Jonathan Scott’s Power Trip, a film about solar power and the utilities and other political forces preventing more Americans from taking advantage of it, premieres this Monday, November 16th on PBS at 10 pm ET.
Scott is best known for his HGTV show Property Brothers, in which he and his brother Drew help people transform fixer-uppers, but he’s also been a long-time environmental advocate.
Scott traveled around the country for the film, talking with members of the Navajo Nation who are transitioning their economy from coal to solar, conservative farmers and activists in Georgia who are embracing solar farms, coal miners in Kentucky, and church leaders in North Carolina who challenged the monopoly utility Duke Energy for the right to cost-effectively install solar panels.
The film, and a website promoting it, also cites some of the Energy and Policy Institute’s research, including our exposure of investor-owned utilities’ failed 2016 effort to pass a deceptive anti-solar ballot initiative in Florida.
The policy and political battles featured in Power Trip will be familiar to some clean energy and climate activists, but the film has the potential to expose many more Americans to the question of why, if solar has become so cost-effective and is so environmentally friendly, more Americans haven’t had been able to embrace it?
Scott answered some questions about the film from EPI.
EPI: Do you remember the moment when you felt like this solar story was so interesting or important that you wanted to make a movie about it?
Scott: Absolutely. It was shortly after I struggled to get solar panels up and running on my own house in Las Vegas, then soon after the solar industry was brought to a screeching halt when the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada ended net metering. That was my “WTF” moment and when I decided to dig in.
I don’t respond well to bullying, and that’s what the efforts to kill solar energy are. Entrenched utility interests are attempting to maintain their death grip on our energy sources, and they will try to squeeze out anyone who interferes with their profitability.
EPI: You spoke with quite a broad range of people for the film. Did you find any of those stories particularly surprising compared to what you’d previously thought about solar?
Scott: I went into this journey without a lot of preconceived notions. But I assumed that it would be predominantly liberals who were interested in solar.
I was pleasantly surprised to find conservatives were equally if not even more so supportive of the technology. Unfortunately, this issue has been politicized by people in Washington, when the consensus is pretty clear: Americans of all political stripes want the opportunity to obtain cheaper, cleaner energy.
Wouldn’t you want to pay less for electricity… have the ability to generate your own? That’s not a controversial issue!
EPI: Utilities commonly argue that customer-owned solar is only for wealthy people, and that a better way to adopt solar energy is for the utilities themselves to own those resources, and then to sell the electricity to customers. What’s your response to that critique of rooftop or customer-owned solar?
Scott: Utility companies like to make that argument, because they’re the ones attempting to make solar inaccessible for the very communities and individuals who want them!
Even with utilities being able to generate renewable energy at a far lower cost, we’re not seeing the costs to the customers decrease. Their interest is in profit first and foremost, and that involves controlling the energy market, regardless of whether that’s powered by fossil fuels or clean energy sources.
To do that, they attempt to outlaw ground-level measures like net metering and community-owned solar districts. Then, once the utility companies have shifted the playing field to benefit them, they chide the same consumers for considering an option that they have made more difficult to attain. It’s the utilities’ equivalent of gaslighting their consumers.
So, yeah, right now solar is not financially viable for every person in every state, but that’s what we’re fighting for. [Emphasis in original]
Some states offer incredible incentives and the cost of the tech continues to drop. We want clean energy to be available and affordable to everybody.
EPI: You visited the corporate headquarters of Duke Energy, one of the largest utilities in the country and one of the biggest contributors to climate change in the U.S., and had a chance to ask them about solar energy and some of the other energy issues in the film. What did you think of how they responded in that conversation?
Scott: I continue to be stunned that the United States allows energy companies to pass along the costs of cleaning up their messes to the same communities they are poisoning and polluting! There’s no way to make that sound any better, but these massive companies are more willing to pay for lobbyists and spokespeople to try to spin their message than they are to do the right thing.
The good news is that we are seeing results. Calling out bad actors does have an impact, if you can get to the right people, whether that’s people with a platform, policymakers, or whoever might be able to call attention to the issue. I’m convinced that these companies aren’t going to make large-scale changes on their own unless they are forced to. It really is up to us.
EPI: Many of the battles over solar and other energy policy that the film featured play out at state public utility commissions, which most people haven’t heard of, but which are crucial in setting the United States’ response to the climate crisis. How do you think we can get more people to pay attention to those otherwise obscure venues?
Scott: American bureaucracy has made an art form out of creating commissions, authorities and other quasi-governmental bodies that often are partly or completely captured by the industries they are supposed to oversee and regulate.
If these sorts of approvals had to go through state legislatures or even local governing bodies, there’d be a much greater chance of shining a public light on the issues and votes and influences behind them. Instead, it feels like it takes a PhD in public policy to connect the dots.
It’s going to take the work of dedicated advocates to bring these issues to light. Social media is a blessing and a curse, but one of the positives to come from it is that anyone who’s dedicated to getting information out into the open can do it.
There are going to have to be more people willing to pay attention to these commission meetings, learn about what’s happening and then educate the broader public about what it means. Just really make sure you know where your information is coming from and that it’s a credible resource.
EPI: Looking beyond solar energy, climate advocates have been talking a lot about how we can make our homes and buildings less reliant on fossil fuels like gas or oil for space and water heating by moving to power those jobs with clean electricity instead. As a home renovation expert, is that something you’ve been thinking about too? What’s next for your climate or clean energy activism?
Scott: Oh, all the time, but it has to be thought of with sensitivity and the understanding that there’s going to have to be a transition. We don’t get to just flip a switch and suddenly everyone in the fossil fuel industry works in clean energy, and we get all our energy from solar and wind sources.
I’m always offering solar as an option to our homeowners, and in California, we’re required to ensure homes are solar-ready. It’s going to take a combination of greater federal government leadership on this issue—and private sector responses to new mandates and regulations that then drive down costs and make solar more accessible to everyone.
I’m not letting go of this topic, partly because I’m passionate about it, but mostly because I’ve spent more than three years so far trying to help uncomplicate this issue, and it feels like we’re just starting.
EPI: Climate change can be a dark topic. Was there anything in making this film that gave you particular hope about how we can rapidly move off of fossil fuels and toward clean energy?
Scott: My greatest hope lies in the fact that more and more Americans want the opportunity to create their own clean energy, and that when enough Americans want something, they usually get it. But people need to stand up and use their voices… and use their heads.
Call out politicians or corporations is that are being deceitful. Carefully read propositions that we are voting on. And we need to support leaders who believe in renewable energy, job creation and protecting the environment.
It gives me hope that there are already dozens of cities in the country who are operating on 100% renewable energy. That’s exciting and proves that there is a way to make this work.