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A Tipping Point for Solar Energy

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2008
Rhone Resch Solar Energy Industry Association

The US is mired in an energy crisis, and Congress has the difficult task of passing legislation that increases our energy independence, our security and our supply while addressing our impact on global warming. Although a daunting task, there is one source of energy that can help address all of these issues while creating tens of thousands of jobs in the US – the sun.

Today we are at an exciting and decisive crossroads for US energy policy. Several key factors are aligning to increase the availability of renewable energy sources on a large scale in this country. And the policies that we are asking Congress to put in place this year will have a dramatic effect for decades.

Until recently, solar energy largely had been ignored by Congress, and today it represents less than 1/10 of 1 percent of all electricity generated in the US. Although America has struggled to support renewable energy, Germany, Japan and China have built robust industries and markets. Once again, technology invented in the US is being commercialized and adopted by other countries.

RhoneResch.jpgThe good news, however, is that we are making a solar energy comeback. Solar investment tax credits, established by Congress in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, have driven industry growth in conjunction with solar programs in several states, notably California, New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Since the bill was enacted, installations of solar energy equipment have increased by more than 80 percent, and the first utility-scale solar power plant in more than 15 years came online in 2007.

Here’s where we start

We also have seen tremendous innovations in technology deployment, cost reductions and structured financing. Companies in California’s Silicon Valley are translating their engineering skills from the semiconductor industry to improve solar manufacturing. Thin-film companies using advanced physics and new manufacturing techniques are providing low-cost materials solutions. And new solar thermal designs are coming to market to provide reliable clean energy for the country’s fastest-growing areas.

It is no surprise then that 94 percent of Americans believe it is important for the US to develop and use more solar energy, according to a June 10 poll by Los Angeles-based Kelton Research. A large majority also feel that US government policies should support solar energy. Voters are asking Congress to solve our energy crisis with renewable energy technologies such as solar. It is time for Congress to listen.

To achieve the will of the people, Congress must take three steps:

Provide long-term incentives for solar similar to those enjoyed by the oil, coal and nuclear industries. Although newly created, the solar tax credits are set to expire in December. Large projects already are on hold because of the uncertainty of government policy. This includes 21 concentrating solar power plants totaling 4500 MW, enough to power more than 1 million homes. It is time for Congress to work in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion to extend and expand incentives for solar energy so that US manufacturing can scale up and continue to bring down costs.

Provide fair access to the electricity marketplace and allow solar to compete with other sources of energy. Policies for installing solar systems vary significantly from state to state, driving up costs or even preventing solar energy systems from connecting to the grid. Congress must standardize interconnection requirements and establish fair net-metering rules for all 50 states.

Establish legislation to address global warming that encourages the construction of carbon-free energy. Senate-proposed legislation prevents carbon-free energy sources such as solar not only from receiving carbon credits but also from participating in the carbon cap-and-trade markets. This is counterproductive. Congress should create market rules that encourage carbon-free technologies and that reward energy sources such as solar for producing electricity that does not harm our planet.

As the 110th session of Congress nears its end, with limited days during a historic presidential campaign, we will continue to work with legislators from both parties. We have an opportunity to solve our energy crisis and to address global warming while stimulating a growth sector, creating tens of thousands of jobs and improving security for all Americans. The US has an opportunity to regain global leadership in the fastest-growing segment of the energy industry – solar – but only if Congress listens to what the American public is demanding.

Meet the author

Rhone Resch is president of the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) in Washington. SEIA is the national trade association of solar energy manufacturers, project developers, contractors, installers, architects, consultants and financiers. Established in 1974, SEIA works to expand the use of solar technologies in the global marketplace, to strengthen research and development, to remove market barriers, and to improve education and outreach for solar; e-mail: info@seia.org.


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