Solar power technologies could generate 15 percent of America's power
in 10 years, but only if Washington levels the playing field on
subsidies, a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) says.
That means either rolling back fossil fuel subsidies, as President Obama proposed earlier this year, or increasing subsidies for clean energy, the association says.
Fossil fuels received $72 billion in total federal subsidies from 2002 to 2008, keeping prices artificially low, according to figures
from the Environmental Law Institute (ELI). About 98 percent of that
went to conventional energy sources, namely coal and oil, leading to
more emissions. The rest, $2.3 billion, was pumped into a new
technology to trap and store carbon dioxide spewed by coal plants.
During that same period, solar got less than $1 billion, according
to the SEIA, a trade group representing 1,100 solar companies across
To compete and gain market share — and stop global warming — this
inconsistency "must reverse itself immediately," said Rhone Resch, SEIA
president and CEO.
There had been hints of this happening.
In September, the G20 group of the largest 20 economies agreed to
phase out the $300 billion spent worldwide in fossil fuel subsidies
"over the medium term" to combat climate change.
But neither the Obama administration nor Congress has yet to take steps to comply with the G20 commitment.
For solar to have a shot, the world cannot wait, Resch told reporters at the Copenhagen climate talks this month.
"We either remove subsidies with oil and gas or create parity with solar," he said.
Almost a million jobs could hang in the balance.
Currently, solar contributes less than 1 percent of energy used in
the U.S. and employs some 60,000 people. Increasing that amount to 15
percent would result in a total of 882,000 new jobs, the association
That's compared with a dwindling coal mining industry that employs 85,000 people, said Resch.
The solar ramp-up would also fight climate change. A 15 percent scenario would slash America's energy-related emissions by an estimated 10 percent, curbing national carbon dioxide output by 1.4 gigatons (1 gigaton equals 1 billion tons).
To get there, however, rooftop solar photovoltaic systems would need
to grow massively — from today's 1,500 MW to 350,000 MW by 2020.
Concentrating solar power, which generates electricity by focusing
sunlight on giant mirrors on desert land, would have to leap to 50,000
MW, up from just 424 MW today.
It "won't happen naturally," Resch said.
Domestic policy provisions that favor renewable energy sources are
needed now, the solar industry argues. Many of these would not cost the
government "a penny," said Resch. In fact, getting to 15 percent solar
would require a relatively small government investment of between $2
billion and $3 billion in total, he said. But, he added,
"The government will have to change the way things have been done."
The policies proposed by SEIA are contained in the association's "Solar Bill of Rights."
They include: the right to connect to a grid with uniform standards;
the right to new transmission lines to connect solar resources in the
Southwest to population centers; and the right to equal access to
The last one is vital for utility-scale solar power. The oil
industry currently leases over 45 million acres of federal land, much
of it on sun-blessed stretches of Southwestern earth. The solar
industry has access to "zero" of that, said Resch.
Also vital is global warming legislation that creates a long-term
price on carbon and a federal "renewable portfolio standard" that would
ensure a chunk of the nation's electricity gets produced by green
The industry hopes momentum from the utilities and the states will
trickle up to the federal government. In 2009, solar accounted for 13
percent of all new utility announcements and filings, according to
figures from the Electric Edison Institute. "There are orders right now for solar in excess of 10 GW from utilities," Resch said.
Assuming the solar industry returns to its pre-recession growth rate of
50 percent each year, electricity from the sun will be the lowest cost
option in almost every state by 2018, the association said.
When SEIA presented the 15 percent accelerated deployment scenario
at the Copenhagen talks this month, the U.S. trade group wasn't alone.
Over 40 solar associations from around the world banned together to
release a report summarizing surveys of the leading solar nations.
The main point was this: If the EU industry makes good on its pledge
to get 12 percent of its electricity from solar by 2020, and if the
U.S. can hit 15 percent in the same time frame, 6.3 million new jobs
would flow. On top of that, China and India have each pledged promising
near-term solar booms.
"Our message was clear," said Resch, "We are ready now to help solve the climate crisis."
Before the talks, solar representatives sent the UN
secretary-general a letter, urging him to keep in mind that solar
energy "offers a concrete way forward" in negotiations on how to curb
and adapt to global warming. In the end, it didn't help. The Copenhagen
Accord that emerged produced no binding commitments to slow climate
change, and no hard signals to stimulate clean-tech investment.
But it appears the summit was not for naught for Big Solar.
"This is the first time in the history of climate negotiations that
the global solar industry has gathered together with one voice," said
Resch. It's also the first UN climate convention where the renewable
energy industries outweighed the fossil fuel industries in "both in
numbers and in influence," he added.
The key in the short term, Resch said, is not legally binding and
verifiable carbon reductions but action in the biggest economies.
"If agreement has to wait until Mexico City or South Africa, fine,
but we can no longer wait to star building the solar industry and
making sure we have uniform policies around the world," Resch said.