Three Cheers for Solar Champions

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama gave a shout out to solar energy: “Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar,” he said, “every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can't be outsourced. Let's continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don't need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”

And while the President can’t change tax policy without help from Republicans in Congress, yesterday, at the White House, he and his staff were doing their part to move the solar industry forward. At the event, Energy Secretary Moniz and other federal officials  announced new policies to promote the pollution-free technology and celebrating 10 solar “Champions of Change.” (And here’s our own shout-out, to three of those champions with whom NRDC has worked closely: Donnel Baird, whose NYC social enterprise, BlocPower, applies economies of scale, financing and job development to support energy efficiency and solar energy in under served neighborhoods; Anya Schoolman, of the Community Power Network, which helps local groups build renewable energy projects like solar arrays; and Tim Sears, co-founder of GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that’s installing solar on the homes of low-income families. You rock, guys!)

Since President Obama first came into office in 2009, he’s been a strong supporter of solar. The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative is just one example. It’s goal: to make solar cost-competitive with grid electricity by 2020, by improving technology, streamlining manufacturing, and by cutting the so-called “soft” (non-hardware) costs that make solar power in the U.S. twice as expensive as they are in Germany. That support has had important implications on the ground, helping drive down solar’s costs by more than 50 percent in the last five years. (Think about that for a minute. Can you imagine if the cost of a car dropped by 50 percent over the last five years? We’d all be gob-smacked.) Not only has the price of solar dropped precipitously, but the industry has also become a major, fast-growing source of jobs. The solar industry now employs almost 143,000 Americans, up almost 20 percent from 2012.

Yesterday, the White House announced the President new plan to build on those successes. This plan will to further deploy solar and reduce its costs, by:

  • developing a “Solar Deployment Playbook” that will help businesses identify low-cost financing and offer model contracts, so they don’t have to spend extra money reinventing the wheel;
  • advancing programs to help install solar power in rural communities, on federal buildings and federal lands in the Washington DC area, on federally-assisted housing, and perhaps most importantly, by deploying 3 gigawatts of renewable energy on military installations by 2025;
  • launching an “onsite renewables challenge” through the EPA Green Power Partnership to encourage schools, colleges and universities, businesses, non-profits, local, state and federal agencies to up their use of onsite renewable energy technologies, such as solar; and, 
  • leveraging innovative federal financing tools, including a re-launch of the Renewable Energy and Efficient Energy Projects Loan Guarantee, which will serve as a backstop for loans to companies improving solar power, other renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. (Those guarantees have contributed to the success of new technologies, like the Tesla electric car and the Ivanpah concentrated solar power system in the Mojave Desert that’s now generating 392 megawatts of pollution-free energy.)

Study after study has shown that government policies have been key to the incredible expansion of solar and other renewable energy technologies that we’re witnessing these days. As my colleague Pierre Bull wrote about recently, we need to change the largest federal incentive for solar, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) to allow solar systems to qualify when they commence construction. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that the commence construction change would help drive an additional 4,000 megawatts of solar capacity in 2017 and 2018, and would create tens of thousands of additional new domestic jobs.

The President obviously knows how to keep that momentum going. In the coming weeks, as Congress considers policies that will impact the development of renewable energy across the U.S., let’s make sure our representatives know it, too.