Seeing Green Elephants

A recent New York Times article focused on the advice that prominent GOP advisor Frank Luntz is providing to Republicans – that they need to close the gap with Democrats on the environment. This is good news for renewables. When an issue is in the province or mainly in the province of one party, it tends to be ignored by one party and taken for granted by the other. A renewables “bidding war” between the two parties is a much preferable position.

RE Insider, July 14, 2003 – The Republican party suffered a high-digit polling deficit on education for years. This changed in several phases. First, the rhetoric shifted. No longer was the mantra to abolish the Department of Education and to block grant funds. The theme changed to softer rhetoric, like “no child left behind.” Then proposals emerged to dramatically increase the federal role with more money in exchange for greater accountability. In the end, President Bush teamed up with Senator Ted Kennedy to pass the largest increase in federal spending for education in history. I believe we’re seeing the first phase of the effort on the part of the GOP to close the gap on an issue of great importance to so-called swing voters and Soccer Moms. Just as before, the language has softened, with the disappearance of discussions of disabling the renewables budget. After rhetoric, comes action. As a Republican, I pass along the following simple options, which the GOP could easily implement without hurting itself among its traditional base, devaluing its principles or harming conventional energy industries. The positive agenda I suggest will translate directly into votes. After all, wouldn’t most Members prefer to head into an election talking about their work to expand solar power – which nationwide polls confirm enjoys great than 90 percent public support – rather than being assaulted for relaxing environmental measures? Tax Package The first and easiest initiative is an aggressive, targeted tax package. The Administration is already close to the renewables industry’s position on most tax matters. Why not go the extra distance, sweeten the package and hold a press conference with all of the major players in the renewables industry? Start with doubling the existing Investment Tax Credit for commercial installations of solar to 20 percent while adding a permanent Residential Solar Energy Tax Credit at the same level with a US$5000 cap. Allow all distributed renewables to participate in both credits. Then propose a permanent extension of the wind Production Tax Credit and expand it to solar, geothermal, incremental hydropower and all appropriate forms of biomass. Double the Renewables Budget The second proposal is to submit a budget that would double the renewables budget over the next five years. It would guarantee stable and more efficient research – unlike the zigzag historical pattern, which makes it difficult to retain staff and make long-term capital investments. It would also accelerate the push toward energy independence. Standardize Interconnection Standards The third suggestion is as Republican an idea as it gets. As we all know, interconnection standards vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, substantially increasing the cost and decreasing the retail marketability of grid-connected distributed renewables such as photovoltaics (PV) and fuel cells. This “barbarian patchwork” of regulations is based on unreasonable and sometimes specious claims of grid idiosyncrasies from place to place, when in reality, both the IEEE and UL have issued standard connection guidelines, which the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) worked hard to incorporate into the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s current rulemaking. The President seems enamored with fuel cells as a way to achieve his goal of a hydrogen-based automobile industry – and rightly so. But many experts believe the best path to a fuel-cell powered car is through developing the stationary (building) market for that technology, and these cells are just as dependent on a nationally coherent and reasonable set of interconnection standards as we are. Let’s propose an interconnection law that sets national standards for all systems one MW and below – as the FERC is working on and similar to what Representative Joe Barton has introduced. Further, take the modest step of requiring retail-rate net metering for all systems. This simple policy mechanism could reduce the price of a residential system considerably, at zero government expense and through simply guaranteeing and protecting fair market access – a core Republican ideal. Install Renewables on Public Lands & Buildings The fourth item involves taking a fine report the Administration prepared on renewables on Federal lands and using it to actually develop the resources. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton deserves great credit for spending much time and staff effort in studying the potential of renewables on Federal lands. However, this is a treasure map, not a treasure itself, and now it’s time to turn the reports into action. Propose a well-funded initiative to replace noisy, dirty, expensive and unreliable diesel remote power systems on Federal facilities with PV systems as a matter of default policy. Fifth, let’s make a statement – flat-out plaster Federal buildings with renewable energy systems. The White House now has PV for the first time and once again solar hot water graces the most famous home in the world. But there are countless other federal facilities where on-site renewables make sense. A simple requirement to change the cost analysis of these systems and require deployment whenever either a 25 year lifecycle payback analysis is positive or security concerns argue for an uninterruptible power supply. For other projects, let’s use Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPC). We could plow the savings into on-site renewables, in a nationwide imitation of the revenue-neutral Powershift/Vote Solar model in use in a growing number of municipalities. The Alliance to Save Energy estimates there are about US$1 billion of savings to be found in existing federal buildings, which have become market leaders in energy efficiency. Even investing a fraction of those savings into solar would do wonders for this market in the U.S. Help U.S. Renewables Manufacturers Compete Sixth, use the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. and our other export credit and market development authorities to help our national manufacturers compete aggressively in the competitive world market for renewables. SEIA among others has provided Ex-Im with a workable and comprehensive set of recommendations for doing this. Extend Energy Star to Renewables Seventh, extend Energy Star designation to all PV and solar hot water products that pass appropriate scrutiny. There is an Energy Star mark on my 15-watt DVD player, but no such certification on equipment that can displace 20 percent or more of a home’s electricity needs. Customers deserve and will appreciate this mark of quality. Use Green Tags to Offset the 2004 Campaign’s Energy Use Finally, announce that the sitting President will be the first one to use green tags to displace all the energy – transportation, electricity, etc. – used in his 2004 re-election effort. There are any number of backdrops that would make an excellent photo-op for this along the campaign trail, and the comparative expense would be minimal. Readers will note that I offered these recommendations without mentioning what is perhaps most obvious – embracing a federal renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Republicans could achieve a blockbuster record in this area with other initiatives. However, if they do propose a RPS, it could be a next generation proposal, one that guarantees the development of all of our core renewable technologies (and energy efficiency) where they make the most sense. Finally, a more sophisticated RPS would palce additional value on energy that displaces the dirtiest (peak load) or is dispatchable. All these actions are not enough to completely close the gap – after all, renewables are just one part of the environmental picture – but they are hard-hitting, visible, relatively uncontroversial and very low cost measures that slign well with the party’s ideological base. Further, they support a high-tech and growing domestic manufacturing sector. It’s enough to make us consider a new acronym – Green Our Power, perhaps? Glenn Hamer is the Executive Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Contact him:
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