Stephen Chu is a great man. But in some ways he’s been a bad Secretary of Energy for solar.
The job of a man who wants a revolution is to shake things up. The job of a man covering an enormous industry is to lead that industry. Both jobs require a high public profile. Chu has none.
Dr. Chu is basically a scientist, a great one. (You can tell a great scientist by the Nobel Prize in his office.) He’s collegial, he’s fact-based, he’s methodical. He’s not an entrepreneur, not a PR man, not a journalist.
As my first editor used to say 40 years ago, pity, that.
But there is something he can do for solar today, something important, something that will cost sofa-cushion money, that can basically be done with and through the industry he serves.
Permitting standards. They’re all over the map. It’s not whether they’re good or bad. It’s that they vary from place to place, sometimes wildly. SunRun estimates local ordinances are adding $2,500 to the cost of every solar installation. That’s an average – I’m sure there are NIMBY towns where the figure is much higher.
So under the aegis of the Department of Energy you get both sides into a room. You hold a public seminar with a scary/promising title, like “One Nation Under the Sun.” Good summary of what you’re going to do next, which is come up with a standardized ordinance and permitting process that responsible leaders of municipal government and the industry can both subscribe to.
From the first meeting, you form a working group (you name those who’ve submitted the most thoughtful papers from both sides), and you hash something out over a month or so. Then, with as much fanfare as possible, you present it to all sides, and to the Congress. You have a friendly Congresscritter or two offer a bill, providing incentives (either positive, negative or both) for cities, towns, counties and states to get their local laws and ordinances in compliance with what you’ve done.
After that you go to wind power and wash, rinse, repeat. (Geothermal is next, then fuel cells.) We know that harvesting the energy all around us is the answer to our energy and environmental problems. We know that a lot of that energy is in our cities and suburbs, that citizens are eager to get in on this, that there is a big business opportunity in helping them do it.
You have a chance here to highlight growth, you have a chance to also support the need for environmental standards. You can show it’s not an either-or deal.
But it takes leadership. It takes getting out front, calling in the media, getting on talk shows, banging the big bass drum.
Lead, Mr. Secretary. The time is now.