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Phil Bredesen: the Southern solar champion You’ve Never Heard of [Climate & Capital Media]

Written by Jared Downing

Former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen has spent the past 10 years quietly bringing renewable power to Trump country. 

If you aren’t from Tennessee, you probably haven’t heard of former governor Phil Bredesen. 

After all, the politician-turned-solar-power-tycoon has more or less built his brand on staying in the background. In fact, during his unsuccessful Senate run in 2018, Vanity Fair called his strategy “radical boringness,” contrasting him with the gun-toting, Trump-quoting Marsha Blackburn. 

And while Bredesen’s partners include Facebook and Shell, Bredesen himself has had no Nobel prizes, national speaking tours nor documentary film credits. He isn’t an activist or a watchdog. He’s just a politician turned businessman who has quietly transformed the South into an unlikely hub for clean energy.

Solar in the South

Bredesen describes his strategy in simple terms: “I’m just very focused on ‘Let’s get it done.”  

It started with Silicon Ranch, a solar power company he co-founded in 2011. Now, valued at almost $500 million, Silicon Ranch is one of the fastest growing companies in the region and has helped Tennessee up its solar capacity by 450% in less than ten years.

Silicon Ranch has helped Tennessee up its solar capacity by 450% in less than ten years.

“Back then, nobody really appreciated solar power except for environmentalists and a few companies that were beginning to focus on sustainability,” says Matt Kisber, who co-founded Silicon Ranch with Bredesen after serving in Tennessee’s legislature and then as its commissioner of economic development.

When the company launched, Tennessee had less than six megawatts of solar capacity. The four other Southern states in Silicon Ranch’s portfolio, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi, began 2011 with only 8.9 megawatts of solar combined. Today, Tennessee has more than 350 megawatts, and neighboring Georgia alone now has more than 2600 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“We really believed that with the start of Silicon Ranch, we would be at the emerging end of the new industrial trend, that we could develop the business but also help develop the industry,” Kisber continues. 

He and Bredesen foresaw a day when renewable energy was not only a-nice-to-have, but a requirement for regional development, especially for Silicon Valley tech giants looking to expand eastward. Thus, Silicon Ranch played the long game, planning and building turnkey solar power solutions the company would build and maintain for 30 or 40 years. 

Silicon Ranch played the long game, planning and building turnkey solar power solutions the company would build and maintain for 30 or 40 years. 

Ten years later, the approach has helped make Silicon Ranch one of the fastest-growing companies in Tennessee, in any sector. Its clients now include Facebook, which uses Silicon Ranch solar to power an $800 million data center in Georgia. In 2018, Royal Dutch Shell bought a minority stake in the company for $200 million, followed by another $150 million from private equity investors. 

Dirty grid, clean power

It wasn’t access to Bredesen’s solar power that inspired Facebook to build an $800 million data center in Georgia. But it definitely helped. . 

“When companies visit your city, if you can’t answer the question, ‘What can you do to help us meet our renewable energy goals?’ that will disqualify you,” says Kyle Spurgeon, president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Tennessee, where Silicon Ranch is expanding its solar arrays. 

Jackson hosts its fair share of industry. Toyota engine parts, Kellogg’s Pringles, and Black+Decker tools are made there. Spurgeon says that ten years ago, access to renewable power was a perk. Now, it’s a necessity. “In many cases…if you can’t check that box, you’re going to get eliminated.”

Ten years ago, access to renewable power was a perk. Now, it’s a necessity.

Thus, companies like Silicon Ranch and Clearloop are not only bringing renewable power to the otherwise dirty Southern grids; they’re helping the entire region move from laggard to leader in the climate economy.

“Parts of the South and big swaths of the midwest have very dirty fossil fuel electrical grids,” Bredesen explains. “So by doing these solar arrays in these areas, you’re actually offsetting a lot more carbon than you would in, say, New England, where there’s a lot more hydropower.” 

Bredesen’s next target: Everyone else.

Carbon offsets for the little guy

Bredesen’s latest startup, Clearloop, aims to help smaller players take a seat at the solar table.

 “If you want to reduce the carbon footprint of what you do or eliminate it, smaller companies have very few options,” Bredesen says. 

Clearloop’s scheme is simple: It essentially takes grants from smaller companies and bundles them into larger funds that go towards the construction of full-scale solar arrays. Thus, with Clearloop, a company can buy just a few solar panels or even a piece of one panel, and then claim the credit as a carbon offset. (Or rather, a “reclaimed carbon footprint,” as Clearloop officially calls it.)

“If you want to reduce the carbon footprint of what you do or eliminate it, smaller companies have very few options.”

“Carbon offsetting” is the practice of funding separate projects that cut carbon and then counting them off your own carbon footprint. Favorite projects include sponsoring regenerative agriculture, renewable power infrastructure in developing countries, and, most commonly, huge tree plantations to absorb carbon in the air. 

But carbon offsetting can be hard to track and verify. Even if you plant ten thousand trees in the Amazon rainforest, it is impossible to tell beyond a rough guess how much carbon they will absorb in 25 years. Those trees also might be cut down, or the land might be nationalized.

Thus, carbon offsetting has earned its share of critics. Harper’s magazine has called it a “shell game,” and as GreenBiz contributor, Jesse Klein recently put it: “Trying to understand carbon offsets is like stepping into quicksand. Ask one question, and you’ll end up with a dozen more.” 

What Clearloop brings to the carbon offset table, Bredesen says, is simplicity and transparency: “[The offset] is right here. You can go look at it. You can kick the tires. There are meters on it. You know exactly how much electricity has been produced and exactly how much carbon has been reduced.”

It was this clarity that attracted Washington-based startup Coolperx, which bills itself as the first carbon-neutral supplier of corporate gifts (i.e., swag) — a $125 billion industry of branded tee shirts, fidget spinners, and fruit baskets. Coolperx founder Lou Cysewski wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of these trinkets, but it was harder than she thought. 

“We really googled the crap out of this,” Cysewski says. “We did partner for a little while with one tree plantation. They collect money, but there’s no proof or there’s no paper trail of the trees being planted. Another was a clean water campaign in Cambodia, but it wasn’t really verifiable. Behind door-number-three was Clearloop.” 

“They collect money, but there’s no proof or there’s no paper trail of the trees being planted.”

Clearloop is helping Cysweski offset thousands of pounds of annual carbon for her clients, which include Google, Microsoft and T-Mobile. The companies are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint. But the real problem isn’t with those giants themselves, but the thousands of mid-level supporting companies working in their supply chain.   “Google knows that they have this [carbon offset] mission,” Cysweski says. “Down the chain, missions like this get lost.”

The slow and steady solar revolution

Almost ten years after Bredesen entered the business, the South is now emerging as a player in the new green economy. The South (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) now has more megawatts of solar per capita than both the Northeast and Midwest, with around 20 megawatts per 100,000 people.

Bredesen is now looking beyond the South. Clearloop is already working with clients in cities like Seattle and Boston, and Silicon Ranch, which has already expanded into Colorado, plans to boost its solar portfolio by another 3000 megawatts with 120 planned projects in 14 states.

And as Bredesen expands his solar empire, he will likely do it, as he has always done: not with Nobel prizes, national speaking tours, or documentary films, but by quietly and methodically, ushering in the green energy revolution.

Read the original article on Climate & Capital Media.

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