The Clean Energy Revolution Is Picking Up Pace in the USA

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

The reason: the party of climate change deniers is beginning to see that green can also be the color of money.

Solar panels as the American flag

Nowhere else in the US are there more solar cells per resident than in this city. And they have their Republican mayor to thank for it.

Rex Parris is not exactly the kind of guy you would expect to start a revolution. A businessman and a Republican, he likes things the way they are.

It stands to reason, then, that what he has achieved in his 10 years as mayor of the small Californian town of Lancaster is not so much a revolution as solid economic policy. And the numbers can certainly attest to that.

Parris has nevertheless sparked a small revolution in the field of energy politics that threatens to spread like wildfire. Along the way he has been teaching both fellow party members and political opponents a solid lesson. In a rapid process he has achieved a nearly perfect energy transition and transformed his city into the solar capital of the USA. It is now only a matter of months before the city achieves total energy self-sufficiency.

Parris has proven to environmentalists that promoting sacrifice and tree hugging are not pre-requisites to enforcing climate-friendly policies. More importantly, he has demonstrated to his own party — in which three out of four members still do not believe that climate change is primarily man-made — that this works, it is politically and economically viable.

In his own words, “I may be a Republican. But I’m not an idiot.”

“The solar capital of the universe!”

“We have the perfect conditions here for solar installations,” says Kathy Wells, coordinator of the city’s energy projects. Clouds are a rarity here, and the sun is almost always shining — with full force. Now in June, at midday, the sun is so high in the sky that your shadow disappears beneath the soles of your shoes. According to Google’s Project Sunroof, which analyzes digital maps of cities and calculates the solar potential of rooftops, 97% of the city’s rooftops are solar-viable. That’s hard to beat.

The city of Lancaster lies like a broad, flat pancake in the dust of the Mojave Desert. It may only have a population of around 160,000, on par with that of Darmstadt (Germany), but it covers an area the size of Frankfurt am Main (Germany). As I coast over the scorching asphalt of Lancaster Boulevard which, scattered with a few small stores, cafes and places to sit, constitutes the heart of the city, I feel as though I have become lost in a small town. There’s not much going on. The only thing they have plenty of here — besides fast food restaurants — is open space and sun.

Businessman Rex Parris recognized that this — the sun and the open space — was precisely where the city’s fortune lay, and in 2014 he set about bringing life back into his city, where photovoltaic is already showing its success. In just four years, Lancaster has become the solar capital of the United States. No other community generates more solar power per capita.

“Already by September we expect to be able to generate enough solar energy to completely cover our electricity needs,” says Kathy Wells proudly. “We ourselves are a little surprised by how fast it has happened.”

Kathy Wells and Joseph Cabral in the Lancaster City Hall.

Becoming the “solar capital of the universe” in four steps

By September 2018, the city plans to have enough solar panels to be able to generate, under direct sunlight, sufficient energy to cover the city’s peak load. At night, of course, production comes to a halt. In a second phase, more panels will be added so that over the course of the year, the city will be able to cover its total consumption. “In the future we will start thinking about battery storage, so that we can use even more of our own electricity.”

The four most important steps to Lancaster becoming, as Rex Parris calls it, the “solar capital of the universe,” were:

  1. Public buildings: The low-hanging fruit in the solar revolution were the roofs that belonged to the city itself. Parris had the City Hall, 25 schools, eight softball fields, the local baseball stadium and many other public buildings covered with more than 32,000 solar panels.
  2. Bureaucracy: “It used to take weeks for home owners to receive a permit to install solar panels,” says Kathy Wells. “Rex said, “It needs to be done in 15 minutes!” And that is exactly how long it now takes to have City Hall approve an installation. Barely long enough to recover from the 95°F outside heat in the air-conditioned lobby... Over 5,000 homeowners have made the trip since then. In addition, Parris made it compulsory for virtually all new homes to be fitted with solar panels — a regulation that now extends to the whole of California.
  3. Efficiency: The city has taken measures to reduce its own electricity demand, for example by converting street lighting to LED. Above all, however, it offers simple, free programs to help residents save electricity themselves, for example by improving window insulation or making electrical appliances more efficient.
  4. Nationalization: Possibly the most important decision the ambitious mayor made was to put electricity production in the hands of the city. While the regional utility company will continue to operate the grid and keep the books, Lancaster has created the Lancaster Choice Energy power provider, which exclusively offers solar energy. Thanks to the opt-out rule, all power users citywide are automatically enrolled in the program, but can choose to opt-out and remain with their former provider if they wish. “Maybe 5% have taken this path,” says Kathy Wells, “but the new rate is usually cheaper. At most, there are a few older residents who say, I have been with this company for 30 years and I would like to remain loyal to it.”

A roof covers the parking lot in front of the City Hall — fitted with solar panels, of course.

New applications for solar installations are piling up in the City Hall.

By far the most important factor in the Lancaster revolution, however, is Rex Parris himself.

“I may be a Republican. But I’m not an idiot.”

“He's a little autocratic,” says Joseph Cabral, who heads the city’s public relations. “Just the right amount.” He appears to consider whether his sentence could be misconstrued, before adding, “well, that’s how it is.”

“When he enters the room and starts talking, everyone is captivated,” says Kathy Wells. “It doesn't matter if it’s citizens, other politicians or a bunch of businessmen.”

Rex Parris, Mayor of Lancaster.

Rex Parris picked up his rhetorical skills in the courtroom. He is late to the political game and, prior to becoming mayor, spent many years working as a very successful lawyer — a job he still holds to this day. Along the highway that runs through the city, he grins down from numerous billboards advertising his law firm.

His success is no coincidence — Rex prepares every case, for trial using the latest scientific findings in persuasion skills. Everything from metaphoric choices, word selection and visuals are tested and re-tested before each trial. Except from the Parris law firm website.

In Germany, a political latecomer like Parris would spark skepticism and mistrust, with many questioning his motivations. But in the USA, where Parris is from, and in particular within the Republican Party, which is known for conservatism and economic liberalism, it is considered a strength. “He knows how to deal with money; He knows how to negotiate! That is what we need! He hasn’t been softened by the political system, he doesn’t ramble on incessantly, and he can put his foot down when needed.” Here, you are bound to run into men like him.

In the traditionally conservative and Republican-governed city, it is no surprise that a man like Parris should be elected — and twice re-elected. What is surprising, however, is that a conservative Republican like Parris would embrace solar energy and focus almost his entire policies around it.

Republicans have close ties with the oil industry, which pumps millions into their campaigns in the hopes that subsequent legislation will reflect their interests. With Donald Trump this tactic has certainly paid off. Trump’s former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who stepped down at the beginning of July, dismantled many environmental protection policies that favored renewable energy sources over fossil fuels. Among them, gas emission standards for automobiles and rules requiring oil and gas companies to fix methane leaks. To put it mildly, renewable energy is viewed with skepticism in the Republican Party.

In recent decades, considerable sums have flown into public opinion shaping for coal and gas, which are promoted as “clean coal” and sold under the guise of independence and tradition. Surveys show that this strategy works.

Republicans are discovering their “green” hearts

Recently, however, the mood has changed among Republican supporters. At the local and regional level, in particular, politicians and voters who aren’t seeing any of the millions coming from the oil companies are noticing that wind and solar power can pay off. “You know, people here think green too: dollar-green!” says Kathy Wells, rubbing her thumb against her index and middle fingers.

The boulevard in Lancaster constitutes the heart of the city. By European standards, it’s rather empty.

In Texas, a die-hard Republican state, there are wind turbines with an output of over 22 gigawatts — more than twice that of all the nuclear power plants in Germany. And in California and other sunny, conservatively governed states, the Lancaster model is catching on. Especially among younger Republicans who see little reason why they should let a good deal slip through their fingers just because of the stubborn convictions of a couple of old fellows.

It shows, in particular, that the Republicans are not averse to renewable energy. Their enthusiasm just stems from a different place than the Democrats'. Here is a quick overview of the economic advantages Lancaster has drawn from the sun’s rays:

  • The city and schools save around $460,000 — a year — in electricity costs.
  • The exact number is hard to gauge, but most likely more than 1,300 jobs have been created in the solar sector.
  • The city has raised millions in subsidies for current and future projects in the energy sector.
  • The business-friendly administration has attracted further investments, including the Chinese electric bus manufacturer BYD, which currently employs over 700 people at its Lancaster plant. A further 500 jobs are to follow.

Of course, the residents show no objections to the economic revival of their city — they have already re-elected Parris twice. He wants to attract even more businesses and convert Lancaster into a “Silicon Valley” for renewable energy.

There are surely a few other bright Republicans out there who could learn a thing or two from Rex Parris, with similar success. At the end of the day, when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, the climate is colorblind.

The Research trip for this story was supported by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Nordamerika.

The original article, “Die Energiewende in den USA nimmt Fahrt auf. Weil die Partei der Klimaleugner merkt, dass sich damit Geld verdienen lässt”, was published in German at Perspective Daily, on July 16th, 2018.

The text was translated from German into English by Viktoria Theimann.