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Episode 82: The State of Solar in 2021 with Adam Browning

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Transcript

Jon Powers:

Adam, thanks for being back on Experts Only.

Adam Browning:

Oh, I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, of course. So Vote Solar is coming on almost your 20th, 20 year anniversary here. You started it back in 2002, it’s a pretty amazing run so far.

Adam Browning:

It’s hard to believe. Hard to believe, but true.

Jon Powers:

For the audience, tell folks who aren’t familiar, the mission about solar and some of stuff you guys have been working on in the last few years.

Adam Browning:

So we’re a nonprofit public advocacy organization. Got our start in March of 2002 officially, after doing a ballot initiative in the city of San Francisco. Our goal initially was just to bring solar energy into the mainstream working state by state. Like how do we set the right rules of the road, the right policies in order to create a vibrant solar market with the goal of bringing down the cost of solar. Now that solar is really cheap, in some cases, the cheapest energy source, our mission and our focus has shifted. Our goal is now 100% clean electricity equitably deployed with a real focus on ensuring that the benefits and the participation in this new energy economy that we’re building are equally shared by all.

Adam Browning:

We still work principally at the state level and last year we had one of our biggest years ever where we intervened in regulatory and legislative proceedings, I think we had about 78 different regulatory proceedings, 14 different major legislative campaigns, results of which we’re looking at 44 gigawatts of new solar demand as well as really impacting over 30% of the US population. So we go to where many of the most important decisions are made, which is at the state level.

Jon Powers:

Let’s talk about a state level work for a second. We are going to talk just for the audience a lot about ’21 and beyond, and what to expect out of the new administration. But because for the last four years, the fight has not been at the federal level, it’s been a state by state chess game, and you all have been incredibly effective in that fight. How did you have to shift your strategy, say looking back over the last few years, and execute to be able to play that state by state game? And then for folks that have assets or companies in the States, how can they be more engaged to help push these policies at the state level?

Adam Browning:

So since our founding, we were really focused on a state-by-state approach. This country does have a commitment to federalism when it comes to many of the major decisions around energy policy. Federally, what we’ve mostly looked at is tax policy, frankly, as a sweetener that helps the States that want to go someplace go faster. So I think the advantage here is A, it’s a venue where most decisions are made in front of public regulatory commissions, public utility commissions, state legislatures. They’re the ones that establish say like clean energy standards, renewable portfolio standards. They do the rate making that really drives distributed generation and the secret there is there is no cookie cutter approach. You need to have bespoke campaigns in every place where you reverse engineer a power map. Who’s making decisions? How are they influenced?

Adam Browning:

Our focus, our… It’s not a patented game plan, but it’s open source here, but is inside and outside strategy where you first have deep regulatory analysis, you make your case with numbers, you lawyer up and you get involved in the proceedings, but you never win just because you’re right. You wrap around the campaign that really drives the politics and taps into the fact that super majorities of people in this country want to see this transition and you turn that into a campaign that matches your regulatory intervention and analysis.

Adam Browning:

So we have always partnered with trade associations, like SEIA, principally who really focused on how do you make change through Congress and that really is a whole separate ball game, that of expertise and of policy instruments that just out of a need to stay focused, we’ve deferred to their leadership when it comes to that.

Jon Powers:

And how do you find the balance at the state level from, I mean, you could put all your eggs into California and spend all your time just working the California rules and regulations because it’s the Superbowl of clean energy, but you guys are focused on advancing stuff in Florida and Michigan and Massachusetts, and in places like Oregon, New Jersey. How are you structured to manage across such a, almost a 50 State strategy?

Adam Browning:

Yeah, not quite 58. I think we’re about 28 different States at different levels. We’ve organized, we’re now at 35 people and we’ve set up a regional structure where we have senior regional directors for the major regions that then deploy both those regulatory and campaign assets in parallel. You are absolutely right, you could put 35 people on California policy and still have open. So our approach has been this whole clean energy transformation can’t be a California only, this needs to be really national. Everybody needs to feel that they have a role and a benefit in this clean energy transition.

Adam Browning:

So we mostly focus on places that want us that have a core of policy support and I’d say we probably have 30% where we reserve to the super hard States where you’re swimming upstream, but you got to start somewhere and provide a foothold, a beachhead, and build something, that momentum where it hadn’t been before. I will say, we got our start working in the Southeast and opportunistically, a foundation wanted our partnership and it has been one of the most rewarding things of my career. The Southeast now has some of the largest growth and some of the most biggest opportunities.

Jon Powers:

Can you talk about that for a second? What do you see has been the misconception? I would argue I probably have those same misconception myself. When you look at the Southeast, people are just like, “Look, you’re going to have to wrestle with the utility monopolies and the demand is yet to be there,” but it sounds like it’s changing.

Adam Browning:

Oh yeah, and again this might be… In the Southeast, I think you have some of the strongest, the utilities are strongest there where they have the loudest voice and the most power within the legislatures, as well as the regulatory bodies. And they’re also, I cut my teeth first in California, and then in Arizona where solar has never been just a blue state phenomenon. We learned pretty early how to work in a much more conservative environment with different approaches, different policies.

Adam Browning:

The politics just seemed really daunting in the Southeast until we again went in first in Georgia with a long-term strategy of finding the local voices that were most resonant with the policymakers there, and then providing that type of disciplined regulatory analysis and then campaign support. And the Carolinas, I think there are incredibly promising areas as well and Duke is the largest utility in the country, and we have a lot of direct engagement right now.

Adam Browning:

They’ve adopted voluntary net zero goals but their IRP is still chock full of gas. They would want to build something like 10 to 14 gigawatts of new gas and I think we have a good strategy for skipping that as we roll off a goal, skipping that gas and going directly to clean.

Jon Powers:

Looking back at 2020, or even maybe 2019 through today, is there any one or two campaigns that you’re exceptionally proud of getting over the goal line?

Adam Browning:

I think this energy transition happens on many levels. There’s a rooftop, there’s a community solar element. And then there’s a huge excitement around a hundred percent clean energy. And this past year-

Jon Powers:

Which we would have laughed at 10 years ago, but now it’s a reality.

Adam Browning:

I remember when California, trying to get to 10% was like, “Oh my God, that seems so aspirational.” And now it how it doesn’t. Nice. So, I think that’s been another element of our work, is that there is some benefit of incrementalism, as you set a goalpost as far as you can, build power, and then continuously set it farther and farther. And you can get to a point right now where we have nine states with a hundred percent clean energy laws. These aren’t aspirational goals. They have compliance deadlines, as well as penalties if they’re not achieved. And two of these happened in the past year. Virginia was really right before COVID hit, and so it’s such a wonderful win, that immediately changed the entire conversation around- Dominion pulled their IRPs, got rid of the plans to build gas, and now it’s clean going forward.

Jon Powers:

As a former Virginia resident, I’ll tell you, I was shocked, obviously very pleased to see that, but knowing how hard it is to have to move Dominion in the right direction. But they did, they did, because they got pushed.

Adam Browning:

That was really a win by many local advocates, that have been working really long and hard. So I do not want to over claim victories here. I think that it’s a real lesson to learn, which is that all politics is local.

Jon Powers:

I think that the advantage of you all coming in and supporting that is having the data, having the homework, having the track record, having the playbook for folks to execute on, right? Because it’s no more powerful than the folks locally, but they don’t often have the playbook, how you won things in Florida and how you won things in North Carolina and in the southern states.

Adam Browning:

We were pleased to play a supportive role, but particularly in Virginia. The real hats off go to the local leaders in Virginia. And everywhere.

Adam Browning:

Arizona is the other place where it’s not a renewable energy win, but a hundred percent carbon free. And the politics of Arizona are complicated and they’re dynamic and they’re changing. And we’ve worked there for a really long time, but we talk about the last four years, where we were bereft of federal action, I think we had some of the best state success over these last four years, for a couple of reasons.

Adam Browning:

One, the cost, that’s just been changed, where we’re having very different conversations about how much it’ll cost versus how much it will save to go renewable.

Adam Browning:

Secondly, in the face of a federal government, absolute intransigents, you had state leaders who were like, Oh, cavalry’s not coming to the rescue, right. If we’re going to win on this, like it’s up to us. And I think that is really the mindset that we all need to like keep and maintain as we, as we go forward, leadership happens at every level. You cannot wait for somebody else to solve this problem for you. Take this matter into your own hands and run with it.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I think it’s really important. And we talk about this on the show a lot, how actually the fundamentals of the industry are very strong now. And for the last decade, you’ve got a workforce that’s trained, you’ve got capital that is cheaper than ever before, that is trusting in the longterm viability of this as an asset. And you have, because the work, you guys are doing, the right rules and regulations falling into place.

Jon Powers:

And then the next phase is, which I do want to talk about a little bit later, is how we make it more equitable, and the opportunities are there. But I do want to say, with the strong fundamentals that are in place, the change that is happening at the federal level may really provide an opportunity to continue to accelerate the work that’s been done the last few years.

Jon Powers:

We talked a little bit offline, and I think you reminded me that Governor Granholm, who’s going to be hopefully the next sector of energy, was a Vote Solar 2012 Advocate Award winner, which was amazing.

Adam Browning:

A Solar Champion Award, yes.

Jon Powers:

What do you see with her leadership at DOE, and what to expect over the next few years in terms of some of the changes from especially what we’ve seen the last four years?

Adam Browning:

Yeah, DOE is a really interesting agency, and who you choose to lead it I think signifies what you think your theory of change really is right now. And so our question right now, if we’re thinking about transforming energy, is it really do we need to invent new energy sources? Is it principally an R&D question? And this isn’t an either/or, this is where your emphasis is. you would choose a Nobel prize winning physicist. If your theory of change is that R&D is necessary and important, and we really need to think about deployment, we need to think about manufacturing supply chains, we really need to think about taking the technology we have and putting it to work, to productive and equitable uses,. Then you pick someone like Governor Granholm, who as a governor held executive office, championed a renewable portfolio standard in her state, has been really focused on growing the supply chains around solar, and also critically around transportation. Like Detroit, she really leaned in hard to clean energy.

Adam Browning:

I remember once driving to a meeting many years ago to meet with her. And I had a Volkswagen TDI running on veggie oil. And I never heard the end of showing up in a-

Jon Powers:

A veggie vehicle.

Adam Browning:

… that wasn’t from Detroit. And she is a huge champion of reinvigorating our manufacturing sector around the technologies of the future. And so this is what that signals, is that this is about when Biden talks about when he looks at climate change, he sees jobs. This is how you put paid to that premise. And I think this will really be about deployment, about jobs, about growing our economy in very productive ways around the technologies of the future. That’s what I see.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. So for people that aren’t as familiar with the governor, if you sort of step back for a second, I think Adam’s point is right on here. If you look at who Obama appointed, they were all doctorates. They were very focused on the technology or the acceleration of technology. Can you talk a little bit about what the governor has done post her time in Michigan last few years, to help focus on just exactly what you were mentioning, which are really about the next phase of the industry, the acceleration of the industry?

Adam Browning:

While she was governor in Michigan, she was really focused on renewable energy. She definitely played a role during the Obama administration, in rescuing of the auto sector, keeping those companies alive, and being a strong catalyst for the transformation to the electrification of transportation. She’s on a couple of different boards of clean energy companies, Proterra electric bus company that manufacturers in South Carolina, as well as I believe California, but don’t quote me on that.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, they do. I’ve had Ryan on the podcast. They’re in California too.

Adam Browning:

There you go. So I think we are trying to fundamentally remake how we get our electricity. And there’s a huge opportunity to capture a lot of upside and jobs. And so she’s been a lecturer here at UC Berkeley. She lives out here in Oakland now. I presume she’ll be going back to DC. This isn’t something that you can do just by Zoom.

Jon Powers:

Right, not at all.

Adam Browning:

I don’t mean to speak for the governor on this, but she has now the real focus on that private sector experience of how do you really build the companies necessary to completely transform our economy around clean energy resources?

Jon Powers:

No, that’s great. And look, I don’t want to make this whole episode about the Biden/Harris plan, so I’ll put that to the side. But this will be coming out around inauguration day. And I think one of the things that’s very exciting in the drum beat post-election, is that we’re seeing climate leaders being put across multiple agencies. they’re being put at the Department of Transportation. They’re being put at Treasury. They’re really focused in places like Interior, which are so critical to transmission and BLM. Climate is no longer going to be focused in one specific area, but it’s going to really come across the entire bureaucracy as a whole. Plus you have leaders like John Kerry coming in to focus on the international space, and Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator, focused on the domestic climate policy. How do you see that transformation helping in the work that we’re doing, the solar industry and you sort of see the return of federal leadership accelerating some of the work you’re doing at the state level, or is it going to be something that people are still afraid is going to disappear in four years?

Adam Browning:

Yeah. I mean, let’s just start with first Biden won on a climate platform. He campaigns in swing states in the last moments of the campaign around climate. And we’ve seen a lot of polls that show that bipartisan support for this clean energy transition are through the roof. So what I see now, that you’ve articulated, is a desire to actually govern with that mandate. I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of … this is really also a part of looking at climate as a solution set rather than as a problem set. This is about providing jobs and reducing costs and increasing the quality of life rather than a painful giving up of things that we would otherwise like.

Adam Browning:

In order to achieve that, yeah, it is multi-agency, it’s multi-sector, it’s multi-dimensional. First and foremost, the government, the federal government is a enormous consumer of energy and has a lot of building stock and a full transformation of that to be centers of climate solutions, I think is going really be a shot in the arm in terms of growth for demand opportunities. There are a ton of things that the federal government can do to help remove obstacles and provide tailwinds rather than headwinds to the fundamentals of the market, as you point out, that are already in place.

Adam Browning:

And so I look at the transformation of FERC right now and Allison Clements, is a huge champion of really using wholesale markets, that intersection between individual participants and getting value through wholesale markets. She’s been working on sustainable FERC for a long time. She is a wonk’s wonk that really understands that state federal and I think her leadership is going to be transformational and wonderful. So I think what that final agenda looks like will depend a lot on whether or not how the elections go in Georgia and the balance of power in the Senate and whether there will be some legislative options available. But even without, there is a huge amount of executive action and the power of the purse that the federal government can do.

Adam Browning:

I also see, regardless of how things go in early January in terms of the balance of power at Senate … Europe right now, much of the rest of the globe is talking about a green recovery. How do we catalyze an economic recovery that this pandemic has brought on in a way that also prevents the next disaster? And we’ve just here in the US haven’t had either at a state or federal level, there’s just been no oxygen in the room to have these discussions. Everyone’s been focused on what happens to schools, what happens to restaurants, what happens to state budgets, whether or not we continue to have a constitutional democracy.

Adam Browning:

And we haven’t been able to really have a focused effort on the recovery. That all changes in January, both at federally, as state, as the vaccine rolls out. So that’s what I anticipate much of the spring to be about, is economic change.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, I agree. The benefit, I mean one opportunity is that that conversation about the green recovery has happened in the circles where we’re prepared to move forward when the bandwidth opens up, post vaccine getting out, and people are getting a chance to catch their breath. So I feel like there’s some really good solutions being pushed.

Jon Powers:

To get to some of these climate solutions, solar is going to be such a critical part of the solution set in the work you guys are doing will only continue to accelerate and be more important. So looking into 2021, I want to talk about first some of the regulatory and maybe legislative or campaign goals you guys have, or are putting in place, looking into 2021. How people can play a role in that, but also how we can ensure equal access now to clean energy. You guys are doing such great work and in the climate environmental justice space to ensure access. I definitely want to spend a little bit of time on that.

Jon Powers:

So looking to 2021, at the state level, what are some of the regulatory initiatives that you’re focused on and hope to succeed over the next year?

Adam Browning:

Yeah. So, I think it really does make sense to also address equity right now and the way that we have completely changed how we go about our work. So we reorganized and restructured into these regional teams with the express interest and desire to build durable and authentic partnerships with the communities that we wish to serve with environmental justice and frontline communities, and have them set the agenda to describe the problems that they would like to solve and put our partnership to work in turn into supporting those. The premise here is that we cannot get to 100% without really articulating both the goal, as well as a process that serves the interests of everybody. And I will just say that when.

Adam Browning:

I look at some of these largest wins that we’ve seen most recently. New York passing a seminal 100% clean energy law. That would not have happened, full stop, without the leadership and again the direct leadership of traditionally marginalized communities, of environmental justice advocates. That policy would have not gotten across the finish line if it did not also require an implementation that looks at how do we use clean energy to provide for the energy burden and reduce the energy burden of low-income families? How do we provide for job training that serves the communities where it is needed most? Those were pieces of that legislation that were critical parts of it actually succeeding. So, when I described this change in our process and our focus, we have seen the results already, collectively, of how critical a reorientation of advocacy and environmental advocacy movement of which I’ve been a part of for a long time. So going forward, yeah, go ahead.

Jon Powers:

I was just going to say, it’s a really … I mean, one of the things we’re looking at on the finance side are, is how do you incentivize. For instance, the tax equity providers to understand that incorporating LMI communities into community solar is not actually a risk to them, but an opportunity. We’ve been discussing different ways to put the right incentives in place, whether it be adjusting the tax credit to a tax grant if you incorporate so much LMI, right? So there’s got to be those levers in place to help, or can the green banks put some type of credit wrap around deals so that the fear of folks who may not pay their bill, right? That’s the concern you hear on the finance side, right? And I think those are very easily achievable, the obstacles that can be overcome pretty easily, as long as we’re thinking of the mindset. It’s not just about setting the goal, but how do you actually overcome some of those obstacles along the way? I think the work you guys are going to do is going to be critical there.

Adam Browning:

And that’s a key part of what I feel like we bring to the table, is yes, you need to set a goal, but we have a saying Vote Solar, “the passage of major legislation marks the beginning of your effort not the end of your effort.”

Adam Browning:

The implementation and solving those is absolutely key. So our access and equity team has set up a advisory group that is helping us to really understand the sticking points in terms of implementing these low-income solar solutions and devising policy and other programs in order to bridge those gaps, so that these actually work to serve the interests of real people and real places.

Jon Powers:

Absolutely. So are there specific state targets that you guys have worked out? Are they going to share, you may not want to be able to share them but, that you really focused on in the coming 12 months? If we have this conversation next December, you’ll be able to highlight the progress you made in some of these emerging markets.

Adam Browning:

Yeah. I mean, I think we’re going to be working for 100% clean energy or acceleration of those goals in a bunch of different states, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan. Illinois is a place where this is incredibly ripe. It had a governor that campaigned on this back in 2018 and …

Adam Browning:

… Back in 2018 and was still as yet to get this over the finish line. So we have a bunch of different states where we believe that we can establish state-level requirements that require 100% clean energy, and getting that over the finish line.

Adam Browning:

On the regulatory level, as soon as the pandemic hit, we made a pivot where we looked at like, “What is most needed right now? How can we work to the highest and best use of our abilities in this space?” And we dug into, there’s a lot of people that have lost their jobs and that aren’t going to be able to pay their utility bills. How can we devise a program that helped the people that is hurting the most? And came up with this idea called Clean Relief for Energy Debt, which in essence is, as we work to ensure that people don’t have their electricity cut off because they’ve lost their job, they’re still mounting a great amount of debt. Utilities are going to look to socialize all this.

Adam Browning:

In exchange, how do we ensure that we get utilities to really focus on using clean energy, to reduce the energy burden? So it is a regulatory play that we’re implementing in a bunch of different places, that really, again, centers the benefits of clean energy on the people that are hurting the most at this point. I think that it’s important from a moral perspective, and it’s also important to just show what is possible going forward, and to align clean energies’ interests with the interests of, again, the people that are most at risk right now. So we’ve got a couple of states that we’re working on that: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona. Minnesota will be another place where we’ll see that going forward.

Adam Browning:

There are really large questions right now on, what is the best pathway forward to clean energy? And we helped fund an analysis that came out recently with Vibrant Clean Energy, Dr. Chris Clack, that looked at the different pathways to getting to 95% clean energy. Now, this is really important because we’re trying to articulate as coal rolls off, we’re trying to make sure that we’re not building gas in the interim, that we go directly to clean.

Adam Browning:

And this analysis looked at five different pathways really, a focus on centralized generation to a couple of different other scenarios, and found that in order to get to that 95% clean energy, the most cost-effective pathway was one that really focused and built around distributed generation. And this is just putting a high-level, deep analysis to prove what should feel rather intuitive, which is that through distributed generation, generating electricity closest to usage, you can reduce the collective infrastructure costs in ways that bring down costs for everybody. And the number on that is 478 billion, half a trillion dollars cheaper pathway than a different one, so-

Jon Powers:

Is that analysis public?

Adam Browning:

… It is public. It’s on our website. It is also on the coalition for CCSA.

Jon Powers:

We’ll link to it, we’ll link to it.

Jon Powers:

Great. votesolar.org, for folks that are listening to consider.

Adam Browning:

There you go. There you go. So I do think a big part of the next agenda for the state level is really around clean energy portfolios. How do you find the flexibility in the system and put it to productive use in order to eliminate the need for dispatchable generation?

Jon Powers:

Sure.

Adam Browning:

So we’re in a scenario right now where the whole … In order to get a lot more solar, we also need to look at the entire flexibility agenda, the entire clean energy portfolio, which is … Storage is something where we’re seeing incredible cost reductions and a lot of growth. Demand response is something that is also customer-centric and really not tapped anywhere near its ability to provide for great benefits. And we need that. We fundamentally need that.

Jon Powers:

Does your widening and mission to include more clean energy technologies like that allow you to touch storage, demand response, and some of these other really key pieces to the agenda?

Adam Browning:

Yeah.

Jon Powers:

You’re not limited to just focusing on solar-only type of solutions, which I think people may not be aware of.

Adam Browning:

We’ve been there for a long time. We’re going to keep the Vote Solar name. It’s charismatic. And I don’t think the Vote Beneficial is an appropriate thing.

Jon Powers:

Vote for 222.

Adam Browning:

But as we dive into this, again, this comes out of some really painful battles. And so this is the point that has been forged on the campaign field. When you see utilities wanting to build a large amount of new gas, they first say it’s cheaper. And as soon as you shoot that down, then they say, “Well, we needed to keep the lights on.” And that’s a career-ending problem for policy makers. And so really highlighting the path forward for achieving the same level of reliability, through that suite of distributed energy resources that deliver the necessary flexibility, linked with also broadening of balancing areas. I think there’s a macro as well as a micro solution. Our challenge is twofold. One, to convince policy makers that this is a viable pathway going forward. And then two, to lay out the blueprint, the specific policy blueprint, to have this actually show up.

Adam Browning:

And it’s not academic. We are at the point where we’re not just pointing many years, like this is a problem you kick down the road. This is like, “How do we make this happen right now?” The awesome thing is, is there’s a lot of great new technology platforms that are out there. And this is fundamentally a resource that reduces costs for everybody and drives revenue to customers. There’s a win-win-win here. And we just all need to lean into it.

Jon Powers:

So one final question for sort of challenge to the audience. If there’s any way folks can get involved in 2021 to really help to move, I think these really critical agendas, forward. Number one, I’ll tell you all to go to votesolar.org and make sure you donate, so that they’ve got the capital to execute. And if your organizations aren’t involved in supporting Vote Solar, make sure they are. But what other actions would you ask the audience to do?

Adam Browning:

Yeah. We have a pathway to sign up, to be a Vote Solar member on votesolar.org. And if you give us your geographic location, at least your zip code, will allow us to connect you into the local, state campaigns that are most critical to you. And the hope is that, while we do that regulatory analysis, we always marry it with an outside campaign. We need to have the parade there to show policy makers that not only is this the smart thing to do, but it’s the popular thing to do. And so our fundamental premise is that we want to plug the super majorities of people that want to participate in this change, and find the venues, and plug them in to be active participants there as well. So that’s the first thing I would do.

Jon Powers:

That’s excellent. And as you know, there’s no stronger advocate than the first one who’s going to come from the member zip code. Right? So if you’re flying in from California or from Washington DC, it’s much stronger when you have someone sitting with you who is a local advocate. So be a part of the team, go to votesolar.org and sign up. Adam, thank you so much for the time, and really look forward to working with you all this year to push some of these things forward.

Adam Browning:

Really appreciate it. And thank for all the great work you do. I always enjoy these conversations. You always show me another facet of what’s going on in the world, that I hadn’t considered before. So thank you for you.

Jon Powers:

Well, thank you. Thank you. And thanks to Emily from Vote Solar for helping to put this together. And to our producers, Colleen Young and Carly Battin for, as always, making sure these episodes work. You can go to cleancapital.com to get more episodes. And as always, I look forward to continuing the conversation. Thanks.