He started solar’s preeminent advocacy group. Now, Adam Browning is all in on EVs

He started solar’s preeminent advocacy group. Now, Adam Browning is all in on EVs

Adam Browning joined Episode 48 of the Factor This! podcast to discuss his storied career leading Vote Solar and why, now, he’s all in on EVs. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Adam Browning didn’t set out to form the solar industry’s preeminent advocacy group when he launched Vote Solar in 2002. But, as it turned out, that’s exactly what he did.

The idea was first scripted on the back of a napkin, as most good ones are. But it wasn’t meant to endure decades into the future.

At the time, Browning was working at the Environmental Protection Agency visiting mines and factories to enforce toxic emissions regulations. He met with a friend from college, David Hochschild, for beers in San Francisco. Hochschild, a special assistant to then-Mayor Willie Brown, gushed with excitement over the new solar panels installed on his home.

“He’s like, ‘This stuff is amazing,'” Browning recalled on the Factor This! podcast.

Together, they had the idea to put solar panels on the roof of San Francisco’s City Hall. A ballot initiative would be the best route to take, they thought, to access the long-term capital cities can tap into through bonds.

This focus on “energy democracy” wasn’t intended to live on beyond that first campaign. But Prop B, as it was identified on the ballot, proved wildly successful. Browning and his fellow campaigners secured a record amount of the vote, and a New York Times article brought national acclaim to the bootstrap effort sketched out on a beer-stained napkin.

“That caused a bunch of other cities to reach out and say, ‘Hey, how can we do something like this in our city.'”

Browning and Hochschild quit their jobs to co-found Vote Solar in 2002 when the U.S. had just 165 MW of installed solar capacity.

The initial vision was to do as many city-led solar initiatives as possible to scale the emerging technology. At the time, solar cost $10 per watt. A wonderful resource, but too expensive to be meaningful.

They quickly realized that states would drive the bus. What started in California expanded to legislatures and regulatory boards across the country. Vote Solar would be instrumental in achieving California’s renewable portfolio standards, which stair-stepped up from 33% to 50% to 100% clean energy.

Browning went on to lead the one-off campaign that became Vote Solar for the next 20 years. The U.S. would go on to install 122 GW of solar over that time. And Hochschild is now chair of the California Energy Commission.

In 2021 Browning celebrated his 50th birthday, which catalyzed something within him to find the next big decarbonization story. It was time for a change.

After stepping down as Vote Solar’s executive director and taking a break to recharge, Browning was pulled into the world of electric vehicles. Fleets, he would learn, are some of the most challenging sources to decarbonize. The precise road ahead was still waiting for a couple of college buddies to hash out on a napkin, and Browning was ready to take it on.

“I knew that was my happy spot,” Browning said. “Those areas of the map that we don’t have a clear way forward for. This feels in many ways very much like those early days of solar when it was just an afterthought.”

California is requiring all new heavy-duty truck sales to be zero-emission by 2036. Forum Mobility is working to decarbonize the drayage industry, which moves goods from ports to nearby distribution hubs. (Courtesy: Forum Mobility)

Browning joined fleet electrification startup Forum Mobility as a board member in 2022 and took on the full-time role of executive vice president of policy and communications earlier in 2023.

Forum Mobility is working to electrify the trucks that transport goods that arrive from ports to nearby destinations, known as drayage. The company is developing charging hubs and providing electric trucks for lease to drivers who are often independent operators without the capital to invest on a pricier zero-emissions vehicle.

Forum’s work is critical now that the California Air Resources Board has banned new diesel truck sales by 2036. And Browning is ready to use the lessons he learned from solar’s twists and turns to help another emerging technology break through.

“The challenge of developing all the necessary charging infrastructure is biblical,” Browning said. “I think (drayage) will be the pointy end of the spear that develops the business models and incubates the technology that will then transfer over to a broader segment of the goods movement industry.”

Adam Browning seen at Recurrent Energy’s Sunset Reservoir solar project, which reached commercial operation in 2010. (Courtesy: Adam Browning)

Forum’s market approach is shaped in many ways by the successes and pitfalls of solar’s meteoric growth.

For one, “you need to have a cost-competitive option,” Browning says, because “no one does anything just because it saves the world.” Forum’s truck lease option promises to match or beat the cost of diesel trucks.

But maybe more important is the ability to build political power through advocacy and community buy-in. The solar industry used residential rooftop installations to lay a foundation for what would become a diverse sector with distributed and utility-scale projects peppered across the country.

“To continue to have that focus on participant benefits, that builds the interest and the muscles that lead to political strength,” Browning said. “Without political strength, you’re not going to win.”

By all accounts, Browning is starting over. And for now, at least, there’s no map to guide how to decarbonize more than 30,000 heavy-duty trucks in 12 years.

For this next challenge, he’s probably going to need a bigger napkin.