar industry, the true “residential solar” industry that isn’t in the finance business, needs good partners and lots and lots of community. Without paying a lobbyist a million-dollar salary to run around DC or even being able to participate on the Board of SEIA, residential solar companies need to band together and learn how to work together to get the policies that will truly benefit their businesses. Lastly, there are very specific techniques that work and others that don't work when lobbying. The more educated companies become on these techniques, the more effective they can be when advocating for pro-solar incentives and laws. Residential solar companies are small companies. At the same time, this should not stop them from effectively lobbying.