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Solar Goes Mainstream

Dec. 1, 2008
The extension of tax credits and the focus of the new administration on renewable energy give solar energy stability

The Solar Power International trade show and convention held in San Diego in mid-October clearly demonstrated that renewable energy has taken off.

Julia Hamm, chairwoman of Solar Power International, gave a brief thumbnail sketch of the five-year-old and newly renamed Solar Power International convention and trade show.

“We added ‘International’ to reflect the changing demographics of our attendees,” Hamm said. “More than 20% are registered from outside the U.S. We started with 60 exhibitors and 1,100 attendees, and today we have expanded our venue by 300% with 425 exhibitors, 17,000-plus pre-registered visitors, and we have 450 exhibitors on a waiting list! This show is a reflection of the rapid growth of the solar industry in the U.S.”

Hamm encouraged the packed hall to “take full advantage of the networking opportunities this week.”

Akeena Solar was recognized by Hamm for its generous donations: a cancer center and several schools in New Orleans where PV and thermal solar systems were installed by Global Green volunteers. At this time, they're looking for additional volunteers. Additional information is available at

Debbie Reed, president of San Diego Gas & Electric, noted that southern California reaps the benefits of 263 sunny days each year and that California leads the nation for installed PV systems.

“The watts you don't use are the greenest of all,” Reed said about conserving with Energy Star appliances and CFL light bulbs. “The $500 million we have invested in PV solar energy equals the same output of the two power plants we didn't need to build.”

Reed detailed a number of large-scale PV projects that are currently under construction, including Balboa Park where 10,000-sq.ft. of PV panels are being installed to generate 100-kW for the Rubin H. Clayton Museum and the Solana Apartment complex that will be fully solar powered.

Reed detailed lots of PV opportunities, like parking garages and empty roofs crying out to join the PV revolution.

Also noted was Sterling Energy's 6,500-acre PV energy farm where it will generate a jaw dropping 900-mW of clean green power.

Three challenges

Reed left us with three basic challenges that solar needs to meet:

  • Solar must be cost competitive.

  • Solar must have the necessary resources to make it viable, referring to interconnected, freely accessible and well-maintained transmission lines.

  • Reliability of the grid, so power can be easily routed across the nation to where it's needed or wanted.

“We are at a societal crossroads,” stated Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “We are mired in war; our economy is suffering; and we are addicted to fossil-fuel energy.”

Resch continued, “Solar is the bright spot in our economy — a job creator — offering clean energy independent of political extremists.”

Resch went on to detail the fight for extending the solar tax credits and how heartbreaking it was over the past 18 months to push legislation to the brink and see it fail by just two votes in one instance or have it filibustered twice. He thanked everyone for being a part of the “solar surge” when a “call went out for help in writing to your legislators,” and 10,000 people responded!

But even that heroic surge fell on deaf ears, no doubt plugged up with coal- and oil-tar! This past September, H.R.6049 never got to a vote before the full House. “See you next spring,” was the response as our leaders in D.C. were about to go on break. Then came the collapse of Wall Street, the banking industry and the housing market. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tacked on the solar tax credit's eight-year extension to the financial industry bailout bill and that will stabilize the solar industry.

“The U.S. is poised to reclaim leadership in the global solar industry,” Resch declared. “The tax credits equal stability and equal opportunity. Four hundred forty thousand new jobs will be created; 1.2-million solar installations over the next eight years; $325 billion of investments in the solar industry; 28-gigawatts of power will be generated, enough to power 7 million homes in the U.S.! Our about-to-be-elected leaders must have a climate change and energy platform from which to operate; our new president and vice president must be ready to start on day-one with significant changes regarding support for clean green renewable energies.“

Resch issued this challenge: “Ask the person next to you if they are a member of SEIA, and, if they are not, ask them why not. And then ask yourself the same question.”

I wasn't, but I joined upon my return to Pennsylvania.

Resch parted with these comments: “Help is needed; join SEIA; call or write your legislators to thank them for extending the tax credits; and last, but not least, celebrate this week because we've all busted our asses!” Just before leaving the podium, Resch added, “Go solar, baby, go solar.” The crowd erupted in applause.

Role of incentives

A number of folks within the solar industry would like to see solar stand on its own, without any incentives or tax credits. Their fears go back to President Ronald Reagan and how the solar industry almost perished — overnight — at the stroke of a pen when he wiped out all incentives. Looking back, we have heard from previous presidents regarding the subject of our addiction to fossil fuels.

President Richard M. Nixon said in 1974:

“Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.”

Vice President Gerald Ford followed Nixon with this quote, also in 1974: “We will never again permit any foreign nation to have Uncle Sam over a barrel of oil.”

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter, who had thermal solar installed on the White House, had two quotes that stand out in my mind: “Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977, never.”

What happened? Greed. And Carter gave this chilling insight to our future in his speech on July 15, 1979: “Our neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife.”

“In little more than two decades, we've gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous toll on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines, which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It's a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation. The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.”

Sounds like a speech from today, but it's from the same speech President Carter gave on July 15, 1979 (

Are we getting the message?

I can't help but wonder what must be going through his mind today as he sees we're finally getting the message. Or are we? Gas and home heating oil prices have dropped significantly, by more than half in most places from this past winter's death-grip on our wallets. Will we repeat the same pattern as we did in the ‘70s after the then artificial fuel shortages and high prices faded into a memory? We'd better not because this time the shortages are not, and, will not be artificially imposed.

From my perspective, solar deserves just as much (actually, it should be more like two or three times as much) money subsidizing its development as oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, biodiesel and hydrogen industries combined receive, at taxpayer expense, every year.

“Drill, baby, drill?” There's not enough oil left untapped that can be recovered economically to drill our way out of the bind we're in. And that's precisely why I was compelled to attend the Solar Power International event. I was not disappointed.

And there's a story behind every badge at Solar Power International. In future issues, I'll tell you why lawyers are leaving the legal profession to get into solar.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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