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Oct 132011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Rhone Resch, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industry Association is once again explaining the need for certain government subsidies to sustain the growing solar industry, in this case a Treasury grant known as the 1603 program.

Solar installers at work. (Photo: NRG)

Resch calls the program “the single most effective policy driving renewable energy growth during the past two years,” which saw a doubling of solar industry jobs.

The grant program covers 30 percent of the cost of renewable energy installations, both big and small, and is payable when the project is complete. This initiative, similar to those in other countries pushing to add renewables to their energy mix, has helped the U.S. solar industry grow to 100,000 jobs and 5,000 small businesses, Resch explains during a news conference Wednesday.

Set up in 2009 to help keep solar power alive as financial markets retreated, 1603 is now set to expire at the end of this year unless it’s renewed by Congress.

That would be the same Congress that just decided to nix a discussion of Obama’s jobs plan in the Senate.

The same Congress that has lately questioned whether we even need a lot of longtime entrenched government programs like Medicare, Social Security and the Postal Service (see the full story on their Congressionally inflicted financial woes).

Tea Party-dominated members of Congress are in the hunt for things to cleave. They’re far less interested in the benefits provided by federal programs or in retooling them to be more efficient. They’d rather toss them overboard. They’re the Tea Party after all, albeit in reverse. (In this case, the elected leaders loot the ship.)

So this is the backdrop against which Resch must make his case to hold onto the 1603, which was virtually (shush!) a stimulus plan. He must argue why you wouldn’t want to toss it overboard, and with it large hunks of the currently thriving U.S. solar industry.

And he’s doing an excellent job, arguing that people who want to retain and grow American jobs, build energy security and fight climate should want to keep this program and offering an outline of what’s at risk if Congress bails:

  •  A solar industry workforce that’s grown to 100,000 – representing everyone from rooftop installers to scientists and managers and including the aforementioned 5,000 small businesses.
  •  The nascent spurt in solar rooftop installations that’s powering up now that the price of PV panels has come down about 30 percent over the last 18 months and retailers have worked out leasing programs, which relieve homeowners of having to come up with gobs of cash.
  •   Proposed commercial solar installations that would tie to the grid and supplement energy in the desert Southwest in particular.
  •  The return on investment realized by taxpayers whose money (via 1603) produces a more diversified energy portfolio that’s clean and local.

It would be, to play with the latest vernacular, a real jobs-killer, letting 1603 expire, Resch says, though he doesn’t use that term. He also didn’t utter those incendiary words “climate change,” that send shudders through so many spineless suits, even though its blazingly clear that adding solar power to the national portfolio could reduce carbon pollution, saving countless beaches, cities, endangered species, and who knows how many Joplins?

Resch instead focuses on how Republicans and Democrats support 1603, and hopefully notes that they’ll be able to see specific solar jobs and companies helping Americans in their districts because solar power is now spread across the land, with New Jersey of all places leading with new solar production.

And for those who haven’t seen the light yet, SEIA will dispatching people to educate lawmaker’s aides.

The sad truth, though, is that the solar industry could be in jeopardy because many the interests of federal lawmakers are skewed from those of the regular folks they represent. They are simply not  interested in spending any more money, even if it props up the American workforce and blossoming industries that are maturing in difficult economic times (rather like those graduate students who’re occupying Wall Street).

A reminder of the harsh climate out there arrived as a pointed question from a dialed-in caller near the end of the news conference.

“Why would US taxpayers give another penny to solar industry?”

After a moment of collective breaths being taken in – usually such arrows come wrapped in a bit more syntactical gauze – Resch even-handedly reiterates his pitch about jobs – and adds a layer, explaining how the 1603 program doesn’t require cash outlays because it’s funded through the U.S. Tax Code and along the way it attracts private investment at a rate of 3:1, which is a pretty good deal for U.S. taxpayers.

“The solar industry has proven itself as a rock solid industry here in the United States and we’re growing faster than any other industry,” he said.


But Caller X (her name doesn’t matter) sounds unconvinced. Solar, she sniffs, is a small industry, would it always be “dependent” on the U.S. government? (Translation: Would it even really exist without the gubment?)

That was a good question, actually, because it forced Resch to line up his ducks in a prettier row.

His volleyed back: The federal government has historically subsidized the development of all energy industries, typically with permanent subsidies, that built and sustain the oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power industries that power everything else we do in the U.S.

Not wanting to get into a competition with these powerful interests, Resch acknowledged that these were all good (though surely he knows that many people disagree and think its time to ratchet down subsidies to the super-wealthy oil industry).

The solar industry, Resch explained, just wants a level playing field.

Which leaves one big dangling question: Do we level it with a bulldozer, rolling back all government subsidies?  Or do we taxpayers agree to fund supports for the solar industry, because it needs the help now and lawmakers are about as likely to peel back subsidies for their oil, gas and coal friends (aka their campaign contributors) as they are to disrobe on the Capitol steps?

Not that we’ll get to decide. This is a democracy. Congress will vote for us.

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