Charges of Congressional “Pork” Leveled at Solar Projects

A curious and not altogether comfortable situation has emerged in the U.S. solar industry lately. In the past few weeks, Senators and State Representatives from across the U.S. have proudly trumpeted their successful efforts to secure funding for solar projects in their home districts through the use of Congressional earmarks, or line-items added to bills. While new solar projects throughout the U.S. may seem like a good thing, the solar industry’s national representatives came out against such actions, characterizing the projects as “solar pork”; programs that are not really there to advance solar energy but rather a way for lawmakers to bring money to home districts while gaining some positive press.

“These are, more or less, naked attempts to bring some money home to the state and be able to put out a press release in support of clean energy,” said Colin Murchie, Director of Government Affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SIEA). The earmarks in question were in the Energy & Water Development Appropriations Bill, which was signed into law this past weekend. Among its funding appropriations, it included approximately USD$ 84 million for Solar Energy, which was what the President had called for to support yearly solar energy research activities. This includes PV Energy Systems, Concentrating Solar Power, and Solar Heating & Lighting. A total of $14.4 million, or 17 percent of the total $84 million solar budget, was diverted from the traditional Department of Energy research and development process for 11 Congressionally earmarked solar projects. At the heart of the issue is that while the $14.4 million may be going to solar projects, the funding is coming at the expense of Department of Energy (DOE) directed solar research, which SEIA argues offers a higher value to the advancement of solar research. “After similar intensive earmarking last year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Golden, Colo., were forced to lay off several dozen researchers and stop taking on additional lines of research,” said SEIA President Rhone Resch. “This latest round of diversions will undoubtedly amplify this trend. This trend must stop, and SEIA will focus our resources to make sure that it does.” Lori Colombo, Project Manager for the Brockton, Massachusetts-based Brightfield Solar Energy project, one of the 11 so-called “pet projects” according to SEIA, believes there’s a much larger, more relevant issue going on. “I’ve heard this argument before and I take exception to it,” Colombo said. “If there were more grant programs to support this, we wouldn’t be in this position. The solar industry association shouldn’t be fighting against solar projects that are good solar projects, but should lobby Congress to expand the pie and not allow it to be divided into smaller pieces.” The Brockton Solar Brightfield Project will be the largest solar project in the Northeast, with an initial 500 kW of solar photovoltaics that would eventually be expanded to a full MW of power. Through the line-item process, the project will receive $700,000 from the DOE solar budget. Further payments will be made locally with Bay State Gas paying $500,000 and the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust kicking in another $1.2 million. One of the hallmarks of the project is that it makes use of an EPA-designated “Brownfields” polluted site. The Solar Brightfield project, as the name implies, is intended to put this defunct piece of land to good use as a solar power plant. This would work since solar PV panels and racking systems require only shallow penetrations of the ground, one of the many limitations for use at the site. Colombo says it also will offer a strong educational component and act as a popular demonstration example of solar energy for the Northeast, much the way a commercial wind turbine installation in Hull, Massachusetts has served to highlight wind power in the region. Brockton’s Brightfield Project is one of 10 other projects that SEIA identified as solar pork. Some of the others include $3.5 million diverted for Sandia National Laboratory to do a megawatt-size demonstration of a Stirling Engine concentrating solar project in New Mexico. In the past year, the exact same technology been selected for commercialization and mass-implementation through a number of high-profile Power Purchase Agreements with California Utilities. There’s also $2.5 million for the University of Nevada to research and evaluate advanced fiber optics for hybrid solar lighting, which serves no solar power production purpose, and could almost entirely wipe out funding for DOE-directed Solar Heating & Lighting, according to SEIA’s Murchie. All the projects, says Murchie, may be interesting, but are not research projects intended to move solar forward. Colombo disagrees and instead believes that projects like hers can help move solar foward, particuarly through increasing awareness of solar. “I feel it’s unfair to single out this project when it has so many important community development benefits,” Colombo said. “It may not be a new technology, but it’s part of the effort to reduce the cost of solar through economies of scale. It’s an innovative way to bring land back to use, and that’s a different application for solar that brings life back to a site.” Colombo said the comments from SEIA are probably based on the pressure that everyone is feeling in Washington due to across- the-board belt tightening. Indeed, the pie is getting smaller. In 1980, for example, the federal government had increased its federal funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency to $2 billion, excluding all tax benefits. Almost three decades later, the entire DOE renewable energy and energy efficiency budget has fallen to around one billion. An industry expert, speaking anonymously due to the sensitive political nature of the topic, characterized the situation on Capitol Hill as one where the Department of Energy has been so lacking in providing adequate funding for renewable energy that people in the industry have resorted to Congressional line-item funding opportunities. Scott Sklar, President of the Stella Group, a consulting firm, did speak on the record and sees a few sides to the story — including the need for industry to pursue line-item funding. He said that from SEIA’s point of view, they had a fair criticism of the earmarked projects, particularly during this time of ever-tightening budgets. He agreed with previous sentiments, however, that the belt tightening on Capitol Hill is largely responsible for this caustic atmosphere and is the real problem. “That’s the sweet and sour,” Sklar said. “If there were enough money in the budget no one would be whining.” He did explain another angle altogether as well; that sometimes the DOE can’t react fast enough to market or research demands and that the earmarks can help bridge this gap. “A lot of us put things in the budget when they need to be addressed,” Sklar said. “The solar industry is in competition with new industries coming out all the time. There’s no way that DOE can entirely plan for it. Earmarks can help drive the program in certain ways.” He used an example of the hybrid solar lighting earmark, mentioned earlier. The project aims to further develop and refine the use of full spectrum solar light, coupled with solar concentrators to provide large-scale commercial lighting applications. He said there was already some project potential with retail giant Wal-Mart and some homeland security applications. Solar energy may not be used for power generation in this approach but he says it does offer some different assets and benefits for solar. “It’s a hard issue with funding going down,” Sklar said. “What’s happening is that these programs are being levelized and then dipped into for Iraq funding and tax cuts. It causes a lot of pain. With this levelized funding there’s going to be a fight for resources and it’s to be expected.” To read SEIA’s press release on the topic, including a full list of the earmarked solar projects in the Energy & Water Development Appropriations Bill, see the following link. Please also feel free to share your opinion on this topic by posting a comment in our online reader response forum, also below.
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