By David Lapp Jost
Taking part in the global transition to clean ways of living and clean technologies is one of the most exciting, valuable, rewarding, and ultimately significant things you can do. When you hasten the adoption of better ways of generating using energy, you help on so many levels. You clean up your local environment, reducing poisons that existing industries pump into our air, soil, water, and politics and media. You help your local economy, creating new, sustainable, quality jobs. And you help billions of people who you will never know. We humans face an uncertain future together due to climate change, but we can do our part to make it better.
We are often encouraged to take part in a clean transition by buying green, and trying to minimize our own personal impact. And, indeed, responsible consumption from citizens is vital. On the other end of the spectrum of change-making, we are also pushed to vote for candidates who highlight environment issues. This also clearly helps achieve structural change. Although, unfortunately, American political parties have been far too fossil fuel friendly to make the kinds of change other rich countries have.
Between individual purchasing choices and political movements, however, a dizzying array of opportunities for leadership, engagement, and advocacy exist. Some cleantech advocates conduct high-profile organizing, leading campaigns to mobilize the public to push a specific project. Others quietly suggest an energy-saving idea at work that might save their employer a vast sum of money and help the local environment and climate. Many sustainability advocates have no professional interest at all in sustainable technology, but their advocacy is nonetheless extraordinarily valuable. When listeners know an argument comes from good intentions and eagerness to help, it can sometimes be more powerful than a profit-motivated sales pitch.
Cleantech advocacy is powerful. Get solar power at your house, and you generate enough solar to power a house. Help convince a local school to go solar, and you’ve developed enough solar power for many houses. Get an electric car, and you reduce fossil fuel consumption a bit. Help advocate in city council meetings for better funding for buses, and you’ve helped shift transit resources in a healthier direction for your community.
What follows is a list of some ways I have seen successful advocacy for cleantech. I write this hoping that it might inspire future advocates, and plant creative ideas. I imagine that you as a CleanTechnica reader might have some ideas from your own experience and advocacy, too — please share!
The United States is full of roofs and parking lots just waiting to be covered in solar panels. Most people who could go solar haven’t considered it seriously, though. Advocates can help. Do you know anyone who runs or influences a business that could get solar on its roof or parking lot? Mention it! Do you know a farmer? Farmers can often benefit from tax credits and grants, and if a farmer covers a roof in panels, you can bet it will be enough to power dozens of homes. You might also mention to the city government that park, sewer, or administrative buildings could be good candidates for solar panels. In most all cases, it cannot hurt to mention it.
Perhaps you could call your alma mater, or write someone who you might know who works there. And not just the last university or school that you went to — write your elementary school, too! Primary and secondary schools lead the country in solar, and many schools save significantly through solar projects. All taxpayers have a strong interest in local public schools, and school boards tend to be accessible and open to suggestions. Even if you have virtually no connection to local schools where you live now, you can still feel perfectly good about advocating for solar or energy efficiency measures. These will likely save local schools (and taxpayers), and certainly help the local environment, benefiting all.
Yet another large-scale solar possibility, “solarize” initiatives provide a chance to suggest solar to an entire community. A solarize campaign brings together many residents of a given area to buy solar together. Typically, all participants collectively request bids from solar installers for the full group, allowing the installers to order supplies in bulk and reckon with a constant workload. A solarize initiative is ideally within a single utility’s territory so that participants can help each other out with bureaucratic challenges.
Like other companies, renewable energy businesses market their products. The earnest and financially uninvested advocacy of concerned citizens who want a cleaner future, however, is very powerful, too, and contributes every day to the furthering of renewable energy.
Energy waste in the U.S. is staggering. Thankfully, we can take steps to change it. You can help friends and family who haven’t given it much thought by telling them how they might save with simple weatherization measures and appliances.
You might help at a larger scale, though, if you help advocate with a building campaign. In my hometown, a new school was planned some years ago. Some local advocates launched a campaign to push for it to be a “net-zero” building. We gathered signatures from 1% of the city residents and engaged many young people in gathering signatures and in speaking out. The building was not net-zero, but the architect was switched to one with an excellent record on energy efficiency. When you read about plans for constructing schools, apartment buildings and public housing units, hospital expansions, office spaces, etc., these are excellent chances to propose more efficient designs and use of solar energy that will deliver huge benefits for decades.
You might also consider who you know who owns or helps run a large building. Weatherization, bulb replacements, window coverings in winter, lighting and heating monitoring and reduction, added insulation, and other efficiency improvements are needed in countless buildings throughout the United States. If you know someone who might be able to have their building checked out for efficiency improvements, or who could put in a good word for the effort, you might ask them if it has already been done. Plenty of energy efficiency improvements pay themselves off in just a year or so, and it’s generally very low-cost or free to find out what could be done.
Stop Fossil Fuels!
It would be lovely if clean and dirty energy sources could fight it out on a level playing field, with fair and free markets gradually sifting the winners and losers while pollutants drifted harmlessly up into space, never to be seen again. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous fantasy. Fossil fuel–based industries kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year in accidents and through an endless list of pollution-related health problems due to filthy air and contaminated water and soil. They use their lobbies in Congress to nonetheless secure vast subsidies and severely inadequate oversight from both political parties, and even weaponize their influence to attack clean energy, supporting far-right politicians who block wind projects and use tariffs and permitting rejections to hurt sustainable industries. We can’t just build a brighter future. We need to protect people — especially economically vulnerable people and people in disproportionately non-white communities that suffer from pollution — in our country and around the world who fossil fuel interests are actively hurting right now. All over the U.S., parts of the utility industry fight to keep coal and natural gas plants running; those projects don’t pay for the human costs they impose on surrounding communities. Every time a coal plant closes, the chance of death by any cause falls by 1% in the surrounding area — let’s get them closed!
Perhaps the most effective way to resist fossil fuels is to stop fossil fuel projects from happening and make them prohibitively expensive for the bad actors who are still implementing them. Resistance to new power plants, highways, and pipelines can often be highly localized. However, it can also attract national attention. Water Protectors at Standing Rock essentially doubled the cost of the pipeline project, hitting fossil fuel industries for billions (the equivalent of perhaps 2–4% of the value of the natural gas industry in a given year). Courageous and engaged people all over the U.S. made those protests possible with financial support and solidarity actions.
And efforts by indigenous people to protect their land (and our global climate) from similarly terrible gas projects are ongoing now! Whether personally or more likely with financial contributions, you could help empower vital resistance efforts. The Giniw Collective are resisting the $2.6 billion Enbridge Pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en are resisting the $6.6 billion Coastal Gaslink pipeline. The Tiny House Warriors are resisting the $12.6 billion TransMountain Pipeline. These colossally destructive projects represent gargantuan investments in fossil fuel infrastructure that will last for decades. Grassroots efforts to resist them are a far better investment in our collective future than, say, liberal politics (which do little to stop fossil fuels) or even investment in alternative energies. We can’t just do good; we have to stop fossil fuel depredations and keep it in the ground.
Conduct a Solar Census
Perhaps you have some time to organize a community project but aren’t sure where to start? You might consider talking to some friends and considering a Solar Census. In a Solar Census, local volunteers work to chronicle all of the solar projects in the area, cataloguing their individual sizes and total capacities, possibly marking them on a map and publishing articles in local press about the solar capacity of the area. In wind power–rich areas, a “Renewable Energy Census” alternative could easily be considered. In my hometown — a rural area — a local solar census resulted in extensive coverage and publicity for solar power, as well as the documentation of over 100 projects and a positive validation and opportunity for sharing for people, businesses, and schools that have solar. Efforts to document and popularize solar projects generate great press and interest, and anyone can start or support straightforward research like this.
Strengthen Organizing Groups!
The Sunrise Movement has chapters all over the U.S. pushing for sustainable change. This sort of long-term organizing is extraordinarily valuable. It engages young people in green politics. It builds a constituency that can both win elections for Democrats (as young people certainly did in 2020) and hopefully eventually pressure them to actually deliver for the environment. And local organizing chapters can impact local issues, protecting and developing natural resources and thwarting damaging initiatives. It’s important that organizations like Sunrise benefit not just from enthusiastic activists and young people, but also from the wisdom, pragmatism, and insight of people with decades of experience working toward a cleaner future.
Either in addition to or instead of actively organizing yourself, another way you might help organizing efforts is by supporting young people who are involved. Many high school and college students or recent graduates care deeply about environmental issues and clean technologies, and would love to work or volunteer in the field. Sadly, there are far too few jobs, too few avenues into service or work in sustainable fields, and too little encouragement offered to young people who are making critical career decisions, often ones that will shape their work for decades. If you can help equip young people to choose sustainable fields — whether with job suggestions, making connections, supportive words to those who are already organizing, or even financial giving — you will have done something good.
Push for Public Transit & Clean Energy in Local Government
Outside of approvals for fossil fuel projects, many of the most important energy decisions are made at the local level. Where does our electricity come from? Do we have public transit options to get around, and are they electrified yet? Do we encourage efficiency in buildings, or stick our heads in the sand and pretend fossil fuels aren’t killing us?
In towns and cities across America, decisions are made every year that significantly affect environmental quality and progress toward clean technology. Will bus services be expanded, or cut? Will cities adopt climate commitments — even symbolic ones — or neglect them?
Active, committed citizens can have a huge impact in these sorts of policies. If you pay attention to what your city council is discussing, find out how others are trying to advocate for progressive policy, and engage, you might make a substantial difference, potentially far more so than anything you could do directly yourself. And policies that improve public transit and urban density also help low-income people and disproportionately non-white communities that suffer from our energy system — you are doing your community a service in many different ways.
I have tried to describe here some ways that you might imagine taking part in a clean energy transition. You likely have some ideas and relevant experiences yourself, though! How have you seen others act as advocates, or done so yourself? Please consider telling your own stories in the comments below!