Jun 22, 2015 by

Director Shalini Kantayya talks to Salon about the incredible potential of solar power
Lindsay Abrams SALON.COM


When you hear about Richmond, California — on the environmental beat, at least — it’s usually in the context of the Chevron oil refinery, one of the country’s biggest, that casts its long shadow over the city. There was the fire and explosion in 2012 that sent toxic fumes into the surrounding Bay Area. There are the continuing worries about the long-term health effects facing the people who breathed those fumes in. There’s the everyday air pollution, and the everyday risk, that comes from living in the refinery’s vicinity and, more quietly, there’s the big money Chevron pumps into local elections to ensure none of this is examined too closely.

“The only time you ever saw Richmond on the news was two things: somebody’s bleeding or somebody’s burning,” Michele McGeoy, the founder of Solar Richmond, tells a class of job trainees at the beginning of the documentary “Catching the Sun.” “I want to create some good news in Richmond.”

The project in Richmond, and in cities like it across the country, is to shift from what environmental activist Van Jones, who also features prominently in the film, calls a “pollution-based economy,” filled with haves and have-nots, to an economy based on green energy — the environmental benefits of which are almost second to the creation of jobs, and the improved quality of life, that investment in solar innovation can create. The film follows the stories of the workers, entrepreneurs and political activists who are working to make that happen, and of the forces, both local and global, that can help or hinder the process.

Salon spoke with Shalini Kantayya, the film’s director, about America’s place in the global clean energy race. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“Catching the Sun” starts out a little differently from most environmental films: You don’t really talk about the planet, large-scale, or climate change, but go straight to these very local impact of fossil fuels, focusing on one community where people might not normally prioritize environmental issues. Could you tell me a little bit more about why you chose that approach?

I was very interested in Richmond, California, as a symbol of other American cities. It was a large industrial city, and a lot of those industries have left Richmond, leaving it with high amounts of unemployment. Also, a lot of those industries had been dirty industries, so it had higher rates of cancer and asthma. When I discovered this Solar Richmond training program, I thought it could be a symbol of the type of transformation that could be good for cities across the country.

That’s sort of what put me on this journey, and I started to tell a small story about American workers seeking to retool for jobs in the solar industry. After a year or two of wondering why they haven’t gotten jobs, I started to unravel the large global forces at play deciding whether American workers get jobs in the industries of tomorrow. That journey took me to China. Integrating those two stories — that local story in Richmond and this global story in China — that took two years in the edit room.

It’s so disheartening in the second half of the film when this character who’s gone through the training program, and is now a skilled worker, just can’t find a job in solar. What are some of the global forces that you found that were working against him?

What I really began to understand in the making of this film is the importance of public policy in creating common good for us, as a democracy. I think we’ve been so swayed by media to believe that anything that is in the common good is communist. But actually our environment is something that is in our common good. And so, what I came to understand is that we can use the power of public policy to avert a crisis. Here in the United States we have a history of doing that — Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol. We know how to do that, and that’s what I got excited about in the making of this film. And the fact that, because we’re dealing with electricity, a lot of those decisions get made at the local and the state level, where people have a lot of power. With Congress totally missing in action, we can make this change all across the country.

Can you talk a little bit about how public policy toward renewable energy in the U.S. differs from what’s going on in China?

I think the foremost distinction is that the government of China accepts the signs of global warming and accepts the signs that human beings are causing it. And also, China has passed aggressive national policy to become a world leader in renewable energy technology. In two of its last five-year plans, it’s identified renewable energy as a major sector of growth in China. What we’ve seen with that very aggressive policy is, China went from producing a fraction of 1 percent of the world’s global solar to producing 90 percent of the world’s global solar. That happened essentially in just over five years. What’s interesting about China’s entry into renewable energy is that it’s also helped to bring the price down. What’s happening is that the U.S. now has the opportunity to create jobs downstream, in the installation, in the design and the engineering, where there are more jobs anyway — and those jobs cannot be outsourced. I really think the U.S. and China can work together to solve this crisis.

At the local level, you suggest the problem isn’t even about getting people to accept climate change. There’s that really strong moment in the beginning of the film where a couple is speaking at home. The husband says, “We can get solar panels on our roof. It can lower the electricity bill.” And the wife is telling him to “be practical” — she’s not believing it could happen. It seems like there’s still a lot of skepticism in the U.S. that this industry is capable of growing as much as it is projected to.

Absolutely, and here’s the thing: You don’t have to accept what 99 percent of the world’s scientists agree upon. You don’t have to actually believe in climate change to believe that solar energy is good for our country. I think that’s the big distinction that my film makes. It shows that in so many places across the country, it is the same cost or cheaper — rapidly becoming cheaper — than the cost of fossil fuels. And with fossil fuels, there are all these expenses that we don’t factor in to the cost of energy: say, for instance, pollution, and the effect that fossil fuels have on our air and the amount of asthma and the cost of sending our kids to the hospital for those inhalers. We don’t factor that into the cost of fossil fuels, nor do we factor the other costs that we spend: our human lives, our resources, our military. Once you begin to factor in those external costs, solar wins economically every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

I’m wondering, would you argue that taking climate change out of the renewable energy conversation altogether could be a way of depoliticizing it and moving forward?

Absolutely. I think one of the strongest things about the film is that we feature someone like Debbie Dooley, a Tea Party activist. Libertarians and Tea Party activists love solar because this is about a free market for energy, which we don’t have — we have a monopoly. Most of us get a bill from our utility company, and whatever they charge us, we have to pay. So there are lots of people on the left and on the right together who just want clean energy choices and consumer choices around energy. We want to break up these monopolies that we don’t need anymore around energy. We need to innovate around energy, and this is about being competitive in the technologies of the future.

When you think about something like solar, it’s renewable. Once you have it up, there’s no marginal cost. For so many places, it really makes sense. It is our job in the United States, as a government, to create the conditions to make us competitive in the next century, to make us competitive and innovative, which has always been the strength of the United States in the industries of tomorrow. Just like China, we should be doing this for national security reasons, we should be doing this for economic reasons and job reasons, and for the health of our communities.

What do we do about the opposition coming from utilities and from fossil fuel? The way the film treats Van Jones’ dismissal from the White House heavily implies that he was attacked by people who didn’t support the green energy agenda — how formidable of a threat do you see that as being?

Well, look. The fossil fuel industry consolidated wealth and power in the hands of very few people. That’s how we got the Koch brothers, that’s how we got the Saudi royal family, that’s how we got the 1 percent and so many problems of our democracy as a result of their wealth and power and influence and interference in our democratic process. I think the big exciting idea about solar energy is that it’s good for the 99 percent. When you have the right policy, like they did in Germany, you can put solar on your house, and you become an independent power generator. Instead of your utility sending you a bill, they’re sending you a check. You can imagine that the utility companies, they don’t want to do this! I mean industrialists were almost left out of the solar revolution in Germany: 80 percent of the people that benefited were ordinary citizens like you and me who became power generators. It’s good for our middle class, it democratizes energy, it decentralizes energy, it makes it more sacred. It has utility companies and 1-percenters who have benefited from dirty fossil fuels shaking in their boots, and with good reason. It’s economically competitive. I think we’re going to have a battle, and some of that is just around public education and making sure we get across the facts.

Are you optimistic that the U.S. will be able to build an economy like Germany’s — its own version of the clean energy economy?

In all honesty, my concern is that it will be big businesses that go solar. We’ll have big industrial solar, and it’ll be less every person becoming an independent power generator. But that really depends on the levers of public policy. Here’s what’s exciting: With Congress missing in action, at least 29 states have made commitments to being at least 10 percent renewable by 2020. States like California are leading the way — it’s already running on 25 percent renewable energy, and quickly moving to 33 percent. That’s happening on the state level. Here in Los Angeles, we’re moving to 20 percent by 2020, or making headway to set those targets.

I think this should be a race to the top. We should be outcompeting each other state by state to see who is going to be the most renewable state in the country. The more that we do that, and we get our mayors and our governors and our state representatives … and this isn’t the Congress! Your city council might have three friends from your high school on it that you know. We can make change at this level. This is tangible. But the democratization of our energy is going to require citizens to take action, that we go to our city councils and we go to our state leaders, and we say yes, we want clean energy choice. We want to be competitive in the industries of the future. We don’t want to miss the next opportunity, because the world already understands this. Most of the new energy that’s coming online in the world is already renewable. The world is going to be mostly renewable by 2030, so the only question is what country is going to get the biggest piece of that multi-trillion-dollar industry.

I really do believe that everything we love can be saved: our democracy, the middle class, the polar bears. But it’s going to be like a third industrial revolution. It’s going to take that kind of setting of targets and using the levers of public policy, which are the tools we have as a democracy.

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