Obama Community Solar: Where’s the Beef?

Is the Obama administration’s plan announced last week to bring solar power to less affluent individuals and to those who can’t put panels on their roofs – by boosting community solar — less than meets the eye? It looks that way to me.

The rhetoric is appealing. The White House announced the “National Community Solar Partnership” in Baltimore, with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in the photo op. Nobody of very high rank in the Obama administration was there, including no one from the Department of Energy, which might offer clues as to the substance of the announcement.

The project is a conglomeration of activities already underway for some time, along with hosannas from interested non-governmental entities. The White House announcement appears to be an opportunity to gain attention during a slow news period by repackaging ongoing activity, which some might describe with the cliché of “old wine in new bottles.”

Here’s how the White House described it: “[A] new initiative to increase to solar from all Americans, including low- and moderate- income communities, and expand opportunities join the solar workforce.”

This partnership – and “partnership” is a key word – said the White House, aims to:

* “[U]nlock access to solar for the nearly 50 percent of households and businesses that are renters or do not have adequate roof space to install solar panels, including issuing a guide to ‘Support States In Developing Community Solar Programs.’”

* Set “a goal to install 300 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing, triple our original goal, and providing technical assistance to make it easier to install solar, including clarifying how to use Federal funding.”

* Getting “more than $520 million in independent commitments from philanthropic and impact investors, states, and cities to advance community solar or scale up solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households.”

Those are the most substantive elements of the administration rhetoric.

Let’s parse the policy. First, community solar is good and the administration will offer advice on how to do these projects. Next, the administration will triple a goal it has shown no evidence of achieving so far. Finally, non-government groups, not including the federal government, will make pledges to pony up some $500 million for unspecified activities to advance community solar and solar for the less-than-well-off.

All well-and-good.

Bottom line, there’s no new federal government money in the announcement, leading to the conclusion that this event, which drew attention from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Mother Jones magazine, was, in historian Daniel Boostin’s term, a “pseudo-event” (“The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported”). None of the coverage was particularly effusive; neither was it probing.

It strikes me that the announcement and the program are largely political hand-waving, not a serious new initiative.


In 1984, the Wendy’s hamburger chain launched an ad campaign featuring octogenarian Clare Peller. The ads criticized the competing burger chains of offering less substance than Wendy’s. Former Vice President Walter Mondale picked up on the ads for his successful run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (although he lost in the general election to George H.W. Bush). The thrust of the Wendy’s ad, and Mondale’s, was “Where’s the beef?”

That looks like a reasonable question about the administration’s hyped-up community solar plan.