Election-Year Politics: What’s New Under the Sun?

With the US elections looming just two weeks away, solar energy enjoys more popular support in America than ever before. Polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans favor increasing the nation’s use of solar power. Rising natural gas prices, concerns over grid reliability, and renewed debate on energy independence have coincided with the commercial availability of efficient, cost-effective solar technologies. Inevitably, the promise of a clean energy future is garnering large bipartisan support. With Congress having failed to pass even the modest tax incentives recommended by President Bush before the election, the time is ripe for politicians to make solar energy a campaign issue.

We can easily define the challenge facing the US on solar: in pockets across America, state and regional policies are catalyzing solar markets, but without the guiding hand of a strategic national policy. Meanwhile, Japan and Germany have surpassed the U.S. in solar production and sales by implementing steady, predictable growth incentives. Our federal leadership has not responded with sound tax incentives, a procurement strategy, or badly needed national standards for interconnection and net metering. As a result, the U.S. is in danger of losing a strategic industry — one worth US$7 billion today — and an untold number of jobs and dollars down the road. Some renewable energy advocates have argued that the election of John Kerry would change the picture. Kerry has a strong record of support for renewable energy, and has pledged in his campaign to have 20 percent of U.S. electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. But it’s worth remembering that President Carter made the same pledge in 1978 – with a target date of 2000. Carter’s plan, moreover, offered a clear path to this worthy goal: an aggressive incentive program, akin to Japan’s successful Residential PV Dissemination Program. Kerry has not proposed such a strategy. How strongly would he push a solar incentive program as President, especially to a House of Representatives that is likely to remain under Republican control? On the other hand, President Bush’s party controls both houses of Congress, yet has no new solar energy legislation for Bush-Cheney ’04 to tout in the campaign. Since 2001, the Administration’s National Energy Policy has called for a 15 percent residential solar tax credit, extension of the production tax credit to solar, and $300 million over five years to equip federal buildings with solar installations. That legislation would move solar markets in some states, but fall well short of the sea changes happening in Europe and Japan. In any case, despite some eleventh-hour efforts from Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Gordon Smith (R-OR), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) this past session, the provisions remain bound up in the stalled energy bill. While important legislation for the wind and geothermal industries was recently passed in the JOBS bill, solar made out the most poorly of all the renewable energy industries: No residential solar tax credit for consumers, no provisions for solar on federal buildings and only a watered-down, ineffectual production tax credit. Does it matter for solar, then, who wins the election? Of course it does. The president shapes the national agenda on energy, and voters should bring their opinions of the candidates’ energy plans into the voting booth. But achieving a national solar policy depends on several forces besides the President, and it’s worth taking a look at some of these factors going into the election, including: 1) Congress; 2) state governments; and last and most importantly, 3) the American people. Inevitably, the future of a national solar policy circles back to Congress. In 2005, it will still be the lawmakers who decide tax policy and appropriate funds for procurement and R & D. Rather than get into detailed analysis on the political makeup of the next Congress – refer instead to websites like www.cookreport.com or opensecrets.org – we want to underscore the following point: Solar energy enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The key is to ensure that this support continues to grow. Influential solar champions exist today in the Senate on both sides of the aisle: Bingaman, Smith, Grassley, Wayne Allard (R-CO), Harry Reid (D-NV), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN). In the House, congressmen such as Zach Wamp (R-TN), Mark Udall (D-CO), and J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) are pushing solar growth policies, leading the 229 members of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus. The prospect of secure, employment-intensive, domestically produced clean energy resonates with these lawmakers. They see that major multinational energy and electronics corporations have entered the field; they recognize that the next ten years will determine who reaps the economic benefits of industry growth. Lawmakers in Washington can also see the inroads solar is making in governors’ summits and state legislative bull sessions around the country. The Western Governors’ Association is pursuing an actionable plan that would see 1000 MW of CSP in the Southwest by 2010. In New York, Governor Pataki has pushed through an RPS that will require the state to get 3,700 additional MW of renewable energy by 2013. New Jersey has approved an RPS and landmark rules for net metering / interconnection standards. Governor Schwarzenegger continues to push for his Million Solar Homes plan. These governors wield influence with members of Congress and the President, and they can speak forcefully on what is needed to sustain solar markets and leverage incentive programs in their respective states. As the election nears, Americans across the country and the political spectrum are pushing for investments in renewable technologies. In Colorado, a conservative-leaning state, polls show that 75 percent of citizens support the ballot initiative for a Renewable Portfolio Standard. 30 percent of visitors to the Bush campaign website define increased use of renewables as their highest energy priority. Meanwhile, California represents the third-largest market for solar in the world, and New York and New Jersey are experiencing a boom in renewables after passing an RPS. Renewable energy is literally on the ballot in Colorado, but voters in every congressional district can show their support for solar energy on November 2. Bipartisan support for expanding renewables in Congress, in the states, and among voters should spur the next president to adopt a growth policy. That policy should be ambitious enough to realize the growth potential of the solar industry. To borrow a sports metaphor (appropriate now that the Fall Classic is here and Washington has a baseball team again), the federal government is due for a home run. Congress and the President must step up to the plate – and with grassroots support and a growing industry profile, that possibility looks stronger than ever. Six elections after President Carter laid out his plan, there is far more evidence to argue for a renewed commitment to the U.S. solar industry. As President Bush and Senator Kerry barnstorm swing states like Ohio, Michigan and New Mexico, they will encounter new PV and thermal manufacturing plants, utility-sponsored incentive programs, and high-profile installations. Will they see the way to propose a comprehensive national policy on solar? Will the Congress respond in the next session? Stay tuned. Vote. About the author… Rhone Resch has 15 years of experience working closely with both the federal government and industry to develop and implement clean energy solutions. Prior to coming to SEIA, he was Senior Vice President of the Natural Gas Supply Association, a trade association that represents both major and independent companies that produce and market natural gas. In addition, he has served as Program Manager at the EPA’s Climate Protection Division in the Office of Air and Radiation, developing energy efficiency programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous air pollutants from the petroleum industry. He has also supported the U.S. Department of Energy’s Environmental Management Program, evaluating the energy efficiency of industrial operations and reviewing regulatory compliance with respect to Superfund, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, as well as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. He holds an MPA in Management from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, a Master of Environmental Engineering from SUNY Syracuse, and a B.A. from the University of Michigan. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife Lisa and two children.

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