Solar Energy Progresses in the United States

Rhone Resch

An Interview with Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association

President and CEO Rhone Resch discusses the Solar Energy Industries Association and its work to further the use of solar and establish it as a significant U.S. energy source.

What is the current status of solar energy in the United States? What do you anticipate to be its future use?

Despite the recession, solar is growing. The solar industry saw 37 percent growth in 2009 and supported 17,000 new American jobs that cannot be exported. This shouldn't be surprising; more than 90 percent of Americans surveyed support solar energy, according to Kelton Research.

One of the fastest growing segments of the solar market is the utility-scale market. In the past year, solar accounted for 13 percent of all new utility announcements and filings, up from six percent the previous year. Currently, there is a 17-gigawatt pipeline of utility-scale solar projects in various stages of the development process. These projects are expected to create more than 100,000 jobs in the manufacturing, construction and other trades that are the backbone of the U.S. economy.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has helped the industry grow even during this recession. The Recovery Act includes provisions that have sparked growth across the country. For example, Arizona received $6 million for solar on public school facility rooftops. New York received $31 million for four separate solar programs that will fund more than 56 megawatts of solar power and launch training programs for photovoltaic installers.

In October 2009, President Obama was on hand as Florida Power and Light opened their DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center plant, which at 25 megawatts is the largest photovoltaic facility in the country. FPL was awarded $200 million in funding from the Recovery Act.

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it had given the go ahead for a $1.4 billion loan guarantee for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah project in California. This solar thermal plant will be the world's largest solar project when it is completed.

What technological advancements are most needed for solar energy to become a significant contributor to the nation's renewable energy resources?

Solar is ready now to be a significant contributor to the nation's energy portfolio. Advancements are being made every day that continue to increase efficiencies and bring down costs. Because these advances will help open up markets for solar energy, we support an expansion of DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Program. A proposed 22 percent increase in this program in President Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget will help expand the industry's ability to advance technologies that will create jobs and economic opportunities.

An example of the importance of research and development funding for deploying solar technologies and producing clean energy jobs occurred in February in Arizona when the Stirling dish engine, which was developed through a research partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M., was deployed in its first commercial application.

We also support the DOE's ARPA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy] program, created in 2007 to fund transformational energy technologies; it is funding several cutting edge solar projects.

We are also advocating for enactment of the Solar Technology Roadmap Act (H.R. 3585), introduced by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). This bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September 2009, would dedicate more than $2 billion to new research partnerships and demonstration projects for solar energy technologies.

How are solar technology standards - particularly for transmission, interconnection and net metering - important to the future of solar energy resources? What standards are needed to further these particular technologies?

Imagine buying a phone in New Jersey and bringing it to ASTM's headquarters in West Conshohocken, Pa., only to find out it doesn't fit into the wall jack. That's what it's like for the solar industry right now. Home and business owners who buy solar energy systems are faced with a patchwork of standards that vary by state to connect their system to the grid. Creating a uniform national standard is a key provision of the the Solar Bill of Rights, a series of eight rights that we believe the solar industry needs to compete on a level playing field with the antiquated energy sources that most consumers are currently forced to use.

Another key policy in the Solar Bill of Rights is the right to net meter the energy solar consumers produce. This is a critical step in making solar cost-effective for consumers. The energy that customers produce with their solar systems should be able to be sold at market value on the grid. This is very personal for my family and me. When I originally installed a solar system on my home, I was required to pay 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for any electricity I sent to the grid. Fortunately, the District of Columbia Public Service Commission reversed that rule, and we now have full retail net metering. This encouraged us to expand our system; ensuring that solar customers across the country are compensated at the very least with full retail electricity rates will encourage others to go solar.

Our Solar Bill of Rights also states that we need to modernize our electrical grid. We can't expect that the energy of the 21st century be carried on a transmission grid designed for the 20th century. Modernizing our electrical grid will not only allow us to distribute low cost solar energy from our solar-rich resources in the Southwest but also make our energy supply more secure and give utilities a better ability to manage peak load demands. Last year, SEIA and the American Wind Energy Association published "Green Power Superhighways: Building a Path to America's Clean Energy Future," which lists the current inadequacies in our nation's transmission infrastructure and details the policies our nation needs to address them.

SEIA advocates for state and federal legislation to advance the use of solar energy. What legislative actions are particularly important to this goal and why?

As I mentioned, the Solar Bill of Rights outlines the policies that the solar industry needs to compete on a level playing field with more mature energy sources.

However, there are some additional policies that we are actively advocating as the U.S. Congress considers jobs legislation. By extending provisions for solar from last year's Recovery Act, the solar industry will create more than 20,000 additional jobs in 2010. Those policies include:

  • Extending the U.S. Department of Treasury Grant Program for two years,
  • Returning $2 billion to the DOE Loan Guarantee Program that was used to extend the "Cash for Clunkers" program,
  • Extending the manufacturing tax credit, and
  • Establishing the Clean Energy Deployment Administration, commonly called the clean energy bank.

In addition to creating jobs, these policies will help provide greater certainty to financiers and investors to deploy more solar, sooner.

Rhone Resch is the president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, Washington, D.C. At SEIA, Resch is responsible for all aspects of the association's operations and implementation of the industry's strategic priorities. He has more than 15 years of experience in the public and private sector working in clean energy development and climate change issues. Resch served as program manager at the EPA's Climate Protection Division during the Clinton administration, and he has supported the U.S. Department of Energy's Environmental Management Program.

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