Diverse Voices Convene on Solar Energy’s Future

An eclectic mix of industry positioning, energy information, business opportunities and legislative insight met a nearly standing room only crowd, attending the Solar Power 2005 conference’s Friday morning plenary.

Speakers for this session included Edwin Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); Edward Mazria, principal, Mazria Odems Dzurec; Kathleen McGinty, secretary Department of Environmental Protection for the State of Pennsylvania; and Lamar Alexander, U.S. Senator (R), Tennessee. Julia Judd, executive director for the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) chaired the event. Following Judd’s introduction, Hill lead off the session outlining the IBEW’s history and its shared commitment to the goals of the solar energy market and to be part of the solution for the “nation’s energy problems.” Hill made a point of describing the IBEW’s size, noting that it is the largest electrical union in the world and that it has been in business since 1891. Hill indicated that in order to leverage fully the potential impact of solar electricity on the nation’s energy needs, the industry itself needs to embrace the IBEW and work with it in a “partnership for growth for all segments of the solar industry.” In turn, it will commit its members, its contractors, its resources and its ideas to ensure continued long-term growth. Interestingly, Hill noted that solar energy’s obvious benefits for providing clean renewable power, as well as its positive impact on the environment, make it capable of growing as a market by itself. Then, in apparent contrast to this statement, Hill introduced the “recent experience” with SB1 in California that created “a little bit of bad feelings” [with regard to IBEW’s role in the process] and asked rhetorically, “Is partnership still possible?” Hill positioned solar power as a potential electrical energy infrastructure, requiring the same dedication, commitment and expertise as was needed in the electrification of the country. Not unlike the nation’s waterways, airways, highways, power generation and transmission systems, the building of each required partnerships. The IBEW wants to be a partner in building a solar energy infrastructure. Hill made the case for leveraging IBEW’s strengths, its workers’ skills, safety and experience to help build the market for solar, as well as its strengths at the national and local levels to help solar power gain wide acceptance. Reiterating the IBEW’s size and political influence, Hill made it clear that the IBEW has a significant voice in energy issues and that it makes the IBEW “good people to have on your side, as good partners in public policy debate.” Tying this back to SB1 in California, Hill mused that some may be wondering how what he’s been saying squares with what been said about the IBEW’s role in SB1 with regard to the prevailing wage issue. Hill made no apologies but rather defended the prevailing wage issue on the whole, then noted that the prevailing wage issue had actually been dropped from SB1. Regardless, Hill made it clear that the IBEW wants to protect workers and workers’ rights while maintaining a willingness to make adjustments and be pragmatic with its future role in SB1 and the solar industry issues. Hill made particular note of the fact that the solar industry does not have a presence nor a political operation in every state — while the IBEW does. Hill closed saying that now is the time to work together and enact a long-term term of support for solar across the country. Hill thanked the crowd for its attention, noting, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Leaving the audience informed, but possibly not satisfied as several attendees later indicated they would have liked to ask Hill questions, Judd than turned the podium over to Mazria who provided the audience with detailed facts and figures on the threat of global warming and the dwindling supply of oil and natural gas. One attendee commented that she had seen this presentation “a thousand times” while another said that he was aware of the issue, but this was the first time he had seen some of these numbers. While most if not all in attendance understood the problem and the need for conservation, Mazria made an interesting point, directing attention to buildings and the power they consume (one pie-chart showing buildings account for 48 percent of power consumed in the U.S.). Rather than focusing on cleaner burning fuels, electric cars, planting more trees etc. as the key to changing the global warming trend, Mazria showed how focusing on this one issue (e.g., installing solar power, better construction methods, reducing a building’s power requirements, etc.) has the potential for the highest environmental return. Although Mazria was clearly preaching to the choir, the “choir” in this case sat with rapt attention, giving Mazria a resounding and extended round of applause. Secretary McGinty then took the stage, proceeding to energize the room with her enthusiasm and style, working without (apparent) notes or a presentation, charts, graphs or numbers. For those who did not know, Pennsylvania is second only to California in LEED-Certified buildings and it is pro-solar. Like any good state politician, McGinty painted a glowing picture of Pennsylvania’s history and growth potential, paying particular note to renewable energy and how her state is working to increase its implementation and development. To her credit though, McGinty did more than talk the enthusiastic talk; the secretary made it clear that when it comes to solar energy, Pennsylvania is “Open for business” and is ready to walk the walk. McGinty cited the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that requires the state to grow from an installed base of about 1 MW of solar power, to 680 MW installed by 2020. The state is prepared to back the backers, using credit and tax-free bonds to make renewable energy use and production a reality throughout the state. Hill made the point that the solar energy market needs to partner with the IBEW if its wants to grow. Mazria made the point that the world has an energy problem and it can be fixed. While McGinty acknowledged the previous speakers, her point was simple. Do renewable energy business in Pennsylvania. Build solar power in Pennsylvania. While the plenary could have closed with McGinty’s upbeat report, a final treat lay in store for the audience, with closing remarks by Senator Alexander. As many in the audience knew, Senator Alexander is the chairman of the Senate Energy Subcommittee and was directly responsible for the inclusion of the solar power provisions in the recently passed Energy Policy Act of 2005. The Senator noted that he had wanted a provision to have $7,500 knocked off the cost of installing solar power in businesses and homes in the U.S., along with an extended tax credit of six years. He also noted that the senate and congress runs on compromise, leading to the current $2,000 federal tax rebate and the shorter two-year tax credit window. Although Senator Alexander entered the meeting near the end of McGinty’s presentation, he followed her lead, as would any good politician, reiterating his successes in the senate with regard to natural gas prices and other energy issues. Clearly, a proponent of carbon-free energy, the senator did elicit a small, yet audible grown from the audience, when he referred to nuclear power as “the other solar energy.” The nuclear comment notwithstanding, the audience was clearly on his side, occasionally interrupting the senator’s speech with applause. Senator Alexander said that for this energy bill and future ones, it makes no sense not to include support for solar energy. He said it will not be big, but it will be important. In closing, he called for three things, while also asking to give, what he called, some unsolicited advice: 1) leverage the tax breaks we got this year, modest though they may be, it is important; 2) try to embrace new transformational solar technology; and 3) extend the tax credit to six years as was originally proposed, making and encouraging more investments in solar. Finally, Senator Alexander implored the audience and the solar businesses to consider hiring at least one designer for every two to three engineers. Because, said the senator, from a lay point of view, the advantages that solar has in competition with other forms of renewable energy and the limits it comes up against, have more to do with aesthetics than anything else. People want the power and they want an attractive solution. The senator predicts that the solar energy company that wins design awards for solar in the next five years is going to be the most successful. He believes there is enormous opportunity out there for aesthetically pleasing solar energy solutions.
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