Realizing the vision of a 100% clean energy future: Journey from the Peace Corps to leading Vote Solar
Sachu Constantine, Vote Solar’s Interim Executive Director, shares how his service in the Peace Corps launched his journey to the work of advancing solar and energy justice, and how we can realize the vision of an equitable, 100% clean energy future.
Before taking the helm, Sachu served as Vote Solar’s Regulatory Managing Director, leading and coordinating strategy and operations for our team of regulatory experts and intervenors.
What inspired you on your professional path to work for a just energy system with solar leading the way?
If you think of our advocacy for energy justice and clean, affordable solar power as a consistent through-line in my career, like a great river around which my whole professional life is organized, then it’s not hard to identify the headwaters: my experience in Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
In a country already visibly impacted decades ago by climate change, and where at the time a large segment of the population did not have access to electricity or modern energy services, I saw first-hand the need for real systemic change — for a different approach to how we power our society. Like many returned Peace Corps Volunteers, this seminal experience marked the beginning of my professional career. But the truth is there is no single starting point, just like a river influenced by all the streams and tributaries flowing into it.
I don’t think it was ever a question that I would work for justice and positive social change given the values my family instilled in me, but I always thought I would focus on politics and human rights. Ending apartheid seemed more pressing than global warming. In hindsight, there were so many signals pushing me into clean energy work that my Peace Corps experience finally helped me understand.
As a child running around my grandparents’ farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, I experienced carbon and water cycles long before I understood them. I watched as acid rain devastated beloved bull frog populations and even whole species of trees, shaking my faith in a stable, safe environment.
In junior high in the early 80’s, a visiting professor laid out the inexorable math of carbon emissions and climate change before I realized that we had alternatives to that future. Teachers and mentors facilitated and encouraged an understanding of how policy systems affected our choices and outcomes. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit opened my eyes even further, but climate change still seemed like something scientists were better suited for, and I was definitely not a scientist. No lab coat.
By the time I arrived in West Africa to work on a forestry project, solar photovoltaics were well understood but not yet commonplace. One could imagine a future where we got much of our energy from the sun, but the vision wasn’t clear and it seemed a long way off. In the dusty northern town where I was stationed, small, sometimes single-panel solar arrays serving remote sites were often left to rot when technical and financial support moved on to the next development project. Community buy-in and capacity building were not really part of the equation.
I could see that change was needed, and energy and environmental policy started to seem more plausible as a lever for that change. So in graduate school, I jumped at the chance to work on energy efficiency and capacity building for clean energy advocates in Ghana. I spent the next seven years doing that all over the world.
Now, contrary to popular belief, appliance efficiency standards are in fact sexy, but by themselves they were never going to displace fossil fuels in our energy sector. We had to come up with better ways to generate electricity as well as use it more efficiently.
Right on cue, a fledgling Vote Solar, not yet the nation-spanning powerhouse that it is today, helped birth the California Solar Initiative, one of the biggest solar programs in the world, and I promptly took a lead analyst position at the California PUC charged with implementing the program.
The rest, as they say, is history.
How has the wildfire crisis and other extreme weather driven by climate impacted you, your family, and people you care about?
Flash forward to today, and I find myself acting as the Interim Executive Director of Vote Solar in a world where solar is in fact a plausible mainstream choice just as this organization set out to do 20 years ago.
I also live in a state beset by wildfire-induced power outages, severe drought and extreme weather of all kinds. As an early adopter of solar paired with battery storage, my family is somewhat insulated from the worst impacts, but I am all too aware that many of my friends and neighbors are not so lucky.
Whole communities have been destroyed because we have not moved fast enough to exploit the advantages of both distributed and large-scale solar, as well as other clean modern technologies like wind turbines. Access to solar and storage, and related investments in energy efficiency, demand response technologies (like smart thermostats), electric vehicles and other electrification options, remains expensive, complicated and quite simply out of reach for too many of us at a time when we need it more than ever.
What will it take to realize the vision of a 100% clean energy future?
I wouldn’t be here at Vote Solar if I didn’t believe that we can solve this problem through effective policy intervention and mobilization of public support for solar and clean energy.
Right now, more than 1 in 3 people in the U.S. live in states where phasing out carbon emissions in the coming decade is required by law. Just in the time that Vote Solar has been in the fray, prices for solar have come down by 90% and batteries are on a similar trajectory. Right now, building a new solar plant is a cheaper way to generate electricity than operating an existing coal or gas plant.
A vision of an equitable, 100% clean energy future powered by the sun is not only possible — it is likely, perhaps even inevitable. But in order to make it happen in time to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, we are going to have to overcome a lot of fear and dismantle the regulatory and policy structures that give incumbents like utilities and oil and gas interests monopoly power over our energy choices.
What do you see as key to ending the legacy fossil fuel system and rebuilding a new energy system that works for everyone?
To do that, we have to tie together three ideas that are as relevant in rural Ghana as they are in urban California or suburban New Jersey.
First, solar and other renewable, carbon free technologies like wind and geothermal, can provide more than enough energy to meet all of society’s needs, even when we consider electrifying the entire economy including buildings, transportation and industry.
Second, adding significant distributed resources like rooftop solar and battery storage, energy efficiency and demand response not only improves the cost effectiveness of the whole system, it also greatly improves resilience and the ability of the grid to continue to meet our energy needs under the extremes likely to occur as the climate crisis continues to unfold.
And finally, making sure that these resources and benefits flow directly to those communities most impacted by the legacy of fossil fuel use and facing the highest energy burdens improves the economics even further, and greatly increases the speed with which we will make this transition in an equitable and inclusive way.
If we can demonstrate the viability of this new model, we take away the fear of an unreliable grid that stops working when the sun goes down. And we disarm the fossil industries’ attempts to link prosperity to continued consumption of their product.
In some ways, my career has come full circle and I can see that justice, equity and a clean energy future are inextricably entwined. Addressing the climate crisis is in fact about ending apartheid in all its pernicious economic, political and technological forms.
With twenty years of successful legislative campaigns and regulatory interventions, Vote Solar has made major progress towards bringing solar into the mainstream. What do you imagine life in the U.S. will be like in 2041 if we keep winning?
If Vote Solar is successful in its advocacy, our 40th anniversary party will still have highly profitable electric utilities on the guest list, but they will be smaller, more nimble actors. They will no longer dominate politics or impose energy choices on society, and will earn their money by providing excellent service and supporting policy goals.
Individuals attending, whether businesses, homeowners or apartment dwellers, will be able to divert some spending away from basic needs like energy, or health care, towards other productive investments including education, housing, healthy food and general wealth building.
Energy will not be at the heart of geopolitical tension because clean affordable energy will literally be ubiquitous. We will no doubt still have to deal with the legacy of negative impacts from climate change that our historical fossil fuel dependence has left us, but our energy system will be more reliable and resilient in the face of those threats.
Who is one person who has inspired you in this movement, and why?
The struggle to get us out of this climate crisis is a collective one. It’s not about individual action and no single person or solution represents a magic bullet. Of course, we stand on the shoulders of giants who were early to recognize the danger and to galvanize our efforts to build the clean energy future. I of course have many personal heroes and inspirations.
With all due respect to the Gores, Gretas and McKibbens of the world, it was a Vote Solar Alum, JP Ross, who originally pointed me to the CPUC, and it was Adam Browning’s invitation and encouragement that put me here with a tremendous opportunity to enable positive change.
Every day, the team here at Vote Solar gets up and grinds, doing the legwork necessary to build a just, equitable world, powered by the sun.
And looking back, I want to tip my hat to a friend and colleague from my work in Ghana. Dr. Alfred Ofosu Ahenkorah was the founding Executive Director of the Ghana Energy Foundation, and he showed me how to combine technical expertise with political savvy to advance the cause of clean energy. Ostensibly I was there to help him grow capacity, but I may have gotten the better part of that deal.
In the end, it’s the movement itself that is so inspiring.
What gives you hope?
The fearlessness of youth. It’s easy to fall victim to climate despair, and to see our current system as intractable and impossible to move. The enormity of the problem can be daunting, but inaction is not really an option and the stakes are high.
In this regard, I believe that a little irreverence, a dash of youthful exuberance, can push us through the fear and paralysis. Once we get going in that direction, the sheer technological superiority of solar, as opposed to burning dead dinosaurs, will create its own momentum towards the change we need.
Sachu Constantine is the Interim Director of Vote Solar. Stay connected to the latest news and action opportunities from Vote Solar. Sign up for our newsletter.