Former Obama Strategist Shifts Focus To a New Movement: Solar Adoption

As a strategist for the Obama campaign in 2008, Jon Carson helped create a new kind of grassroots movement using human networks and technology. He now hopes the same tools can put a solar panel on every American rooftop.

By Kevin Dennehy

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

In 2008 Jon Carson helped build one of the most influential grassroots campaigns in U.S. political history, harnessing technology and volunteer networks to propel Barack Obama into the White House. The apparatus for that strategy later became Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonprofit that under Carson’s leadership raised tens of millions of dollars to support President Obama’s second-term agenda.
jon carson solarcity
Now, Carson is helping lead another grassroots movement: the campaign for widespread solar adoption. Last year he left OFA to join SolarCity, the nation’s largest provider of solar systems. As senior director of SolarCity’s ambassadors program, Carson aims to penetrate every market in the country by encouraging customers to recruit friends and family into a growing network of solar users.

On Oct. 20, Carson will visit Yale to discuss SolarCity’s strategy to put a solar panel on every U.S. home — and how the strategy is already reaching communities, from Hartford to Oakland, that are often underrepresented in environmental policy discussions. His lecture is part of the Yale F&ES course, Diverse Voices, which is being taught by Frances Beinecke ’71 B.A. ’74 M.F.S., former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and F&ES Dean Peter Crane.

The talk is open to the public.

We recently talked with Carson about the historic growth of the U.S. solar market and how his experiences in politics are helping him reach more and more American families and businesses.

Q: Many people remember your work on the Obama campaign and for Organizing for Action, which you’ve described as the largest grassroots political group in the country. You could have gone in quite a few different directions: why solar?

JON CARSON: Well, it’s something I hadn’t really annunciated until after I took the job. But on an issue like climate change there’s a phase when advocacy matters. There’s a phase when research matters. There’s a phase for campaigns, a phase for government. But on solar, we’re at the point where in 20 states the policy is there. The technology is there. The financing is there.

And I’m not actually a socialist; I’m a progressive, but I’m a capitalist and I believe the free market is what’s going to actually get us to the final mile. SolarCity and other renewable energy companies are the ones actually deploying. I’ve had a lot of conversations trying to recruit friends to the company, and I make the argument that the work they did at nonprofit environmental groups five years ago set the stage for this to happen. This is where the action is now.

Q: Like Organizing for Action, SolarCity encourages people to recruit friends into a network, in this case to adopt solar power systems. How does the company’s “solar ambassador” model achieve that?

CARSON: SolarCity allows me to combine my two passions, the first being tackling climate change and the second being that I can do it through people. The simple version is that we’ll put solar on your home, no money down. You pay us a lower rate for electricity than you currently pay your utility. And frankly, what makes that believable is hearing it from a friend.

On Campus

Jon Carson will speak at Yale at on Tuesday, Oct. 20, as part of the F&ES course, Diverse Voices. The talk begins at 5:30 p.m. in Kroon Hall. It is open to the public. More information
Now, every business in the history of commerce has wanted word-of-mouth advertising. When you have a newer product and approach, you need that validation. But on the other hand, what’s interesting about solar is that it’s something that people talk to their family and friends about. If you’re selling high-efficiency water heaters, it doesn’t exactly come up at Thanksgiving dinner. Solar is something that people talk about.

In fact, Yale did a really fascinating study in Connecticut that asked where solar is spreading: Is it going into certain demographics? Is it based on education groups? Income groups? Race? What they found is that it’s more of a neighborhood effect. So it happens naturally, but my job with the solar ambassador program is to drive it as fast and as far as we possibly can… We’re in 19 states right now, and we expect to see that list of states keep growing.

Q: As you said, solar panels are not a new technology. But most Americans still haven’t had much actual experience with them. How do you make the case that it’s something that will work for consumers, and that it’s not that radical of a shift?

CARSON: I think we’re in an interesting time when it comes to communications in general. We are surrounded by information, but the default setting for many people right now is skepticism. And that’s where this program comes in. The number-one thing we can do to convince people that solar is right for them is to have their friends, family members, and co-workers explain why it was right for them.

The ambassador program gives people those conversation starters, and helps them understand the movement they’re part of. And that’s a really cool part of what’s going on right now. Switching to solar is a heck of a lot more impactful than just switching out a few LED light bulbs. You are moving your home off of fossil fuels onto renewable energy. And when you can be part of getting your neighborhood off of it, that’s impactful.

Q: One of the historical criticisms of solar is that it often has focused on high-income customers or communities. One of SolarCity’s goals is to reach more diverse range of customers. How are you doing that?

CARSON: We’re doing that on a couple of fronts. First of all, the only limiting factors right now are that you do need to be a home-owner and you need to have a 650 credit score. That is a huge chunk of America right there… So the biggest piece of this is just driving our current solar ambassador program because a lot of low- and moderate-income families can switch to solar right now if they know about it.

The other side of it is all the work we are doing to lower that credit score threshold, and finding sources of financing that allow us to do that. One example is a project like SolarCity’s “Community Solar,” which makes solar available to renters and people who don’t have a roof that they own. We want everyone right now who buys electricity and gets it from fossil fuels to switch over to solar. That’s a pretty big market of people.

Q: How does the Community Solar program work?

CARSON: We’ve introduced it in a couple of states where there exists a policy known as virtual net metering, which is similar to net metering [which credits solar panel owners for the electricity they put on the grid]. With this program, if you’re in an apartment building, you can be part of a solar array. Sometimes these systems are located in a brownfields site, which is just a fabulous place to put solar.

Customers sign a contract — just as if the panels were on their roof — for a percentage of the panels on that array. So it’s just like regular net metering: When the sun’s shining you get credit for the electricity the panels are producing. And when it’s not, you use up that credit. It’s not as widespread as the regular household solar yet, but it’s definitely growing.

Q: You mentioned the Yale study that showed that “the neighborhood effect” is more important than demographics when it comes to promoting solar adoption. That seems to suggest that there is a real opportunity to penetrate communities that are often underrepresented when discussing environmental policy. Because of course, this isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s an economic one.

CARSON: Absolutely. If you save a family $50 a month on electricity, that’s a big deal, especially for a family on a fixed income or for a retired couple. And so that is driving the growth substantially.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who worked in an environmental group and has done some wonderful work on environmental justice issues, asking me about this. And I said, take a look at our website — we have an app or you can go to — we have a map that shows where all our customers are. Take a look at the parts of Hartford that you would consider low- and moderate-income. Take a look at Oakland, California. We’re in there, we’re already engaging with customers in those communities.

And we have fabulous stories where we are working with a nonprofit, or a church group, and engage their members into switching to solar. And then that leads to connections that lead us to hire a group of their members to work on our team.

Q: I’ve read that SolarCity is adding about 500 positions a month. What kinds of jobs are those?

CARSON: A big chunk of those are our installers. We’re a vertically integrated company. We have our own crew of installers. We also have the back office folks, the technicians, and, of course, our energy consultants. Compared with other forms of energy, the jobs per kilowatt created by solar is fantastic.

Q: Have you found that the work you’re doing with SolarCity is reminiscent of your experiences with the Obama campaign and Organizing for Action?

CARSON: One of the fundamental ones that is just fun to watch play out in this new context is the combination of giving people something to be a part of, where they feel they’re own work is meaningful. If you’re one of our solar ambassadors, and you help 10 families in your neighborhood switch to clean power, that is real and impactful. And at the same time you feel part of the movement. You feel that you’re part of these thousands of people moving in the same direction.