Adam Browning, the co-founder of Vote Solar, is stepping down as the organization’s leader after nearly 20 years in which solar power has gone from the margins of the energy economy to a period of plummeting costs and rapid growth.
I spoke with him this week about his experience leading the nonprofit, why he’s leaving and what’s next.
Vote Solar is a formidable player in both the inside game of arguing cases before state regulatory commissions and the outside game of convincing the public to support solar-friendly policies. The organization has a broad reach despite having only about 40 people on staff.
Vote Solar has been an important part of expanding the solar market in California and in other states, said Jigar Shah, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, and previously a clean energy business executive and entrepreneur.
He said Browning deserves credit for much of what Vote Solar has done, while also noting that one of Browning’s essential traits is that he doesn’t place much value on receiving credit.
“What he was really good at—and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way—was acting like he wasn’t the smartest person in the room and genuinely listening to people,” Shah said.
Vote Solar grew from a 2001 ballot measure in San Francisco in which voters approved borrowing $100 million in bonds to pursue clean energy projects.
More specifically, Vote Solar grew from the fact that the 2001 campaign was an opportunity for two old friends from Swarthmore College to reconnect while working on the campaign and to realize that they could build something that went beyond a single ballot measure. The friends were Browning, who was working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco office, and David Hochschild, who worked for then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
“So much about environmentalism at that time was, ‘No. Don’t do this. Don’t do that,’” Browning told me. In contrast, the San Francisco campaign was saying, “Yes. Do this,” he said. Soon, people from other cities inquired about how to take similar actions.
Browning and Hochschild founded Vote Solar in 2002, using $50,000 in seed money from The Energy Foundation, to help manage solar campaigns across the country. (Hochschild left in 2006 to work for a solar company and now is chairman of the California Energy Commission.)
The co-founders set out to conduct campaigns in other cities and began to realize that the factor limiting solar development in many places was state policy. They changed the young organization’s emphasis to focus on making changes at the state level, and gradually added staff.
The growth was possible because, after about 10 years of existence, Vote Solar began to get much more support from foundations and other funders.
“Every time you turned around, Vote Solar was winning,” Shah said. “And so, at some point, environmental foundations and others started going, ‘Wait a second, why aren’t we funding Adam?’”
This was a shift from the organization’s early days. “My sense is that the vast majority of the time I’ve known Adam, he was like, ‘Jigar, I’m not very good at asking for money,’” Shah said.
Along the way, Vote Solar collaborated with other clean energy groups in an evolving series of partnerships, and devoted more resources to improving access to solar for people with lower incomes and from marginalized groups.
Vote Solar also is notable for its work on state regulatory cases that help to shape solar policy but don’t get much attention, said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, an energy watchdog group.
“They’ve not only had regulatory savvy and expertise, but they’ve also known how politics work and how social movements work,” he said.
The results can be seen in North and South Carolina, where Vote Solar was part of a coalition that negotiated a compromise on rooftop solar rules with the utility Duke Energy. They are also visible in Michigan, where Vote Solar helped to argue against a rate structure proposed by the utility DTE that would have hurt rooftop solar, and in Illinois, where Vote Solar is one of the groups pushing for a legislative package that would include an expansion of state incentives for solar.
Browning, 50, is leaving Vote Solar at the end of September. He said this was not a sudden decision for him, and that the organization has been working on a transition plan behind the scenes to prepare for his move.
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The interim executive director will be Sachu Constantine, Vote Solar’s managing director of regulatory issues, while the organization conducts a search for Browning’s long-term replacement.
Browning said that he felt like it was time to do something else. He doesn’t have another job lined up, he said, but does have a desire, after taking a brief break, to try new things in “the climate space,” by which he means business and advocacy related to climate change.
“I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I would like to address some new areas of the space,” he said.
Another reason for his departure is he feels as if Vote Solar is in a good place with its senior leadership.
“While I believe the organization is essential for the path forward, I don’t believe that I’m essential to the organization,” Browning said. “There’s a whole new crop of leadership inside Vote Solar and across the board and it’s really time for some new voices, some new perspectives, some new ways of looking at the world to take on this challenge.”
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
Ford Doubles Production of Electric F-150: Ford is planning to produce 80,000 of the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning in 2024, up from the prior target of 40,000, according to sources interviewed by Reuters. This is part of a plan that includes building 15,000 of the model next year after its spring debut, and 55,000 in 2023. The increase in production is Ford’s response to high interest from consumers, especially companies that are interested in the truck for their fleets. Ford declined to confirm the numbers, but did say, “We are excited with customer demand for the F-150 Lightning and already have 120,000 customer reservations,” as reported by Ben Klayman and Joseph White of Reuters.
Companies and Cities Are Leading the Way on Clean Energy Purchases: Corporations and cities are becoming more ambitious in designing ways to reduce emissions and buy renewable energy, which can be seen in the wave of plans to completely eliminate fossil fuels through around-the-clock clean energy strategies. The World Resources Institute takes a look at what’s happening on the leading edge of clean energy buying by corporations and cities, and what can be done to make those plans more achievable and equitable, as Jeff St. John reports for Canary Media. Google, Microsoft and the city of Des Moines are among those pursuing around-the-clock clean energy plans.
Illinois Solar Companies Say They Are ‘Held Hostage’ by Statehouse Gridlock: Illinois wanted to encourage rooftop solar development, so it started an incentive program, only to let the program run out of money as of last year, harming the solar companies that had started or expanded to meet the demand brought on by the incentives. Lawmakers have planned all along to renew the incentives, but that plan is caught up in a larger debate over a nuclear bailout and potential phaseout of coal and natural gas power, as I report with Brett Chase in a collaboration between Inside Climate News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Solar installers are struggling with a drop in demand and a need to lay off workers because consumers are not doing projects while they are waiting for clarity about incentives. Since this story ran a few days ago, legislative leaders have said they are coming back next week for a potential vote that would end the impasse.
Rural Electric Co-ops in Alabama Remain Way Behind the Solar Curve: Rural electric cooperatives in Alabama have been slow to offer options to customers who are interested in solar power or in energy efficiency programs. My colleague James Bruggers reports on the situation in a state that is sunny enough to make solar a promising part of the electricity mix, but where utilities are not doing much to embrace clean energy.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.