In an example of either great timing, or a degree of scheduling cooperation that would be the envy of any trade conference, Solar Power International, the largest solar energy conference in the county, kicked off the same day as the Obama administration and its allies began a concerted push for a climate legislation package in the Senate, and with the American public.
Indeed, just as Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), unveiled a “Solar Bill of Rights” on stage in Anaheim, President Obama was standing in front of a field of photovoltaic solar panels at the ribbon-cutting for a new 25-megawatt solar power plant in Arcadia, Florida, the country’s largest solar PV plant to date. Obama was also there to announce $3.4 billion in grants to help build a nationwide “smart energy grid,” designed to improve energy efficiency, and help integrate solar and other renewables into the national grid.
Solar power depends on sustained attention to renewable energy from government, both state and federal, to subsidize a source of power that is currently significantly more expensive than fossil fuels (although prices continue to fall). But while some critics mock solar for its dependence on tax credits and government rebates to foster growth, SEIA’s Resch pointed out that solar received only $1 billion in subsidies between 2002-2008, compared to $72 billion for fossil fuels. He also noted that while oil and natural gas companies are operating on federal lands, solar plants have not yet gained permission to do so.
Resch, in his speech at the opening of the convention, said the industry as a whole needs to step up its (lobbying) efforts in DC. “We cannot rely on the goodwill of policymakers to prevail. We must fight together, and we must fight to win.”
Go Big. Or Go Home.
Of course, part of that disparity in subsidies is because Americans depend on those fossil fuels far more than solar, to electrify and heat their homes, and move their cars. Unmentioned by Resch was solar power’s current share of electrical generation in the United States: about one half of one percent. Coal and natural gas produce about 70 percent.
Indirectly addressing this massive disparity, Resch in his speech this morning said the industry needs to “go big, or go home,” and unveiled an 8-point “Solar Bill of Rights” as a blueprint for how solar can reach a more meaningful percentage of electrical generation in the US.
Following Resch was the gregarious actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr., and then keynote speaker Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, who gave a milquetoast policy speech about green jobs.
Emphasis on “Profits” Part of “People, Planet, Profits”
One quick impression from the conference: these people are here to make money. The industry is puny compared to others, and many, if not most, companies in the sector are small or medium sized firms that are trying to hang on amid the economic downturn and a decline in solar panel prices.
Begley’s speech about bike riding and smog in Los Angeles aside, attendees at SPI are here to get the exposure and make the connections to generate profits. The environmental, “save the world” aspect of solar power was not much on display. One bit of anecdotal evidence in support of this: a dearth of hybrid and electric vehicles in the convention center parking lot.