This week, the EU banned single-use plastic, effective 2021. This is a wonderful development about which I am thrilled, and not just because plastic accumulates and stays. The manufacture, shipping, disposal, and cleanup of single-use plastic is an environmental catastrophe on its own. The plastic-banning movement started out as individual-based collective action that demonstrated the will of the people, after which the government listened to their constituents and implemented the reform broadly. It’s the environmentalist policy dream come true. However, banning plastic straws isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.
Plastic is a relatively easy problem to tackle, actually. We got by without it just 100 years ago. For the most part, it’s a convenience product that companies favor even if there are alternatives. Consumers would adjust to a different routine given incentives. These don’t have to be shady cash payoffs, either. Reducing the amount of waste that a city creates would cut down on the amount of taxpayer money that city needs to pay out for municipal waste management and removal. this is especially true now that China has started banning recyclable imports, meaning that bottles and wrappers end up in the trash.
Now that plastic is a headache, it’s low-hanging fruit. Of course we should ditch single-use, it’s a pain to manage if China’s not helping. The fact that banning this category of stuff is a no-brainer makes it inherently less valuable as a breakthrough. Would this be such an easy get if it were addressing the root cause of our environmental problems? No – those problems underpin modern society. The shift we need to make is tectonic, so when they happen, we should feel the earth shake. If anyone expects saving the Earth to be easy based on the E.U.’s plastic ban, then they’re in for a disappointment. The true danger is that otherwise enthusiastic plastic ban supporters will decide that they’ve done enough when faced with the trickier prospects of funding EV charging infrastructure, incentivizing solar panels, and taxing corporate carbon emitters.
That’s not to say that all change requires trauma. In fact, even with new economic incentives for zero-waste and low-packaging products, forcing a shift away from single-use plastics in the U.S. will probably take more time. It could indeed become a traumatic process – if it even gets off the ground within the next six years. There’s even a chance that it will become a useful political fracas, a drawn-out distraction from more pressing, more challenging issues. Even so, the problem there won’t be that banning plastic is hard. Banning coal will be far more difficult. The problem will remain that plastic is a flashy, visible problem that can be resolved rather quickly. Thereafter, it is a poster child for the success of a half-measure. Look, people will say, We got rid of plastic. Isn’t that enough?
In general, I’ve found that if change isn’t tough, it’s not rewarding. Banning plastic is the first step up a mountain that we have to summit. It’s important, but we need to be ready for many more miles.
Ten years ago, solar energy was about to get big. The federal government rolled out a 30% tax break for home solar arrays while several states, including my home state of Massachusetts, started SREC programs. In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, SREC stands for Solar Renewable Energy Credits. You can earn these with your home solar panels, and then swap them, cap and trade style, with energy companies that then use them to pay fees. The system worked, and for a while, it made perfect sense to buy solar panels. Solar farms popped up along highways. Solar appeared on rooftops. As the price of arrays dropped, the industry looked set to boom.
Then, something changed. Even though the cost of home solar installations dropped by 55% since 2015, large-scale solar projects stalled. In a state where 49% of houses could have been generating power, only a tiny percentage actually featured rooftop arrays. Even though solar was more feasible than ever, solar companies weren’t thriving. Why?
I sat down with Jeff Cohen, solar guru of Salem, Massachusetts and vice-chair of Salem’s Sustainability, Energy and Resiliency Committee, to learn why solar hasn’t taken over Massachusetts yet. I found out that there are several big roadblocks to mass solar adoption right now, but also even greater hope for the future of renewable power.
First of all, the federal incentive for residential solar panels is expiring. In fact, it was supposed to disappear in 2016, but the Obama administration was able to extend it for a couple years more. According to Jeff, any resident who installs solar by the end of next year will still get that sweet 30% tax break. (There’s a plain English explanation of that program at Wholesale Solar.) After 2019, the break will drop by a few percentage points every year. This isn’t necessarily a huge deal, because the cost of solar panels is dropping fast. The incentive was never supposed to be permanent. But the incentives specific to Massachusetts have changed, too.
The SREC program was a wonderful tool for getting homeowners into solar energy. Solar experts considered it one of the best state-level incentive programs in the country. During an array’s first ten years of life, its owner earned one SREC for every megawatt of energy their panels produced. The average home solar array could produce about 6 SRECs per year, which could then be sold back to utilities. This was guaranteed money in the pockets of anybody who got solar panels between 2008 and 2018. EnergySage has a good rundown of exactly how this worked and explains some of the finer details of the program.
Unfortunately, SREC expired in January 2018. Its replacement, the SMART program, isn’t as good a deal. However, many people who bought solar panels during SREC continue to earn credits. They’re grandfathered in for the first ten years of their array’s life. Still, without SREC, there’s less incentive for residents to get solar panels.
There are about 41 municipalities in Massachusetts that own their own power generation facilities. They include Marblehead and Peabody, which border Salem, and the upshot is that their power bills tend to be lower than those for, say, National Grid. However, a municipally owned power supply isn’t always a good deal for solar power.
First of all, many towns aren’t necessarily interested in going solar. Salem recently installed panels atop a school on Witchcraft Heights, but Salem’s also fairly well-off and doesn’t engage in municipal power generation. A town without resources won’t necessarily want to invest in a technology that involves significant up-front expense, especially if a legacy system is already working well for them.
That’s why municipalities aren’t necessarily converting to solar power in a central way. The reason that municipal power discourages home rooftop solar is that municipalities are not required to match the value of excess energy that a home might produce. This gets to the heart Massachusett’s biggest issue with solar power right now. According to Jeff, it’s the reason that solar power expansion has argely stalled out in the state. Think of it as the biggest solar secret that you’ve never heard of.
Net metering and the cap
Net metering is the practice of making solar energy worthwhile for the average homeowner. Think of it as a give and take. Sometimes, your home solar array will make more than enough electricity to power your house. The extra power might flow over to a neighbor’s home, in which case, the energy that your neighbor is getting was actually generated by you. The power company that runs the grid – which could be National Grid, Eversource, or Unitil, depending on where you live in Massachusetts – still charges your neighbor for that power. However, they have to buy it from you first, and they’re legally obligated to pay you as much for the electricity as they would have charged you if you didn’t have solar panels. This payment comes in credits, which cover the cost of power for your house at times when your house can’t make its own power. In the summer, you may build up enough energy credits with your home array to see you through the winter with minimal charge for power.
The problem is that the power companies don’t like this setup. They themselves can’t own solar farms because that would turn them into vertical monopolies, which are illegal. They’d much rather maintain the fossil fuel status quo than shake up their current business situation and deal with the headache of net metering thousands of solar residents…and worse, big solar farms.
That’s why they’ve successfully gotten the Massachusetts state government to impose caps on the amount of solar power that can be generated in the state. Caps are determined by load zone, which are areas of electrical service delivery that coincide with municipal lines. A cap is the percentage of the company’s total energy delivery that can be met through solar generation. In 2016, this was about 8% for the public and 7% for private companies, according to the Massachusetts Net Metering guide. Jeff tells me that this has risen a few percentage points each year, but not fast enough to allow community solar to flourish. Once the annual cap has been reached, the utility will no longer participate in net metering. That means that, in addition to paying for a solar array, an owner would need to pay full price for electricity in the winter and at night. Suddenly, solar is no longer as attractive, especially for a big solar farm or community array.
The problem with big projects is that they can cause their utility to hit the cap fast. Solar farms, community solar projects, and even schools that want to have solar panels on their roofs run into this problem. Lack of net metering compounds the expense of setting up large-scale solar and makes it less feasible in general. In turn, this stymies the growth of all solar use and business expansion. Since many Massachusetts residents rent, community solar is critical to getting the state off of fossil fuels. Renters don’t have the choice of buying solar panels; their only opportunity to get green power is to buy into renewable energy. If sources don’t exist, apartment-dwellers can’t opt for them.
There are a lot of politics at play here, of course. Utility companies are some of the most powerful businesses in Massachusetts, and they easily outspend advocacy and solar groups in their lobbying efforts. While the Massachusetts legislature has increased the caps in the past, they’ve recently slowed this activity down, possibly due to pressure from National Grid and Eversource.
What’s the solution?
Jeff tells me that there’s one way to make Massachusetts go solar: everybody needs to insist. There’s essentially no way to outspend Eversource and National Grid in lobbying, so consumers need to start making demands of their representatives. If you’re nervous about getting into the fray, then see my previous post on how to become politically active even if you loathe politics.
Most of all, Jeff tells me that buying solar is still a great option for your home. Going off the grid may seem attractive in concept, but even though battery technology is improving, leaving the system still so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford it. Restricting activism to people with that kind of privilege won’t result in meaningful change – in other words, we do this together or it doesn’t happen. That means sticking with the system and the grid, and working together to change them both.
As solar gets cheaper and people like Jeff work for green power options, it becomes clear that the energy giants of Massachusetts are just delaying the inevitable. Ultimately, although the fight will be difficult, solar is going to win.
Many thanks to Jeff Cohen for giving me an awesome interview for this article! Be sure to check out his direct action network on Facebook. If you’re doing research to buy your own solar array in Massachusetts, check out Solar Power Rocks, where a free strategy guide can start you on the path toward making your own power and saving the world.
Climate change is political. Not because the science of global warming is up for scientific debate – it isn’t – but because the means by which the world will need to address the problem is tied up with economics, social systems, employment, taxes, trade, lifestyle…
You get the idea. Dealing with climate change is going to require a complete overhaul of our current system. Individuals can do a lot, but the system that builds roads and manufactures medicine still currently uses fossil fuels for those necessary activities. Businesses have no incentive to change the way things are going because they’re most concerned with next quarter’s profits. Governments are made to take a longer view. The only way we’ll get ourselves out of the carbon quicksand we’re in is through coordinated government action. Once a government mobilizes on a public concern, they really move – just look at the effort that saw the U.S. out of the Great Depression and through World War II! Better yet, you can direct government somewhat through political action.
If the thought of getting political makes you cringe, then rest assured that you’re not alone. There seem to be two kinds of people in this world: people who can’t get enough politics, and people who avoid it like lava. However, politics is how climate change action will happen. And, believe it or not, it doesn’t have to hurt. Your action can be as minor as volunteering to take notes. Here’s what to do.
1. Join up!
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the best way to act is to act in a group! You’ll make friends, find moral support, and see your cause gain real momentum. An action group will almost always include people with more political experience and instinct than you, and they’ll be happy to do the politicking. Let them take that lead. There’s a good chance they won’t be as adept at, say, calling bus companies and pricing out transportation costs for an action or conference. When you do that for a climate change action group, you’re fighting climate change!
If you’re at a loss as to where to find like-minded, politically savvy people, then start with 350.org. They function in regional chapters and like to partner with more local organizations. This lets them make a whopping difference in comparison to their size. (I recently wrote a profile on them for In Kind, which is just an amazing site. Go look!)
Other national groups include the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization of which I’m a member, and Mothers Out Front. Local organizations are crucial, too. My hometown of Salem supports Salem Alliance for the Environment and Coastwatch. Google your town’s name and the word “environment” to see who’s active. You might be surprised at what you find!
If you’re tentative, I’ve noticed that one way to get into these kinds of groups is to volunteer to take notes at meetings. Simple as that. People rarely want to take notes and you can provide a valuable service if you cheerfully offer to eat that frog.
2. Write letters to editors
There’s an art to writing letters to the editor. I ought to know – I’ve written over 200. About 30 have gotten published. That’s an excellent return that may indicate how interested papers are in this issue right now. The offices of your political representatives keep a weather eye on the press. LTEs can do a lot to raise awareness.
Here’s exactly how to write a good LTE.
First, find an article to which you’d like to respond. It’s quite important that you respond to a specific, recent article. If it’s more than three days old, find another one. If you’re starved for fresh material, try setting up a Google alert (here’s how) or signing up for the excellent Climate Nexus newsletter.
Read your chosen piece and make note of its main points. You’ll need to address those in 200 words or less – usually, that’s all the space papers will give to an LTE. Be informative, concise, and polite. Thank the editor at the end. Include your full name, real address, and phone number, too, because the editor may have to get in touch with you to confirm your identity.
Finding the editor’s email can be a little bit of a trick, but it’s often something like editor@[paper’sdomain].com or letters@[paper’sdomain].com. Some papers also have submission forms on their websites.
Your local papers love to print LTEs from area residents. Major papers get a larger volume, so your rate of success per letter will be lower, but you can still safely bet on at least one in twenty making the cut. Don’t be afraid to submit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other big outlets even if you don’t happen to live in New York, Washington, or wherever those papers happen to be located. They own their status as national (and even world) media companies and acknowledge that their readership transcends geographical boundaries.
You can also take a chance on local papers that aren’t local specifically to you. Once again, some of these will accept that the Internet has made the world their readership. For example, I’ve been published in the Deseret News, even though I’ve never been to Utah in my life. Some papers, however, won’t be as generous with your out-of-towner opinion. I once submitted an LTE to a local paper and had an editor accidentally reply all to complain that I wasn’t even a townie! Needless to say, that LTE did not see publication. I did, however, place many letters after that, and several of those were in local papers.
Finally, if you want to get serious about this, keep track of your LTEs, both submitted and published, on a spreadsheet. This is partly to track your submission frequency. No paper will publish you if you email them more than once every two weeks or so. More importantly, you need to bask in your successes every once in a while. This is a great way to take action on your own time, all by yourself, and feel like a hero when you see your name in print and climate change out front. Just don’t ever, ever read the comments.
3. Make phone calls
You may already be familiar with the 5 Calls app. The reason I like this free service (aside from the fact that it’s free) it that it focuses on a few key issues and then explains them thoroughly before sending you into the fray. That’s a good jumping-off place for someone who’s not usually political. There’s no need for you to stick to the script, of course, but a lot of people like to do exactly that, and it’s totally OK and legitimate to read a prepared statement.
You may also find that individual politicians’ actions on climate change are worth addressing in a phone call. In my home state of Massachusetts, for example, there’s a carbon tax being batted around on the state level, and Paul Tucker, one of my county’s representatives, petitioned for it. Badgering him to do more on climate change without acknowledging that he already did a good thing is only going to irritate the man and make him feel unappreciated. I might want to call him up just to encourage him and tell him that I think he’s doing an awesome job. And oh, by the way, would he like to visit the Salem Sustainability Committee on Wednesday?
5 Calls will cycle you through politicians automatically. Every time you hang up, it’ll bounce you to the next number on its list. You’ll end up leaving messages or sometimes talking to an aide. Always give your full name and address and be polite. Remember, each office may field hundreds of calls per day. They don’t have time for a drawn-out discussion.
I’m not as good at calling politicians as I am at writing letters. However, experts on the subject say that you should call your representatives every day and ask specifically for the staffer in charge of your issue, in this case, climate change. U.S. PIRG has a really great summary on how to effectively badger your politicians.
When you’re using 5 Calls, keep in mind that it is something of a mill. It will eventually cycle you away from your local and state representatives and into the mailboxes of politicians from other states. Since you cannot affect those individuals’ re-elections, your call will not be well received there. Save your energy for people who are interested in your vote.
There are a lot of ways to show up for climate change. The easiest is probably to attend a protest. You can find these by watching 350.org’s social media. However, this is by no means the only – or necessarily the best – way to move your local politician.
Lasting change starts at the bottom. Get to know your councilpeople, local representatives, and state senators. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and pay attention to where they’ll be doing events. Townhall discussions are great places to show up and hold their feet to the fire about climate change. During election season, you and your friends can punch above your weight by showing up to debates and open forums. Do your research about candidates’ actions related to climate change and press them about specific points. Livetweet the answers. Make climate change an immediate issue with your persistence.
You can also show up to sustainability committees and town council meetings. Sometimes, activist groups will show environmental movies, like Tomorrow, to the public for free. Go enjoy that free movie! You’ve heard of voting with your dollars – now vote with your presence. This is also a great way to network and find out what small environmental groups are operating in your area.
Speaking of voting…
Vote vote vote. It really does make a difference. You don’t have to vote Democrat. You don’t have to vote for the candidate most likely to win. Vote for the climate. Vote in concert with your group, friend, and/or family, and make the environment Your Thing.
If you and your friends focus on this issue, you can chip out a noticeable bloc in small local races. Never let anyone tell you that participating in politics is pointless or that your vote is wasted. In some hyperlocal elections, such as those for town mayors, as few as 15% of residents may vote! In a town of 1,000 people, that’s 150 folks deciding who runs that town for the forseeable future. If another 50 people care that climate change is causing flooding on their street, then you’d better believe your mayoral candidates will pay attention to that issue. You just need to show them that you’re a clear and present voting bloc.
At its smallest, politics is street-level. Leverage that. There is no difference too small to make.