News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Book Review: 'Rooftop Revolution' A Valuable Primer For Rooftop Solar

Rooftop Revolution by Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy is a cheerleader, and he doesn't try to hide it. The founder and President of the Oakland-based solar leasing firm Sungevity, Kennedy is on a mission: to turn people on to rooftop solar, either with his company or not. Sure, he'd like to turn a profit, but his main goal -- and Sungevity's real business plan -- is less pedestrian. They plan to save the world from fossil fuels.

And that's plain when you read Kennedy's new book, "Rooftop Revolution." Part autobiography, part history of the solar photovoltaic industry, and part critique of our carbon-based economy, "Rooftop Revolution" is an engaging and accessible primer for anyone wanting to learn what the whole rooftop solar thing is about.

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The book is far from unbiased and objective, but then so is its author. Before founding Sungevity in 2008, Kennedy spent the bulk of his life working as an environmental activist fighting large resource-extraction companies that were doing damage around the world. Full disclosure: I've known Kennedy for close to 20 years. When I met him, he was working with a small Berkeley-based NGO called Project Underground, which battled oil and mining companies from New Guinea to Nevada. Kennedy and I co-hosted an environmental news show on the Pacifica radio network in the mid-1990s, and his knowledge of the oil, coal, uranium, and natural gas industries was nothing short of encyclopedic.

In that respect, Kennedy hasn't changed much. He introduces his readers early on to a spectre he calls "King CONG," the broad association of companies in the Coal, Oil, Nuclear, and Gas industries (C.O.N.G.) that are doing their best to slow the growth of solar PV, a frightening competitor.

But hold on, CONG pipes up. What's the rush? Wait until solar panels produce electricity at 20 percent efficiency in terms of photons to electrons; or wait five years, for 30 percent efficiency; or wait a decade, for 50 percent efficiency. This ignores the fact that at 15 percent efficient conversion of photons to electrons, solar panels make electricity both cleaner and more cost-effective.... In other words many fossil-fuel interests are peddling the message that they care, but in truth they're procrastinating.

A chapter of the book is devoted to debunking the idea that the federal government is unfairly subsidizing solar technology at the expense of other energy sources:

The US government's $50 billion-plus-per-year outlay for conventional energy sources distorts the US energy sector by subsidizing mature companies whose business models and core technologies work well, are insanely profitable, and in many ways dominate markets that are neither highly volatile nor even competitive. The other way our government supports them is to continue to turn a blind eye to their externalities, or true costs -- whether that's maintaining a military presence in the Middle East (to secure our access to oil) or tolerating the intense impact of conventional energy on human health and ecosystems.

Kennedy also describes solar leasing arrangements like those Sungevity offers in clear, non-math-heavy terms -- though he does shy away from the somewhat controversial topic of whether those contracts are a great deal for homeowners in the long term. He also spends time discussing job creation in the solar industry, including the emerging field of secondary solar services, in which companies specialize in maintenance and repair of existing rooftop installations rather than installing them. To my knowledge, that's the only description in print of that subsector of the solar industry, despite the overall sector's astonishing growth in the last few years.

To round it off, Kennedy profiles a number of people worldwide active in the solar and climate change activism sphere, ranging from Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives to German PV engineer Sven Teske to former Black Sabbath guitarist Rue Phillips, CEO of the solar maintenance firm True South Renewables.

Reviewing a book by an old friend pretty much obligates you to find a flaw to point out so as not to veer completely into fluff territory, and Kennedy did provide me with one: nowhere in the book is there mention of solar power other than rooftop PV. The book's entitled "Rooftop Revolution," so it makes sense that that would be its focus. Still, decentralized distributed generation like Kennedy champions isn't just fighting against King CONG: it's fighting Big Solar as well. Kennedy rightly criticizes BP's historic procrastinatory inroads into the PV world, which ended in 2011 when BP Solar went under, but fails to mention that same company's investments in utility-scale concentrating solar. Utility-scale remote solar is seen by many as King CONG's attempt to get a foothold in renewables while maintaining their extremely lucrative business model, and such remote solar -- and wholesale distributed generation projects, for that matter -- can be said to pose more of a threat to rooftop solar adoption than adherence to fossil fuels.

It would have been interesting to read Kennedy's take on that widening fissure within the solar industry itself. Still, despite the omission, "Rooftop Revolution" remains a readable, entertaining introduction to the energy production sea change now in progress on a rooftop near you.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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