A new and gripping documentary tells the story of solar around the world in a new way by focusing on key conflicts around energy.
Solar vs. fossil fuels. Green living for rich people vs. pollution and toxic waste for poor people. Poverty in today’s economy vs. opportunity in tomorrow’s.
But the biggest conflict in Catching the Sun, which was released in April 2016 by filmmaker Shalini Kantayya, is a clean-energy version of the great power contest brewing for the last 40 years between the United States and China.
At stake is nothing less than world domination — of energy, that is. And the measure of anxiety in this battle is not the Missile Gap, but the Solar Panel Gap.
China Honors the Sun of Heaven
China is “now the leading country in terms of how fast they are implementing sustainable technology at really large scale,” explains Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the nonprofit Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy.
To show why China has excelled so much at solar, the film brings in “Wally” Jiang, an entrepreneur who started Westech, a manufacturer of PV panels and solar thermal collectors, with a low-interest government loan. With China making record investments in renewable energy, Jiang’s business has been growing every year by 50%.
As China passes assertive government policy to favor renewables and predicts that solar panels could fall in price there 38% by 2020, Wally sets off around the world to do business everywhere from Germany to Texas.
Jiang explains that he loves the Lone Star State and shares his dream to build a “solar city” there with the help of Governor Rick Perry. The unlikeliness of this dream makes it all the more sweet.
There’s certainly no missing Jiang’s ambition. He wants to see his solar business in every country the world, including the United States. But for all his big vision, Jiang clearly also has the intelligence and business acumen to succeed.
What, we worry?
US Petrostate Blocks Solar at Every Turn
Meanwhile, in the US, the film introduces a case of characters who support solar not just for its environmental benefits but also as a way to bring jobs and opportunity to the inner city. And most of these folks find themselves thwarted in one or another nasty way by fossil fuel interests and their toadies in the news media and government.
First, take environmental justice activist Van Jones. The film follows Jones’s inspiring and heartbreaking journey from Oakland to Washington, DC and back again.
After his election in 2008, President Obama taps Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy and founder of Green for All, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing clean energy to the inner city, to be the new White House Clean Energy Czar. In one scene soon after taking his new post, Jones muses about how he now has presidential authority to help put solar panels on roofs across America, especially in forgotten locales like rural areas. Word gets around that there’s a energy sheriff in town, energy-wise.
But before the ink is dry on Jones’s White House business cards, the Koch Brothers decide that Jones poses a threat to their oil and gas business. According to the film, the Kochs ask Fox News to try to bring Jones down.
Obligingly, the network runs story after story accusing Jones of being either a black nationalist or a communist who’s too dangerous for DC. In one shockingly racist scene, Glenn Beck cuts open a watermelon and explains that Jones is “red on the inside.” The smear campaign works, and after only a few months in office, Jones resigns.
The film highlights others having trouble spreading solar in the US. Take the case of Paul Muldrow for example. Unemployed in his mid-forties, Muldrow enrolled in Solar Richmond, a program to train residents of the poverty-stricken city of Richmond, CA as solar installers.
The film highlights Muldrow’s work ethic and growing enthusiasm for solar. Although his main objective in the training was to land any job he could find, he becomes inspired the possibility of solar. “I never thought about the energy I used before this training…but now I see solar is the future.” We see him looking for jobs and even follow him on a promising job interview with a local solar company.
But Muldrow doesn’t get the job. In the end, he’s still pounding the pavement without success because there aren’t enough companies hiring. The film implies that this is because American solar isn’t growing as fast as Chinese solar.
Green for All, Eventually
Fortunately, other solar Americans fare better in the film. One of Muldrow’s fellow Solar Richmond trainees does succeed in finding a job as a rooftop installer. He winds up liking it so much that he starts to imagine a future for himself in the industry as a solar array designer or PV engineer.
On the East Coast, Debbie Dooley of the Green Tea Party, conservatives who support solar power, gets better solar policy passed in the Georgia legislature.
And back in Oakland, Sungevity CEO Danny Kennedy predicts that eventually, solar will set us all free. “Solar energy puts power back into the hands of the people–both literally and figuratively.”
But for now, it’s the Chinese who really come out on top in Catching the Sun.
At the end of the movie when we meet Jiang again. This time he’s wearing a cowboy hat, walking the acreage he bought in Texas and pointing out where all his manufacturing and training facilities will go. It turns out that his crazy dream of building a solar city in his friend Rick Perry’s state will become a reality.
American solar companies should worry. And so should US policymakers. Solar will certainly be the main energy source of the future worldwide, and the film makes it clear that today China is eating America’s lunch on solar power.
Rooting for the US…and the Chinese
Yet, if Jiang is the face of Chinese solar dominance, then it’s hard to get too worried. He’s such a likable solar oligarch that if you support solar, then you’ll want to cheer him on. Just watch this short take from the film of Jiang doing business in India.
The Sun is free to every country. So there is no end for the solar business…There is a big demand, especially for developing countries…Just like Johnny Appleseed, I spread my solar seeds worldwide. This year, I’ve travelled to more than thirty countries…
Every day, I see the sunset and sunrise in different countries. We live on the earth. The earth is one globe. It’s a village. A global village. I think more and more my dream will come true. More and more solar will be used. I think energy is just like love. Because many people need love. Many people need energy. Especially free energy.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group