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Stimulus Package Only the Beginning: Renewable Energy Makes Strides in the US Political Arena

Cautious optimism. That was the term being used across all sectors of the renewable energy industry in the days and weeks following the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as industry leaders tried to understand exactly what the package could do for their often struggling companies. Yet as the weeks have worn on, the American public's support for the measure has started to wane.

Members of the renewable energy industry appear to be a bit more bullish on the opportunities that the bill creates. The stimulus package authorized US $67 billion in spending for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs and incentives, $20 billion of which is likely to directly help put projects on the ground. This attitude was on full display last week in Las Vegas at the Renewable Energy World North America Conference and Expo where the ARRA was a hot topic both on the floor and during the conference's industry roundtable discussion.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) talked about his group's involvement in the writing of the legislation that he views, in addition to last fall's investment tax credit extension (ITC), as a means of stabilizing the industry in tough economic times.

"We've seen tremendous improvements, building on what the 110th Congress did and really setting the course for the Obama Administration to come in and advance renewable energy in a much more significant way," Resch said. "But I think the biggest thing to come out of stimulus is the green jobs concept, worker training and just educating electricians, plumbers, roofers, those skilled laborers, those tradesmen who've been let go by the housing industry in the last six months, here's your next opportunity. Go down to your community college, ask the right questions and start your own business. So we've seen a huge influx of new companies interested in being solar installers."

Possibly the most important provision in the ARRA is the one that gives renewable energy developers new options when it comes to taking tax credits. The measure authorizes developers whose projects would normally qualify for the production tax credit (PTC) to claim the ITC, or, if the the developer has no short-term tax liability, a grant, in effect a monetization of the tax credits, that will be distributed through the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

"This grant, the concept of being able to actually get a check from the treasury instead of running something through somebody else's tax return. What we've seen almost immediately is that the way that deals are going to be done — the way they are being done — is different," said Ed Feo a partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP.

Feo said that last year financing partnership arrangements were complicated vehicles that "kept the tax lawyers up all night trying to figure out how the allocations worked." The way that the tax laws are structured now is much more straight forward. "What do we see now: the proposals from sponsors are, 'I want to borrow senior debt for this amount. I'm going to get a grant for this amount. And the sliver in the middle, that's my money. It's very simple," he explained.

When companies will see this money and what level of impact it will have on installations in 2009 is still a matter of debate but there are some indications that checks may be cut as early as June. One thing is for certain though, renewable energy is on the radar of almost every politician in the nation's capitol. John McKinsey, a partner in the renewable energy practice at Stoel Rives said that the ARRA is a great focal point for the industry, but was only the first in a series of legislative measures, including a federal renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and a carbon cap and trade measure, which are likely to make renewable energy a more attractive option for utilities and developers alike.

"Collectively what that [federal RPS] means, is a larger market for all of the renewable energy assets, whether those are renewable energy credits or white credits or just renewable energy contracts. If there's a national program that means that there is a national market for those things, and that allows them all to find the best buyer and the best price," McKinsey said.

He said that the a federal RPS might work in conjunction with some form of carbon legislation. "And the renewable energy credits are likely to have to fold in carbon credits or they're going to have their own separate existence. And again a national program could really define that. There are a lot of carbon trading programs and a lot of carbon ideas and this year they're going to stand alone as their own separate path and entity, a stream of income for renewable energy, or they're going to get folded into renewable energy credits raising those prices a little higher."

RenewableEnergyWorld.com had a chance to speak with McKinsey; Chris Flannery, senior vice president at Piper Jaffray; Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association and Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association about the state of renewable energy finance, the ARRA and the other federal legislation that is on the horizon. To see highlights from these conversations, play the video below.

Check out our coverage from Renewable Energy World North America Conference & Expo Full Coverage.

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