Our Hero: Adam Browning

Few people know solar energy like Vote Solar’s Executive Director Adam Browning. In one moment, you'll find Adam talking about the benefits and wonders of solar energy and in the next you'll see him standing in front of a state public utilities commission talking about complex energy policy. In today’s conversation, Adam discusses Vote Solar, how he got into the solar field, and what’s on the horizon for his team and the solar industry in the United States.

You can listen to the episode by clicking play (above to the right), download the podcast of our 30  minute conversation or read a pdf transcript. Here’s a snippet of the call:

First off, why don’t you give our listeners an idea of what goes on at Vote Solar.

Well, we are a small nonprofit focused on trying to build solar energy markets in the U.S. We work principally at the state level, mostly because that’s where most of the action is in this country. I think that actually we're better off focused at the state level; you are a little closer to democracy in that you have a better chance of making your case. Most of the work that we do is regulatory in nature. Working before public utility commissions, creating the right set of information and impetus for creating the right decisions that allow for solar energy markets to grow.

[Vote Solar is also a partner in producing our Freeing the Grid report.]

You have previous experience working for the Environmental Protection Agency.  Tell us a little bit about that time and how it prepared you to become a leader.

So I did spend about eight years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency here in San Francisco: their Region 9 office.  It was a wonderful experience. I came in there fresh out of the Peace Corps, just moved to California, I couldn’t get a job; the economy was terrible. And, I don’t know if your listeners know this, but for return Peace Corps volunteers, one of the minor perks that you have is that you can be hired as if you are an internal candidate for federal jobs. So I decided to take use of that. The EPA was really the only federal agency I was interested in, and I just got an organizational chart and started calling away until I was able to land an interview and a job from there.

I worked principally on a program called the Toxics Release Inventory, TRI, which did a tremendous amount of enforcement-related work. This whole program gave me a great appreciation for how environmental protection works in this country and where the holes are at the same time. While I was doing a lot of this enforcement, which it always provides you with satisfaction to feel like, if you find bad actors you are able to make this right. I also, when I was first faced with this idea of growing the solar industry, the idea that instead of trying to put control equipment on smoke stacks, how about going solar, where there are no smoke stacks at all? Preempt the problem in its entirety. You don’t have to worry about nefarious actors and noncompliance air standards if you are not producing any air emissions to begin with.

So the environmental protection agency plays an enormously valuable role. I think it is underappreciated. Actually, now that I say that, there is actually excellent polling to show that the American public is very appreciative of the role that EPA has played in cleaning up air and keeping our water clean and safe. But I also wanted to play a different role. EPA just responds to the laws that Congress passes, but I really wanted to play a role that tried to preempt problems rather than enforcing particular solutions.

So proactive rather than reactive.

Beautifully put, James. Beautifully put. It’s a pleasure to be proactive rather than reactive. I also just feel like much of the environmental community, which I count myself one of, a lot of it’s just about saying: “No.” No to this, no to that next coal plant, no to many things and those things, it’s important to oppose bad things. But there was also a sense for me that I wanted to be in a position to be able to say “Yes” to. “Yes” to solar systems and “Yes” to growing the solar industry.  And to provide a positive alternative so that it wasn’t just all about the “No.”