Documentary Review: ‘Catching the Sun’: A Solar Energy Shot of Climate-Change Hope
It’s high time we had some good news. We’ve seen documentaries showing 3-foot flames shooting off kitchen tap water (fracking), and 16 movies out there about global warming, all of them depressing. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s scientists say climate change is real.
And if you really want to understand climate change, you have to watch the documentary “Earthlings,” which will horrify you no end. It’s about how we humans really need to slam the brakes on the global animal Auschwitz, and stop eating our furry friends.
What else? There’s the recent “Hot Water,” an exposé about the health hazards of abandoned American uranium mines. Our nuclear chickens are coming home to roost.
And Michael Moore, after taking an Obama-administration-induced vacation, is back in the fray again with “Where to Invade Next?”
“Catching the Sun,” which debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is a wonderful documentary about clean energy and jobs. Five years in the making, the film is executive produced by Adrian Grenier of HBO’s “Entourage.” It’s the rare documentary these days that has zero gloom and doom involved.
Well okay maybe just a little bit. It begins with footage of the Chevron refinery blowing up in economically desperate Richmond, California. More than 15,000 people had to go to the hospital—a perfect prelude for the topic of solar energy: Chevron raised gas prices, pinching the poor, to pay for its putrid mess.
The Way We Were
President Jimmy Carter set the agenda for solar energy. In 1973 and ’79 we had oil embargoes; OPEC raised oil prices on us. Carter put solar panels on the White House. You can’t embargo the sun. Jimmy Carter was the man.
As stated in the film, President Ronald Reagan took them down his first day in office. He said it was not befitting of a superpower.
But solar technology is all-American. It started with Bell Labs’ solar powering of satellites in 1954.
No More Fossil!
“Catching the Sun” follows up the Chevron refinery debacle by introducing us to Marin County’s civil rights activist, and New York Times best-selling author Van Jones.
His nonprofit company, “Green for All,” was about finding the greenest solutions for the poorest of people. (“Training ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”)
As Jones says, in the American ghetto, it’s always been hard to get on the ladder to success, but nowadays, there are even rungs missing off the get-out-of-the-ghetto ladder.
His plan is to put green rungs on the ladder by forging a green economy—re-empowering America, and Americans, with green energy through green jobs.
Energy power is social power. Fairer, cleaner, lower-cost power literally and figuratively puts the power in the hands of the people.
One elderly lady with brand-new rooftop panels sees her energy bill go from $80 to $5. “I’m not having to pay nothin’!” she says, with understandable glee.
We get to see solar-panel installation training, hear from a few of the students, their dreams and aspirations, and see proud graduates, parents, and budding relationships. Hope reigns supreme.
One nice touch comes while learning about solar modules: One student powers up a little manual wind-up music box using solar energy. What does it play? Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” of course.
As the film notes, the 1960s’ hippies started the solar power movement. To the tune of hippie Beatle George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
Next up we meet exuberant, happy-all-the-time Chinese solar entrepreneur Wally Jiang, who started a company with 15 people and now employs 15,000.
His company grows 50 percent every year. He wants to build a solar city in Texas. “I love Texas!” He wants to give 500 million Africans energy. He says energy is like love—many people need it. Especially free energy.
China has a fear-motivated stake in solar energy. It has to take care of the needs of its millions of people before fossil fuel runs out and there’s rioting in the streets.
China, to date, has more manufacturing capacity than anyone. Which means there’s now a China vs. America race to spread solar—the first one to spread it wins.
What the film doesn’t really talk about is that China is undercutting the competition by cutting costs and producing a subpar product.
Mr. Jones Goes to Washington
President Obama proclaims we will harness the sun. Mr. Obama moves Mr. Van Jones to the White House, to become the energy czar.
There’s talk of tidal waves of innovation, retrofitting every building in the United States, and achieving zero carbon emissions.
Germany is already running on 75 percent renewable energy. Germany is solar power’s biggest market; they adapted fast, immediately created laws, got rid of their atomic energy dependency.
As Van Jones explains, we can be at 80 percent renewable by the year 2030, easy. How? Give polluters some reasons to stop polluting. Which is what cap-and-trade was all about—”You can’t pollute for free!”
No more tax breaks for polluters. Cap-and-trade legislation passed the House, but the oil magnate Koch brothers surreptitiously started what looked like a grassroots organization to stop cap-and-trade. The billionaire Kochs hate solar; it’s the antithesis of everything they stand for.
And of course the utility companies see solar as a life-and-death threat.
Which all culminated in a massive movement to take Van Jones down. He resigned. But renewable energy issues cut across traditional political lines. As the film’s next focus, pro-solar Debbie Dooley of the “Green Tea Party” says, “I’m a right-wing conservative, but I’ve never been called a communist before!”
And in the End
There’s very little time left. As mentioned, 99 percent of the world’s scientists say climate change is real.
As was mentioned in the Q&A after the film’s screening at New York City’s Ford Foundation—solar energy is actually not a political problem. It’s a narrative problem.
The story has to make sense to people. Right now, just about everyone still thinks we’ll always need fossil fuel to some degree.
People are not yet aware that the cost of solar energy has dropped 80 percent and no longer needs subsidies. It is, hands down, the cheapest energy. The solar industry employs more people than coal now; it’s ramping up very quickly. That’s the story that needs to get out there.
Solar Is Hot and Cool
Solar panels are getting chic and aesthetic; they’re going to be a given in all future architectural planning. Even though solar is less than 1 percent now, it’ll eventually be everywhere, producing millions of jobs.
That’s the vision of award-winning filmmaker and activist Shalini Kantayya’s “Catching the Sun.” Make sure to catch it yourself. It’s a significant stress-buster for our troubled times.
‘Catching the Sun’
Director: Shalini Kantayya
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Release Date: April 1
4 stars out of 5