Review: Catching the Sun

The latest solar documentary—this one from filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayyais making the rounds at special screenings nationwide and recently was added to Netflix‘s streaming lineup. I welcome any film that draws attention to renewable energy and climate change, but this film fell short for me.

The thesis of the film is somewhat tired, as well as somewhat misguided: America has an opportunity to be the global leader in solar energy. If we don’t, China will. The lack of sound federal energy policies are holding us back, not to mention the strength of the oil industry lobby. With more solar investment, we could have a country that doesn’t emit carbon and simultaneously creates great jobs.

Let’s break that down. First, the film seems to define “leadership” in solar energy in two parallel ways: the number of utility-scale deployments, and the number of installer jobs.

To say that the U.S. is falling behind in solar—or already has—is a difficult thesis to defend. Among others, the film follows Zhongwei Jiang, the founder of Chinese PV module manufacturer WesTech, who boasts that his firm is supplying modules for utilities not just in China but all over the world—except, presumably, in the United States. His company is growing like gangbusters. But no data is presented about how many utility-scale deployments are happening here without WesTech. The numbers aren’t exactly grim. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association:

  • 4,000 major solar projects are currently in progress, representing over 72 GW of capacity.
  • Over 16 GWac of major solar projects are currently operating.
  • Over 53.3 GW of PV and CSP projects are either under construction or under development.

Those numbers are huge. And if you believe this data set, the U.S. has more solar farms than China but they cumulatively produce less total capacity, thus ranking us #2. But the more interesting point is that China has 44 plants under development, while the U.S. has 345. So the solar growth rate in the U.S. will be higher.

Granted, growth could be much faster with more support from states and the federal government, but the amazing story is that growth is still happening despite the lack of the lack of a coherent national energy policy or pro-growth state-level policies (New Mexico comes to mind). In fairness, the extension of the ITC/PTC is a good federal policy that certainly continues to drive solar adoption.

And let’s not ignore this: China’s population is approximately four times that of the United States. Per capita, the U.S. produces more power from solar than China does. IHS estimates that in 2015 China installed 14.4 GW of solar capacity, whereas the U.S. installed 8.4. GTM Research reported China was actually at 19 GW and the U.S. only at 7. On a proportionate basis, is the U.S. really behind China in solar?

The film also focuses on the potential for solar to create jobs, but limits the discussion to jobs for residential solar installers by focusing on a program in Richmond, CA to train people to become installers. It’s true that approximately half the jobs in the U.S. solar industry are for installers. But what about the other half? There are jobs for people in engineering, sales, supply chain operations, marketing, training, project development and management, and many other areas, too. These aren’t all white collar jobs, either; we need factory workers, electricians, warehouse staff, truck drivers and more, too. And when you get out to large-scale commercial or utility-scale deployments, you need construction crews, maintenance technicians and the like. A vibrant solar industry creates jobs for everyone, at every level. The film misses that. (For a great analysis of where the jobs are, see the National Solar Jobs Census.)

The film also misses another glaring point. Solar adoption in the U.S. would be much higher if it weren’t for the fact that we have some very windy areas. If renewable energy is the goal—not strictly from solar—then the U.S. is arguably a world leader when wind production is factored in. The film completely ignores wind, save for some brief shots of wind farms. It also ignores hydroelectric and even nuclear.

And this takes me to another weakness of the film, which is the positioning of the oil industry as the primary enemy of solar. But what about coal? According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, U.S. utilities generate 33% of their energy from coal and an equal 33% from natural gas. The rest is from nuclear (20%) and renewables (mostly wind). Natural gas won’t disappear completely in the foreseeable future because gas turbines can be spun up quickly when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Put differently, solar and wind can replace coal production—but gas turbines will still be needed until an efficient, more cost-effective means of energy storage is developed.

I hope what most people who are unfamiliar with solar take away from this film is the idea that America would benefit from a federally-driven moonshot program for cleaner energy. That’s actually addressed briefly in the film and was my favorite part. But it’s important to acknowledge that wind and other renewable sources should be part of the mix, not just solar. And, that energy conservation is just as important as clean energy production. I thought it was somewhat ironic that in the film we see several people flying around the world on airplanes and driving in gas-powered cars while promoting clean energy. The same criticism was raised against Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth.

We have a long way to go but I’m far more optimistic about the current reality of renewable energy—not just its future—than the film portrays.

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