Big Data, Big Oil: Unveiling the 'Dark Forces' Behind Trump’s 2020 Reelection Campaign With Josh Fox
By Reynard Loki
Josh Fox, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind Gasland, the documentary that started the global anti-fracking movement, is bringing a new message to audiences across the country with The Truth Has Changed, a live theater-based project that sounds the alarm on the right-wing disinformation campaign working to secure President Trump's reelection.
Commissioned by legendary documentary producer Sheila Nevins for HBO as a solo performance to inspire grassroots action, The Truth Has Changed traces Fox's personal arc from 9/11 to present-day America to tell a story that is both a warning and a prescription to save our democracy — and the planet.
I talked to Fox about this new project and the dark forces working to spread lies and misinformation to influence the 2020 presidential election.
Reynard Loki: Your films have been about the environment, and the fight to save it from climate change, fracking, pipelines, the activists at Standing Rock. How has your previous work led you to your new live performance-based project, The Truth Has Changed?
Josh Fox: That's a great question. It started with an intriguing proposal from HBO. They said, "We know you do theater. We know you've been on the road for 10 years bringing your films to people. And you in a live setting is a part of the show, right? It's not just that people come out to see your films. They come to see you, so how about you do a one-man show that brings that reality to the people?" And that was an assignment from Sheila Nevins when she was at HBO. And I said, "Absolutely; I'll try this." And then I started to really think about it, and at first, it was kind of a reporter's notebook, but to be honest, what I really zeroed in on was the fact that for the last 10 years, the oil and gas industry has made a huge effort to discredit my work and discredit all of the people who spoke about how bad fracking is. And this is very similar to the campaigns of climate denial, which hinge on widespread misinformation and then spreading disinformation and propaganda, smear and lies.
RL: Can you describe the effort to discredit your work?
JF: Big names in conservative smear campaigns were following me all around the country. [Steve] Bannon. Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart. Filmmaker Phelim McAleer, whose pro-fracking documentary "FrackNation" attempted to refute my own documentary Gasland. Conservative activist James O'Keefe. GOP media strategist Fred Davis. These high-profile right-wing charlatans clearly did opposition research on me. They collected all this data on me and figured out how to attack me personally. They tried to get inside my psyche to unnerve me. And they did it in a very specific and deliberate kind of way.
RL: What exactly did they do?
JF: They created hate emails specifically designed for my personality. There were tweets threats; there were death threats on Twitter. They highlighted my life in the theater, my hairline, the fact that my family's Jewish; they found out that I had quit smoking several years ago, but they found a picture of me with a cigarette in my hand online from the past, and they ran that as a pro-fracking TV ad in Ohio saying, "This environmentalist is a smoker." They followed me around the country for years. They booked shadow tours of our films. They tapped into ethnic and regional stereotyping. And then they tried to paint me as some kind of rich, intellectual, New York City liberal, which is not the case. They flung all of these stereotypes at me. They gathered all this information about me — my background, my ethnicity, my age, my race, where I live, where I went to school, how much money I made, what I had done in my previous life before the films.
RL: Are you saying that those techniques used against you are similar to the current disinformation campaigns we're seeing today? Could you have been a kind of beta test for this data-based approach to spread propaganda?
JF: Absolutely. Basically, what Steve Bannon did to me from 2010 to 2015, he did to the entire American electorate in 2016. In developing The Truth Has Changed, I made two startling realizations. One was that the people who ran those campaigns against me had a very strong hand in influencing the 2016 election: Steve Bannon, who was running Breitbart when all these attacks were happening against me, took over the Trump campaign and his team profiled the electorate in the exact same way. This connection led me down two trails in my own life. The first looked back to my own personal history as a grandson of Holocaust survivors. I have an intimate knowledge of how white supremacy works, how the Nazi playbook operates, and feel a sense of intergenerational trauma. The second trail looks to the present time and the future, to how the same techniques that were used in a smear campaign against an individual through Google, Facebook, data collection, [and] addressable ad technology, which enables advertisers to selectively segment audiences to serve different ads, are used to influence a massive amount of people. And instead of just following one person around and knowing one person's data — mine — now they know the personal data of tens of millions of people, and they use that information to create highly personalized ads according to different personality types.
RL: How important was big data to Trump's victory in 2016?
JF: During the 2016 election, CNN called political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica "Donald Trump's mind readers" and his "secret weapon." They gathered up to 5,000 data points on more than 220 million Americans. And they used that data to tailor ads specifically toward people's personality types to influence their thinking. The same folks are currently rallying white supremacists all across the world and are making a bid to get Trump reelected in 2020. Their digital campaign created 5.9 million different ad variations in 2016, versus just 66,000 ads created by Hillary Clinton's campaign. It was so key to Trump's victory that Trump's digital campaign manager Brad Parscale is now his campaign manager.
RL: So in "The Truth Is Changed," you're connecting big oil and white supremacy to big data — and how these forces are working together to influence the 2020 election.
JF: Yes, we're talking about Bannon and the white supremacy movement. We're talking about Trump's former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, before that, was the head of ExxonMobil and the oil and gas industry, which has brazenly taken over the government. We're talking about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and their collection of the personal data of billions of people around the globe. Together, they have created a situation in which big data, big oil and white supremacists powerfully influence the way the United States government operates. And certainly, in the 2020 election cycle, we're going to have a very hard time figuring out what is true. I think we're going to see the largest smear, misinformation and disinformation campaigns in the history of any election. So in The Truth Has Changed I'm taking a deep dive not only into the smear techniques of big oil and how they work from a new technology perspective, from psychographics to addressable ad technology, but going into how that is now how we run elections in America, and then we've entered the age of misinformation because right now it's very hard for people to tell what's true.
RL: Do disinformation campaigns rely on gullibility?
JF: No, I wouldn't say that at all, not with the state of our education system right now. This entire project starts with a high school girl in the front row of one of my films putting her hand up and asking me, "Josh, how do we know what's true?" She said, "You say all these things about how fracking is bad, and climate change is real, but then we can look online, and we see that people are saying that the opposite of this is true. So how do we know?" She's not gullible. She's trying, but can't figure out the difference between a persuasive argument that is true, and a persuasive argument that is false.
Friends of mine send me fake things all the time because it appeals to them. I've sent fake things out accidentally because they appeal for my sensibility. And it's not only that these ads say things like, vote for Donald Trump, he's a nice guy, or he's a tough guy, or he's a strong guy, or he's a compassionate guy. It's often taking people who are upset with the Democratic Party and funneling them toward, for example, Jill Stein, when they might otherwise vote for Hillary Clinton. And a lot of people will get really mad at me and say, "No, no, no, Jill Stein represents what I believe in." But if you're in Pennsylvania and you're voting against the Democratic platform, which Bill McKibben, Cornel West and I helped write and which has real progress in it, and that vote then gets siphoned away to put Donald Trump in office, then you've been manipulated. These disinformation campaigns often take the most deep-seated things that are really important to you and turn that into their own political gain. People are assuming that there is some kind of standard for truth because there always used to be. But last year, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress and declared that political candidates no longer had to abide by any kind of standards of truth, they abandoned a century's worth of journalistic integrity. And they are arguably the largest news publisher in the world.
RL: In the face of all of this, what can we do to suss out truth from lies?
JF: We always have to check for accuracy. The pursuit of the truth is not something that can be done easily, and it never has been. However, we are now seeing the standard-bearers of journalism consistently undermined, and they themselves also make mistakes and who are also subject to manipulation. The New York Times publishes things directly from State Department press releases constantly; it's maddening. Today, people need to work harder to get to the truth. But beyond that, we must control and own our own data, because if someone knows you really well, it's really easy for them to manipulate you.
Take, for example, the 1988 presidential election that pitted incumbent GOP Vice President George H.W. Bush against Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis. [Those who are old enough] probably remember the Willie Horton ad, a racist ad put out by the Republican campaign against Michael Dukakis, and it obviously caused a huge wave of controversy and anger because it was racist. But it only caused that level of controversy because it was visible to everyone. Now you can run 1,000 Willie Horton ads. You can run 10,000 Willie Horton ads. You can run a Willie Horton ad supposedly put out there by a fake Black Lives Matter page, and no one would ever know. So if you put out a racist ad and only racists can see it, it causes absolutely no controversy, but it's deeply effective in rallying people. And a lot of the times people don't even know that they're racist. So you might have things happening to folks on an unconscious level, on a deep psychological level that they're not aware of. But the internet knows. If you've got 5,000 data points on somebody, you know them on a very intimate level, you know their psychology, you know what they're afraid of, you know their sexual orientation, you know their medical history, their age, their race. So your campaign to win them over becomes very effective.
RL: So, how do we get to a point where owning your personal data is a human right? Is this ever going to happen?
JF: There have to be laws, and those laws have to be in line with the current technology. We're currently working with the New York State Senate to create a new slate of laws. There's a privacy law in California that's just recently been passed, but there's some dispute as to how companies are supposed to comply. And so there have to be laws about data privacy that we can campaign for, but the Democrat campaigns must also address this issue. The New York Times recently reported that the Democrats have no strategy to stop this wave of misinformation. But they need to understand that how they handle misinformation is going to be the difference between tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of votes in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Florida. So the Democrats have to get really serious about this issue — and they have to address it really fast. I've appealed to the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other campaigns, saying that this is really serious because it's about to happen — and it's going to happen worse than it's ever happened before.
RL: Should we be allowed to sell our data?
JF: That is a fascinating question. I don't know if I have a real clear answer. I mean, it's being collected by your action, right? Everything you buy, everywhere you go, everything you search for, all things you know and all the things you don't know, all that data goes in, and the algorithm learns what you personally crave and what you personally lack and what you really want in life, so that's a digital map of your dreams, your insecurities, your life. And it is sort of like you're on the road, right? It's your digital biography. Do you own your movements in the world? It's a very interesting question. I imagine there are some benefits. So, for example, if you're on Instagram and you're a man, and you're constantly getting ads for feminine hygiene products, they're an annoyance; they're not useful to you. So perhaps you want to get ads that are more tailored to you. And of course, the way the news works these days is the news gives you back things that you agree with and that you want to see and that you want to read because there's so much information out there. This does backfire upon you because, at that point, you end up being manipulated by the fact that now interests that are foreign to you and nefarious to you and harmful to you can start to target you.
RL: How has the truth crisis impacted the climate crisis?
JF: They go hand-in-hand. We get our terrestrial proof from the Earth. The planet is empirical data. Climate change deniers are saying that the empirical data that's coming from the Earth is not true. Where do they say that? Principally, they say that online, which is its own "planet," the cybersphere. It's a planet that doesn't exist on Earth. It exists by its own rules and has its own set of priorities. And if you leave terrestrial Earth, yeah, you can make it wherever you want. So when you're in that cybersphere, it reigns true whenever you feel like on that particular day, for whomever is willing to pay for it.
The tobacco industry originally started doing this. They started to say things like, "Smoking is good for you." And they created all this bogus science and fake reports that said, "These cigarettes are fine." And what they were trying to do is sow confusion in people and stave off regulation. The exact same technique has been used by the oil industry.
RL: Why is the truth crisis such an urgent matter?
JF: It's so important because the further we get away from the terrestrial planet as our source of empirical reality, the closer we come to being evicted from the planet like climate change, and that is those same forces, the oil industry and the conservatives that are forcing us to an unlivable world. This is an emergency because of the climate. It's also an emergency because we're seeing right now the reemergence of white supremacists and Nazis on this planet, and they are taking over. Right-wing authoritarian governments are sweeping elections across the earth, and they're doing so primarily by using Facebook and WhatsApp and by lying directly to the public. Sixty-eight thousand fake Twitter accounts helped push the recent Bolivian coup. In the UK, Boris Johnson's recent election, 88 percent of the conservative parties' advertisements were misleading. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was elected with the help of fake news messages sent via WhatsApp, a messaging app used by 120 million Brazilians, saying that his opponent was a criminal. Obviously, there's Donald Trump, who had 5.9 million ad variations using Cambridge Analytica. There's also Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Narendra Modi in India. There are dozens of examples. So you're seeing right-wing, authoritarian, racist regimes cropping up all over the world. And in 2019, Steve Bannon raised $100 million for his white supremacist project in Europe.
So what is really dangerous about all of this is the two-headed monster of the rise of white supremacy, Nazism and racism on the one hand and on the other hand, climate change denial and the fossil fuel industry. And these are linked, and these are linked in the persona and in many actions by the Trump administration. In 2017, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil turned Secretary of State, created a contract between the State Department and Cambridge Analytica, and their mission was to influence elections all across the world. Big data and big oil running American diplomacy. And that continues to this day.
RL: Why should people see The Truth Has Changed?
JF: Because this is a chance to rally for the truth. It's the chance to rally for a new America. This project concerns itself with the oil industry, the world at war post-9/11, climate change. We've seen the United States get closer to war with Iran. We see Australia on fire, and authorities there must battle misinformation campaigns contending that the fires were caused by arson and not climate change. We know that we're watching the extinction of countless species in real time. We're in an emergency.
At every single performance of The Truth Has Changed there will be activists in the room who are campaigning on these issues, and that's what we need to do. We need to set the record straight. We need to say climate change is real. We need to say fracking is bad, we need to see Donald Trump as a racist and say that is not who we are as a nation. So we have to take our country back, and this is our effort to try to fight back against this wave of lies, smear and misinformation.
The Truth Has Changed opens at New York's Public Theater this January and will tour across the United States. For more information, visit internationalwow.com/tthc.php.
Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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By Elizabeth Henderson
For almost five decades, organic farming associations like the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association and others across the country have been dedicated to supporting and expanding the community of farmers, homesteaders and conscious eaters who build their lives and livelihoods through agroecology — growing and consuming food, forage and other crops in as much harmony with natural processes and rhythms as we can muster.
To enable shoppers to identify organically grown food, these organizations put a lot of time and energy into developing local markets for direct sales, and creating and maintaining organic certification and the integrity of the organic label. But direct sales and that label are not enough to keep family-scale farms viable.
Under relentless and steadily increasing financial pressures, talented young farmers are giving farming their all for five to 10 years, then quitting. Experienced farmers, including organic farmers, are admitting defeat, selling what they can and finding "real" jobs. The prices farmers receive for crops do not cover all the costs of keeping farms viable, not to mention the extra costs of ecological or regenerative farming systems. The farm crisis is not over.
Can we find solutions?
"The problem that has impoverished and destroyed farmers nearly always is that of low prices resulting from surplus production," poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry told the New York Times in a 2018 interview. "That is also, obviously, a land-destroying problem. The only solution to that problem that can sustain the small farmers is the combination of production control and price supports as exemplified by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association as it was reorganized in my region under the New Deal in 1941."
What does production control plus price supports mean and how did it work under the New Deal?
In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, so many family farms were going bankrupt that the federal government stepped in to help them avoid eviction and to increase prices for their crops. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) declared an economic emergency, justifying action as being in "the national public interest." The AAA set out to re-establish farmers' purchasing power, taking the years just before WWI as the base period when the proper balance existed.
To raise prices for farm products, the AAA reduced the oversupply by setting limits in the form of marketing quotas on the acreage farmers could use for basic commodities, and that first year, some crops were even plowed under. There were also marketing agreements that controlled the quantity, quality, and rate of shipment to market to limit some fruit and vegetable crops. Although agribusiness successfully brought suit against the first version of this parity system, the revised approach set up by the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of February 29, 1936, proved more durable and lasted through the 1960s.
Farm income in 1935 was more than 50 percent higher than farm income during 1932, due in part to the farm programs. From 1935 through 1974, legislation each year set the level of the price supports from 50 to 90 percent of parity, depending on the supply of each commodity and the changing economic conditions through the years of WWII.
In "Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of U.S, Farm Policy," a paper written by Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau and published by the League of Rural Voters Education Project in the midst of the 1980s farm crisis, the three central features of the parity system are summarized:
- It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.
- It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. Since government storage of surpluses was expensive, this feature was crucial to reducing government costs.
- It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers."
In the 1960s however, according to Mark Ritchie in The Loss of Our Family Farms: Inevitable Results or Conscious Policies? a consortium of agribusiness, banking and university leaders deliberately set in place policies that cut farm prices to drive excess "resources" (that is, farmers and their families) out of the countryside.By the mid-'70s, farm prices were dropping below parity. Instead of a system that had provided stability for family-scale farms, farm numbers were decreasing rapidly and the cheap food policies that we have today were set in place.
The combination of subsidy and emergency payments to farmers along with the program of crop insurance in the 2018 Farm Bill actually guarantees low prices that mainly benefit the biggest ag corporations. With production control and price supports, those corporations had to pay farmers decent prices in the marketplace. Just to take a couple of commodities for illustration purposes, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service, the parity price for 100 pounds of milk in May 2019 would be $52.80, a bushel of corn would be $13.20. Instead, conventional farmers were getting $18 for a hundredweight of milk and $3.63 for a bushel of corn. Since the 1970s, it is the taxpayer who covers the costs of cheap food. This adds up to a major transfer of wealth from the farmers and the public to the likes of Walmart, Amazon and Archer Daniels Midland, a global food processing and commodities trading corporation.
Although a few farming organizations — in particular, the National Family Farm Coalition — have continued to demand a return to parity and supply management, for 20 years or more it has been deemed too unlikely to gain any traction in Washington, D.C. Then in a flash of light, the Green New Deal resolution by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a crash program to mobilize all possible forces to prevent climate disaster, has made it "realistic" once again to consider this set of root solutions to the food and farm crisis.
While we can learn a lot from the old New Deal — both from its strengths and also its failures, especially in regard to farmers of color — we will have to design a new version for the 21st century that includes racial justice and equity in the safety net it provides for farms. I can imagine an exciting public process where groups of stakeholders all over the country hammer out the details.
The challenge we face now is to pull together a big enough movement of farmers, farmworkers, labor unions, environmentalists, faith communities, youth and rural and urban activists of all kinds to transform this climate emergency into an all-out campaign to save human life on this planet.
Elizabeth Henderson farmed at Peacework Farm in Wayne County, New York, for more than 30 years. Peacework CSA was one of the first community-supported agriculture farms in New York State. She is a member of the Board the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of New York, and represents the NOFA Interstate Council on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project. Elizabeth is the lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007), with a Spanish language e-book edition in 2017. She maintains the blog The Prying Mantis.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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Installing solar panels is a great option for homeowners who want to reduce their power bills, and the payback period can be just a handful of years with favorable conditions. However, renters and apartment owners cannot use a typical solar power system due to the lack of space, and renters in particular must also negotiate with their landlords. A miniature solar system that is portable and easy to install can be a better option in these cases.
Rooftop solar systems can greatly reduce your electric bills, and you can add solar batteries to store solar energy for use at night. However, because most systems are tied to the power local grid, you must meet many technical requirements and get a permit to put solar on your property. The initial investment and paperwork are not a problem when installing solar panels in a home you own, but they're a limiting factor for renters.
If you don't own your home or apartment, you may have little incentive to invest in improving someone else's property. Even if your landlord gives you permission to install solar panels, the decision only makes sense financially if you plan to rent for a very long time — longer than the solar payback period. Also, consider the following factors:
- When your lease ends, your landlord may not be willing to purchase the solar panels you installed.
- Moving rooftop solar panels to another home is difficult, and you will need a professional installation and another permit for the new property.
There are many types of miniature solar systems that can be installed without the complex requirements and permitting procedures of more permanent structures. These systems are an excellent option for renters, since taking them to another property is as simple as relocating your TV.
Solar Benefits for Non-Homeowners
Solar panel systems offer a common benefit, regardless of their size: they generate electricity from sunlight, reducing the amount of electricity you must pay your utility company for each month. Solar power also lowers the environmental footprint of your home, especially if you live in a region where most of the grid electricity comes from fossil fuels.
Homeowners get a few extra benefits when they install a traditional solar system, including:
- Their property becomes more valuable, and many states don't charge increased property taxes for the portion of home value that corresponds to solar panels.
- Homeowners also qualify for the 26% federal solar tax credit as well as any additional incentives from state governments or utility companies.
- There are permitting and grid connection requirements to meet, but once the solar PV system starts operating, it provides electricity for decades with minimal maintenance.
While mini solar panel systems may not be eligible for these perks, they have their benefits compared with rooftop systems. For example, they are much easier to install, with no permitting involved, and any maintenance is much simpler. Small-scale solar systems also have a lower price, and they are easily relocated.
The power bill savings achieved by a rooftop solar system are much higher, but that's because they're much larger. Many homeowners use solar PV systems that have capacities at or above 6 kW (6,000 W), while miniature systems often only generate up to 100 W. As you might expect, the corresponding cost of solar panels is very different: A 6 kW solar system can cost around $18,000 (before incentives) to install, while a miniature 100 W system might cost less than $300. However, each dollar invested is earned back multiple times over in both cases.
How to Utilize Solar Energy When You Rent
There are several options for renters who want to use solar power. These include:
- Plug-in mini solar systems
- Off-grid solar and battery systems
- Portable solar panels
- DIY solar setups
- Appliance-specific solar panels
Plug-in mini solar systems work exactly like rooftop PV systems — they connect to your residence's wiring and synchronize with the voltage and frequency of your grid power — just at a smaller scale. The power generated by a plug-in mini system is usually enough to power several electronic devices and LED bulbs, but not high-power devices like air conditioners and washing machines.
Here are some things to consider when deciding whether a solar plug-in mini system is right for your rental property:
- Plug-and-play solar panels are not subject to the permitting requirements and interconnection procedures of a traditional rooftop installation, and they can be simply connected to a suitable power outlet.
- NOTE: When using plug-in solar panels, you must make sure that the power outlet used has a circuit with enough capacity to carry the current, as well as an adequate breaker. Otherwise, you can cause an electrical fault.
- Because this type of panel connects to the electrical system of the property, you should ask your landlord for permission before investing in one. You should also ask an electrician to check the power outlet you plan on plugging the panels into to make sure it has adequate capacity.
Off-grid solar panels and solar battery systems are completely disconnected from the grid, which makes them a popular option for remote or rural sites with no electric service. In these types of systems, one or more solar panels are used to charge a battery or solar generator with USB charging sockets and power outlets for small appliances. These off-grid systems are also a viable option for renters, because they are entirely self-contained and don't connect to the utility grid.
Portable solar panels are popular for camping, but they can also be used by renters to power small devices. These are some of the smallest solar panels available, and they only have a few watts of capacity. Their main purpose is charging smartphones, tablets and other tiny USB devices, and many of them have built-in LED flashlights.
DIY solar panel setups are also an option. You can shop online for compatible solar panels, inverters, batteries and solar charge controllers, and then build a custom system according to your needs. However, keep in mind that you must have at least basic knowledge about electricity to safely and successfully install a homemade solar system.
Appliance-specific solar panels are also a viable option for renters. You can find many devices with built-in solar panels, which don't depend on a power outlet to operate. For example, you can install solar-powered outdoor lights for your backyard or balcony, or use a solar air conditioning unit or fan to provide extra ventilation during the hottest hours of the day.
Pros and Cons of Small Solar Units
Miniature solar systems have advantages and limitations like any device. They have a lower cost than traditional rooftop systems, plus they are easier to install and relocate. Just keep in mind that they can't power larger appliances, which means their power bill savings are small.
The following table summarizes the pros and cons of the most common types of miniature solar systems:
|Renter-Friendly Solar System||Pros||Cons||Typical Price|
|Plug-in solar system||
- Easy to install
- Can be plugged into a normal power outlet
- Can only operate when connected to the grid
- You need a dedicated circuit and breaker of adequate capacity
|$1,500 for a 600 W solar system|
|Off-grid solar system||
- Can charge batteries or generators to be used after sunset
- Fully independent from the grid
|- Batteries increase the system cost significantly if you want a high energy storage capacity||$400 for a 100 W solar panel with a 24,000 mAh battery|
- Easy to carry
- Can be used for camping and other trips
|- Limited use: Charging smartphones and other small devices||$100 or less for a foldable 30 W panel|
|DIY Solar||- You can create a custom system that meets your needs||- Basic electrical knowledge is needed to set up a safe system||Variable, depending on the components used.|
- Easy to install
- The solar panel is often included with the price of the device
|- You can only use the solar panel to power one appliance or device||Variable, depending on the appliance|
Miniature solar power systems are designed for small, low-power devices such as LED bulbs and electronic gadgets. If you're a renter and would like to increase your savings beyond what is possible with small solar kits, you can consider joining a community solar project near you.
- These projects normally have two membership options: purchasing a share or paying a monthly subscription.
- In both cases, you will be entitled to a portion of the kilowatt-hours produced by the system, and this portion will be subtracted from your bill.
Another advantage of community solar is that you can move freely to another apartment or home. Since the solar panels are not physically located where you live, you can usually re-assign the electricity savings to your new address.
Products to Help Renters Maximize Solar
There are many brands of miniature solar kits, but you should look for a reliable provider like Sunboxlabs. Since you're dealing with electricity, purchasing high-quality products is strongly advised to avoid accidents. Before purchasing any solar panel or a related component, make sure it has an electrical certification mark such as:
- UL (Underwriters Laboratories)
- ETL (Intertek)
- CSA (Canadian Standards Association)
- CE (Conformité Européenne)
You can look for a solar kit that includes all components, such as this WindyNation 100 Watt Solar Panel Kit. Alternatively, you can buy compatible parts separately, and build your own system. The following are some recommendations:
|Solar System Component||Recommended Product|
|Solar Panel||Renogy 100 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar Panel|
|Battery||Mighty Max 12V Battery|
|Solar charge controller||ALLPOWERS 20A Solar Charger Controller|
|Inverter||BESTEK 500W Power Inverter|
Keep in mind that you will also need wiring to connect all components together, and make sure you read all instructions carefully to ensure safety.