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SolarCity's 'Vegan Hippie Chick With a Race Car' and the Drive to Save Rate Credits

Welcome to the advent of solar disruption.

Mark Bergen | Re/code

It’s nearly 1:00 am in San Francisco, outside the California Public Utilities Commission building downtown, and Leilani Münter, a woman who drives a race car for a living, steers her Tesla as slowly and quietly as she can.

She pulls to a stop. The custom electric blue stripes wrapping the gray exterior light up, making the car resemble conceptual artwork or an exotic fish. A massive projector, jury-rigged into the rear of the Tesla, swivels and aims at the building’s facade, right on the state crest. A video reel rolls, displaying the message #DontBlocktheSun.

After a few minutes, Münter steps out to examine her handiwork. She turns, elated. “I could do this shit for the rest of my life!”

Welcome to the advent of solar disruption. The stunt was coordinated by SolarCity, the solar panel manufacturer founded and chaired by Elon Musk. Late on Wednesday evening, the company projected the video onto the outside of five landmarks across the city, building on a series of protests against a proposal from California utility companies that would decrease the discount homeowners receive from installing solar energy equipment. The company’s activists also stopped at the office of PG&E, the primary utility pushing the policy change.

It’s a wonky issue — David Roberts, writing for Vox, details the policy, called “net metering,” and the accompanying corporate battle — yet it should feel familiar to anyone watching massive consumer tech upstarts. This was SolarCity’s first such stagecraft, but it is reminiscent of recent political advocacy from startups like Uber and Airbnb, as they take on what they see as entrenched, user-unfriendly industries.

In short, utility companies, which operate more or less as state-sanctioned monopolies, lose money on the current solar subsidies; companies like SolarCity, which installs panels on homes and commercial offices, benefit. The PUC is voting on the utilities’ proposal soon, and, if the utilities get their way, it could put a serious dent in SolarCity’s ambitions in the state that is its largest market.

When Uber faced a similar existential threat in New York City, the startup recruited celebrities. SolarCity got Münter.

A competitor in the ARCA Racing Series and self-described “vegan hippie chick with a race car,” Münter was in town to promote a new documentary, “Racing Extinction.” An ardent environmental activist for years, she has used the souped-up Tesla we rode in, which belongs to an environmental group, to project eco-friendly missives on public edifices in several cities, including the Empire State Building. She linked up with SolarCity through her friend Marco Krapels, the company’s strategy SVP (and “a friend of Elon’s,” as he introduced himself).

Back home in Charlotte, N.C., Münter has her own Tesla, a Model S, and solar panels. Each morning, she checks her energy output, a daily mini-battle to see how much she has poached from the energy utilities.

 SolarCity demonstration in San Francisco on Wednesday
SolarCity demonstration in San Francisco on Wednesday
Mark Bergen | Re/code

“I haven’t been to a gas station since December 2013,” she boasted as we drove from our first stop, the de Young Museum, to the PUC building.

We were delayed. Before embarking, I had to meet Münter at another environmentalist soiree, where her brother-in-law (get this) Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead, was late to the stage. She mingled among the dozens of middle-aged, pleasantly buzzed San Franciscans listening to Weir jam. Her day job, she later claimed, allows her to evangelize to a very different demographic. “The main reason why I race is to see these causes in front of all these people that most environmentalists are not reaching,” she said.

Münter is flippant and fun, but also deadly serious about solar energy. “We couldn’t say no to such a cool opportunity to put this debate in lights with Leilani, who’s all about progress and driving forward,” said Will Craven, SolarCity’s director of public affairs. PG&E, SolarCity’s primary target, did not return requests for comment.

SolarCity claims broad public support. A recent statewide poll shows that Californians endorse solar, with 83 percent of respondents saying utility companies should not interfere with net metering subsidies. On Wednesday, though, the debate was rather one-sided. The car lingered for some 30 minutes at its first two stops, but, since it was so late, drew the attention of very few passersby.

This did not deter Münter and her Tesla, which she has named Double-O Six and, like all her race cars, assigned it a female gender.

On Wednesday night, Münter watched her compatriots (eight men) ready 006 for its guerrilla action at the PUC building. “This is what she was born to do,” she said.

(The Tesla’s distinctive blue stripes — the “only car in the world” outfitted with the “electro-luminescent” paint, per Münter — gives Münter a nice escape option should trouble from authorities arise. She turns the lights off, and the car returns to its dark, anonymous color. Added benefit: The stripes give it an “oceanic” feel.)

She and 006 have had run-ins before. Once, at an oil refinery in California, security stopped them before the project could rev up. Police in D.C. told Münter the Tesla’s projection gear looked too much like military-grade weaponry and asked her to move on. The evening ride for SolarCity, however, went off without a hitch.

Krapels, an investment veteran who joined SolarCity in March, trailed Münter in the multi-car caravan all night. “This is something we’ve never done before,” he said excitedly.

Does that make him nervous? “Yes.”

But it doesn’t impede his conviction that SolarCity’s cause is just. “We have our right to make our own power,” he said. “That’s American, man.”

Outside the utility commission, he gave Münter a hug and a high five.

Here is a short video of the evening, courtesy of SolarCity:

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