Solarize the Future
By David Sweet, Solar Oregon member and Solar Ambassador
Ralph Nader famously remarked, “The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.” But that was before we created the Solarize Portland model that has opened up solar energy to hundreds of Portland households and is about to open it to hundreds more.
Solarize Northeast had its start in the fall of 2009, when my friend Kelly Rodgers and I decided to see if we could replicate the Solarize model that had been created in Southeast Portland. We brought our plan to the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, which took it on, and the result was 204 solar installations in Northeast Portland.
The idea has really taken off, and over the last 2½ years, neighborhood-based Solarize projects in Portland have resulted in over 700 solar installations. In all of 2008, by comparison, there were 38 installations. But the Solarize totals are only part of the story, because the number of non-Solarize installations in Portland is exploding as well—there were more than 500 in 2010 and more than 1000 in 2011.
What’s going on? Social scientists call it “innovation diffusion”—the spread of a new idea. Typically, innovations are championed by activist “change agents,” and first tried by so-called “early adopters.” Our goal with the Solarize projects is to move solar technology to the “tipping point,” where it spreads beyond early adopters and into the mainstream. Among the factors that determine whether and how quickly an innovation spreads are its complexity and its visibility. The Solarize model addresses these factors.
We simplify the complex decision making with a predetermined contractor, a fixed price, and community workshops to demystify the process. We also make solar technology more visible through our outreach, our workshops, and the number of panels going up in our neighborhoods. People are also encouraged to try something new if it’s being done by people they know—people like them—their community. Which is another reason that the Solarize community model is so successful.
Solarize is also a model for the cultural transformation we need to make. The end of the oil age is upon us. The subsidy of ancient sunlight that has brought us the wealth and wonders of a global industrial society is ending. In the very near future, we will need to be locally self-reliant and self-sufficient. We will need to produce most of what we need, including energy, very close to home. We will also need strong bonds of community to support us through this challenging change. Solarize Northeast is a shift toward local self-sufficiency and it is an exercise in community. And community, like a muscle, becomes stronger when it is exercised.
Eighty years ago, Thomas Edison told Henry Ford, “I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Well, we haven’t quite run out, and we’re beginning to tackle it. Solarize Northeast Phase II is going to be even more successful than Phase I, and I’m excited that I get to be part of it. My gratitude to NECN and to everyone here who is working to create a more resilient, self-reliant, and stronger community.