Would a switch from fossil fuels to solar power create or destroy more jobs? Would the installation of solar panels on houses and businesses empower individuals and communities? Would it truly shift wealth from megacorporations to the less wealthy? Although not directly asked, these questions emerge from the stories told in Catching the Sun from filmmaker Shalini Kantayya. The documentary begins by detailing the health and environmental consequences of the 2012 Chevron fire and explosion in Richmond, California. The disaster became a catalyst for the environmental movement and shined a spotlight on the close relationship between Chevron and the local government, as Richmond’s mayor at the time, Gayle McLaughlin, describes in the film.
Against this backdrop, Kantayya proceeds to focus on companies, entrepreneurs, activists, and nonprofits in the United States and China who are trying to advance the solar revolution. A key theme emerges through interviews with Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, who sees solar energy as a way to be more environmentally responsible while also creating jobs, particularly in low-income communities. We see the potential for the latter in the work of Solar Richmond, a nonprofit that offers training and green business ownership opportunities for low-income and underemployed residents. One would think that this sort of win-win situation would be politically appealing, but many barriers prevent widespread adoption, particularly in the absence of a clear national policy.
In contrast, Wally Jiang is able to grow his Chinese solar business by 50% a year through the support of the government. In the film, we see his attempts to advance his business as he pursues a range of international partnerships. Catching the Sun is thin on numbers, from how much solar technology really costs to how well it might integrate into the electricity grid on a large scale to a proper comparison of the successes of different countries in implementing renewable energy. But it does show the personal side of solar energy and is thus an important part of the broader story.