The NY Solar Jobs Bill will benefit us all

Worldwide, and in New York State, solar power is on the verge of something big.

Global renewable energy spending is expected to top $2 trillion by 2020, with solar power comprising a substantial share. Only a decade ago, solar was a cottage industry; now, it’s a global business with $100 billion in annual sales. Here in New York, the 2011 Solar Jobs Census lists 840 solar businesses, employing almost 4300 workers. That’s up from 225 businesses with 3500 workers just the year before—pretty impressive job and business growth during a recession.

These near-term jobs are compelling enough reasons for New York to pass the Solar Jobs Act.  But as the father of two beautiful girls, what really drives me to support this legislation is the prospect of cleaning up the air my girls breathe and investing in our country’s long-term international competitiveness.

By promoting the development of 3,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2021, the bill will reduce the need for polluting power plants, thereby improving the quality of the air our kids breathe, especially on days when electric demand soars. The bill will also help make New York a significant player in the national and international solar market. Importantly, the Solar Jobs Act will help solar power become increasingly abundant and affordable—the energy source of the future that the vast majority of Americans want today.

How can a piece of legislation do all that? By helping drive demand, which, in turn, drives incredible efficiencies and economies of scale. Already, a combination of government solar standards and incentives has promoted steep drops in solar’s costs. In 2004, for instance, one manufacturer of US-made solar panels sold them for $2.94 a watt. Today, their price per watt is 73 cents—75 percent lower. Similarly, in many states and localities, government incentives and standards have helped shrink the cost of both solar permitting—responsible for 15-30 percent of solar’s costs—as well as other so-called “balance of system” costs. Together, these account for more than half the price of solar installation. Sixteen states, including California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Arizona, have solar standards that are effectively lowering solar electricity prices. By joining this forward-thinking group, New York can, too.

Price drops aren’t the only benefits of a state solar standard, though. Because solar electric systems produce the most power when the weather is hot and sunny—when electricity demand skyrockets—they can decrease the use of super-polluting, diesel-fired “peaker” plants, brought online only when electricity demand is high. These peaker plants create well-documented increases in asthma attacks, heart attacks and other respiratory problems. But solar can be part of the solution. New York City, for instance, could generate half the electricity it needs at peak periods using solar alone, and the Solar Jobs Act can help make that possibility a reality by incentivizing this pollution-free form of energy.

Finally, let’s not ignore the sizeable near and long-term job benefits we can reap from promoting solar. And conversely, the risks we face if we ignore solar’s potential. Right now, countries such as China, Germany and South Korea are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into renewable energy technologies they hope to sell around the world. If we fail to join these countries in promoting solar, we’ll likely miss out on much of that $2 trillion market.

Recent history also shows that when states promote solar energy through state standards, they attract considerable private solar investment. Colorado, for instance, recently beat out New York to become the site of a new GE solar manufacturing plant—a manufacturing plant expected to hire 355 workers over the next five years—in part because of the Centennial State’s ambitious renewable energy standard.

It would be a shame to miss out on all the opportunities solar provides—for jobs, for local and international competitiveness, for clean air for your kids and mine to breathe—by failing to recognize the positive role legislation can play. By promoting solar power in New York, the New York Solar Jobs Act will benefit us all.