The Man Who Lobbies for the Sun

Rob Kunzig photo

“Advocating for solar?” said Scott Hennessey. “It’s right up there with puppies and kittens. It’s the closest thing to magic.”Hennessey, policy director at SolarCity, America’s largest residential panel installer, is a ginger-haired, solar-powered cheerleader in a blazer and green tie. When he speaks, he juggles his knees as if he’s running in place. His eyes shine with a manic energy as he rattles off industry facts at the manic pace of his favorite jazz legends: John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk.

He is, above all, optimistic. In a Congress fraught with partisan tension, Hennessey is trying to rescue the tax credit largely responsible for the industry’s growth in the past decade.

For SolarCity, the Investment Tax Credit is life. The incentive lops 30 percent off the cost of residential solar installation. It has opened solar to the middle class, he said, and enabled exponential growth for the company since its founding in 2008. If it expires at the end of 2016, he said, that growth could grind to a halt, and some of the industry’s smaller businesses could go dark.

Hennessey rises early at his home in Bethesda, where a 6.7 kilowatt solar power system provides 60 percent of his family’s power. Green tea gets him going most days, but as the father of two sons, ages four and 21 months, he sometimes needs coffee.

He’s lived in Washington since 2003 and loves it. In his hometown of Boston, he said, the cabbies listen to sports radio. In D.C., they listen to NPR. He doesn’t miss Red Sox nation – he’s more of a Patriots fan, anyway. He thrives on politics, which he takes with a heaping spoonful of social justice.

“Even the good ideas don’t get through sometimes,” he said, citing the funding turbulence encountered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program in the mid-2000s. It baffles him totally and gets him red in the face.

“It’s not that idealistic” to want good programs to succeed, he said. “It frustrates the hell out of me when I see presidential posturing derail spending bills.”

Hennessey attended Oberlin College, an elite liberal arts school, where he studied politics and philosophy while volunteering for the American Civil Liberties Union.  “You can do nothing with politics and philosophy except go to law school,” he said.

And so he did, getting his juris doctor from Boston College. Practice didn’t suit him, though, and the little time he spent at a firm made him miserable. He left Boston and moved to Washington, figuring he’d get a job staffing on Capitol Hill.

“And I failed,” he laughed. “Failed miserably.” Interview after interview, he struck out.

“It quickly occurred to me that if I’d spent six months opening mail for free instead of getting a law degree, I’d be a [legislative director] by now,” he said.

Instead of Congress, Hennessey landed at Brattle Group, an economic consulting firm, where he worked on energy issues. His fascination with renewable energy led him to a job at the Solar Energy Industries Association, where he and his boss were the third and fourth hires. Now, he said, the trade group has 40 employees.

“It was a young industry,” he said. In 2006, when he joined the group, the solar industry had installed a piddly total of 105 megawatts. Wind, he said, was already installing in the gigawatt range.  “In those days, we produced less electricity than little kids rubbing balloons on their heads at birthday parties,” he said.

Last year, his industry installed more than 7,000 megawatts, surpassing wind installation by 2,146 megawatts

SolarCity launched on July 4, 2008. Buoyed by the ITC, the industry got another shot in the arm that October when the Troubled Asset Relief Program extended tax credits for renewable power. As the economy slid into recession, Hennessey said, solar was gaining momentum. “Everyone was lamenting the downfall of Western economies, and we’re like, ‘This could be the best time for the industry,’” he said.

Since then, the industry has blossomed. When Hennessey joined SolarCity three years ago, the company had 1,750 employees. It now boasts 13,000 workers, making it the largest solar employer in America. The technology hasn’t gotten any more sophisticated, he said, but access to financing and tax incentives spurred the industry’s growth.

“It used to be for the well-off and the well-meaning. which is a very small market,” he said. “Do-gooders with cash are a specialized field. As soon as you’re able to eliminate the up-front cost, it becomes less about global warming, and more about saving money.”

Business is good for SolarCity, but Hennessy said the company is fighting constant battles at the state and local level, not to mention Capitol Hill.

At the very least, he said, SolarCity wants to amend a series of “tax extenders” currently before Congress to ensure that solar projects that start before the ITC’s expiration on Dec. 31, 2016 are eligible for the 30-percent tax break. As the law currently stands, only projects completed by the expiration are eligible.

It’s about leveling the playing field, he said, “instead of making us crawl over broken glass for temporary extensions.” He pointed out that natural gas, oil and nuclear power all enjoy permanent tax credits.

Better yet would be an extension of the credit itself, but Hennessey can only be so optimistic. With a crowded legislative schedule and an election year looming, lawmakers won’t likely spend their political capital on solar power.

If Hennessey is stressed by the burden of sustaining a fledgling industry, he doesn’t show it. He enjoys the quirks of his job. He collaborates with Tea Party groups on energy issues, for example, in the endlessly amusing phenomenon known as “Green Tea.”

While his company relies on the ITC to grow, he knows he’s working for the industry’s biggest dog: “SolarCity will survive,” he said. “We just won’t have the same growth.” His won’t be one of the smaller companies “pushed over the cliff.” And he’ll continue to be SolarCity’s guy on the hill. And he’ll remain optimistic.

“Yeah, it’s a sport, and yes, people play for their teams, but everyone for the most part really cares about the consequences. Good things get done.”

Morning Consult