Feed-In Tariffs & Long Beach: The English Perspective

I was aware that the Solar Power 2007 conference held in Long Beach, California, last month would be big. Up to ten thousand delegates. But what did this mean in the U.S. context? Was last year double the size, or half the size?

The opening session of the conference, rather heartbreakingly, began with a slide saying “Just wait till next year!” The uncomfortable thought, which had begun to take shape the previous day during the tour of solar installations in Los Angeles, arrived in its final form: “After all this time, how is this something to celebrate?!”

The day before the solar tour, I had been taken for a tour of Los Angeles by a friend, and seen not a single solar panel across the city, or indeed anywhere between the city and Long Beach. Not a single wind turbine. In England too: almost nothing. In Germany, solar panels and wind turbines seem to be everywhere.

Happily, the reason that this is so did not appear to be lost on those who really need to know. The CEO panel session at Solar Power 2007 had the heads of four major manufacturers calling for the same policy—a renewable energy feed-in tariff (FIT)—that has allowed Germany to capture a huge chunk of the global renewables market, allowed its citizens, farmers, businesses and community groups to invest in renewables successfully and easily, created towards a quarter of a million jobs, saved millions of tons of CO2 each year—and all at lower cost to the end consumer than European RPS-type systems.

A representative of Google also made clear an interest in the policy, and no wonder. They have an enormous PV installation at their Mountain View, California, headquarters, which would actually make them money, as well as provide them with free electricity, if California had a FIT. Representatives from Ebay, Macy’s and Johnson & Johnson also showed keen interest when I spoke to them about FITs, for the same reason.

This is what I came to find out about. Do people in the U.S. get it yet? As California is such a leader in environmental policy, if they understood the benefits of a FIT system—especially in a state drenched in sunshine, which is home to many forward-thinking companies, including those in Silicon Valley who have the most to gain financially—they could accelerate solar power use massively.

If California takes a lead, the rest of America will follow; if America leads, the rest of the world will follow. Why not? FITs allow anyone and everyone to participate, and make money out of renewable energy. Isn’t that part of the American cultural landscape-independence, self-reliance, good business and an abiding interest in energy?

The real disappointment with the phrase “Just wait until next year” was the fact that this should be old news by now. Solar should already be such an integrated part of the urban fabric that we simply don’t notice it any more. Thin film promises to widen the application of solar to a point where this is likely—but until real policy helps to level the playing field against fossil fuels, the industry will continue to be held back, despite its numerous environmental, economic, social and political benefits.

Carbon pricing was spoken of in this context several times, and briefly as a way of bringing carbon to book for the damage it does to the long-term prospects for life on earth. Ted Turner, founder of CNN (and the Cartoon Network, he was keen to add), now solar entrepreneur, in a very funny and forceful onstage interview, called for a permanent end to building new coal-fired power plants. Of course he has a point.

The sooner decentralized renewable energy can replace fossil fuel power stations, the better our chances of retaining a human civilization which resembles the one existing today—certainly in ‘developed’ countries. At the bottom end of the slope may be a future America that resembles present-day Somalia.

This is why Ted’s interview, which closed the opening session, was so important-it set the correct context for the conference. Solar power is not just about the miracles of complex technological wizardry, it is about facilitating the capture of free, clean energy, and the avoidance of burning fossil fuels, which may be a significant factor in our survival.

It seems there is a cognitive rejection, even among true believers, of the critical role of renewable energy in this desperate picture. The mind apparently seeks to avoid confronting death, and climate change means just that, for many millions of people.

The renewable energy industry has so far failed to link effectively with green groups, businesses, academics, parliamentarians, religious groups, farmers, community groups and other activists to get the messaging right. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are two sides of a single coin, and this is the currency that we can use to buy our way out of disaster.

My organization takes an interest in renewable energy for this reason, to find and promote solutions to avoid catastrophic climate change. When you come at renewables from this angle, the message is clear, but from the industry, what I hear and see is generally a business-as-usual route to improved programs, and a high level of fragmentation due to the amount of state-to-state variety within and between different policies, e.g. RPS and net metering—as well as the industry being divided by the fact that no rationalized support scheme exists which looks after each technology, thus leaving them to continually fight for their share.

The bottom line is that states will, it seems, continue to drive policy for some time to come. The problematic complexity in policy that this creates is compounded by the fact that many programs are relatively new, and defenders of them call for more time to let them prove themselves.

Again, there is a disjuncture between what is happening on the ground, and what is scientifically necessary. If the cross-sectoral coalitions existed as outlined above, could we not get hold of this policy issue more effectively and demand action on policy now? We hear regularly that climate change is accelerating, and that we have only a handful of years before atmospheric CO2 levels become terminal, and we are locked into a downward spiral of feedback loops.

Why wait then? Why not take a proven instrument, and go for renewable energy in the biggest, fastest way we can? This also means jobs and a major economic boost, lest we forget—there is simply no reason, other than the complaints of the conventional energy industry—to not take this path.

Too late will be too late, and short-term corporate profits from fossil fuels burnt today will be no insulation against the collapse of the global economic system in the future. Any long-term corporate business plan based on business-as-usual is tantamount to an admission of insanity.

The truly crazy part is that many influential people know it, most of all people who should be taking up this, the most important argument of the century, and using it to crowbar a way into the legislative process—and demand a policy that drives fast, technologically-diverse deployment at low cost.

Californians, or any other state that sees the light, can take the FIT model, give it a new coat of terminological paint, and wheel it out for the masses to take advantage of.

Kathleen Law in Michigan has become the first U.S. politician to put on the table a fully-featured FIT (HB 5128), which looks like it would, if not watered down, deliver all the benefits described above. If this bill makes it into law, the state would immediately see benefits for Michigan-based United Solar Ovonic, a leading producer of thin film technology. Imagine multiplying the effects of this in California, for example. It is all possible, with the right policy instruments.

If the control and the opposition from utilities and other vested interests can be controlled and overcome, the renewables industry will fly in the U.S., with export markets throughout the Americas and around the world ready to take their product. It seems reasonable that a major push from U.S. manufacturing would result in better deals for supplying silicon feedstocks, and the end result could be much greater international competition, driving down costs even further.

Germany, Spain and Denmark have proved this is possible with a FIT, and still lead the world. America, however, is, for different reasons, central to the necessary shift in energy production and consumption around the world, and a renewables and efficiency revolution there—especially in view of federal obfuscation in the past—would help spur a massive expansion in the sector that will bring us closer to a low-carbon global economy.

If we can all help to galvanize action on real policy, that opening speech in Long Beach could be spectacularly right—”Just wait till next year!”

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