THE BLOG
10/24/2016 10:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Could Electric Vehicle Owners Prevent a Future Donald Trump?

Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

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Photo: Tesla Owners Club of Australia

The lack of a single question on climate change after four consecutive presidential debates is a painful reminder of how little political power climate hawks have really built.

But while climate change is not a salient political issue clean energy is. According to polling conducted by Pew clean energy is a potential wedge issue with right-leaning constituencies. That's because in places like California Republicans are five times more likely to own rooftop solar than their crunchy liberal friends. That's an important political opportunity in an increasingly polarized world.

But more exciting than the ability to transcend the political divide is the opportunity to organize a politically potent constituency. With more than one million solar homeowners with 'skin in the game' when it comes to the clean energy transition we have the potential for something the left has never been able to build - the clean energy equivalent of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Take what happened with threats to rooftop solar in California for instance. When the California PUC considered changes to the net energy metering (NEM) policy that enables participation in the clean energy economy Solar City was quick to take action. The company sent email action alerts, much like an advocacy focused NGO might, to its customers asking them to tell the PUC to keep its hands off their solar. That simple act turned passive consumers into solar advocates and was a part of the successful effort to defend NEM in California.

This of course is just one isolated example of the ability to organize and activate a solar constituency whose bottom line is directly affected by adverse changes to a clean energy transition. There are many others including the recent efforts to fight the Pepco-Exelon merger in Washington DC that relied on solar cooperatives to act as community advocates. Ultimately, what they have in common is the understanding that the true 'value of rooftop solar' is not in the cost savings or terrawatt hours produced, but in the political constituency it creates.

But while the rooftop solar industry has recognized the political force at its fingertips electric vehicle owners are yet to be tapped. The reality is electric vehicles create a much more powerful connection with the clean energy economy than solar ever could. They become an integral part of daily life that taps into a deep-seated cultural connection with cars and the American road. Even better, they are increasingly associated with technological advances that can create powerful loyalty as evidenced by the cult like obsession many have with Tesla.

Even better than the deep connection EV owners have with their cars is their sheer numbers. While rooftop solar homeowners are large and growing they are limited to those who own a home. EV owners on the other hand could literally be everybody in the country who already owns a car. While EV sales are small today, they are growing fast and set to leap into the mainstream with the most recent clean energy miracle - the Chevy Bolt. Imagine how powerful an email from General Motors to millions of Chevy Bolt owners would be if tax credits and subsidies were ever removed? But while we do have some early examples of electric vehicle owner organizing (see plug in America), we have yet to aggressively exploit the potential.

Which brings us back to our current predicament. While we are rapidly approaching deadlines to decarbonize the world economy dictated by the tipping points in earths' natural systems we are slow peddling our approach to building the power necessary to avoid climate chaos. The reality is that the political institutions that have supported the progressive left in the United States like the Unions have seen their numbers dwindle from one in every three people in the country to less than one in 10. That is not only a threat to our ability to defeat a future Donald Trump, it's a threat to our ability to get climate change on the political agenda period.

That's why it's vitally important we build new political constituencies as a part of the clean energy transition. Because the effort to halt climate change doesn't end when we swap out coal plants for solar and wind farms or gas guzzlers for electric vehicles. That is really just the 'low hanging fruit' of the deep decarbonization we need to undertake that will transform everything from the way industry manufactures our world to the way we heat our homes. Because the reality is without a robust political infrastructure created by organizing those who benefit from the transition we can win the clean energy battle but lose the climate war.