A Solar Energy Future: Maybe You Can Get There From Here

wafer5 A Solar Energy Future: Maybe You Can Get There From Here

Almost anything that happens in our nation’s capital can be explained by a quote from Alice in Wonderland.Usually, that’s a bad thing. In the case of the Solar TechnologyRoadmap Act which the U.S. House of Representatives passed last week,however, invoking Alice is all for the good.

Lost in a landwhere nothing is what it seems, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which wayshe ought to go. He answers, “That depends a good deal on where youwant to get to.”

The bill’s author, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords(D-Ariz.) calls it a Roadmap for a reason: HR 3585’s greatest strengthis that it knows exactly where it wants to go.

“Ultimately,”Giffords told the Solar Economic Forum last month, “the reason I get soexcited about solar power is that it offers a viable solution—at leastin part—to all of these major challenges: Economic competitiveness[jobs], energy independence [national security], and climateprotection.”

Because the Roadmap doesn’t depend exclusively on“green votes” it passed in the House by a convincing margin of 310 to106, with the backing of IBM, Intel and even the (beleaguered) U.S.Chamber of Commerce.

With the destination locked in, HR 3585 lays out a route for getting there.

•    Give solar power an institutional legitimacy and a stable presence inside the government.

TheUnited States has never had a serious and sustained policy forsustainable energy. As a reaction to the oil price shock of the 1970s,the Carter administration created the Solar Energy Research Institute(SERI), led by Denis Hayes, the main organizer of the first Earth Day.SERI’s budget in 1981 was an astonishing $1.4 billion. The investmentpaid off handsomely. The U.S. led the world in solar technology.

AfterRonald Reagan was elected president, SERI’s funding was slashed, withpredictable results. America not only lost the lead—we quit the race.Japan and Germany bought up the technology and hired researchers cutloose by Reaganomics. Solar power flourished in those countries whileit withered here. Says Hayes, “We lost an entire generation ofresearchers.”

Watching the floor debate on the Roadmap must havebeen excruciating for those who know SERI’s history. GOP opponents likeCalifornia’s Tom McClintock, bemoaned a history of “squandering”taxpayer money on solar R&D that always failed to deliver—withoutmentioning his party’s role in decimating funding for renewable energyat a critical moment.

Giffords’ plan was modeled after theInternational Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, an industry planwith a successful 20-year track record. HR 3585 creates an 11-membercommittee, drawn from government labs, industry, and academia. Thecommittee will draw up a Roadmap for solar research, development, anddemonstration projects (RDD) with goals for the short-term (2 years),mid-term (7 years) and long-term (15 years).

•    Fund solar power research, development and demonstration projects adequately and predictably.

TheRoadmap authorizes $350 million for solar RDD beginning in October2010. That amount rises incrementally over the next five years to reach$550 million.

Is that sufficient? Thirty-four Nobel Prizewinning scientists don’t seem to think so. The group sent PresidentObama a letter in July citing the President’s own request for $15billion annually for a decade to fund clean energy RDD. They urged thepresident to push Congress for that funding level in the Senate climatebill.

Roadmap supporters are quick to point out that the $15billion was for all clean energy, not just solar. And, they add, themoney authorized by HR 3595 exceeds federal spending on solar RDD inany year since SERI’s heyday nearly 30 years ago. Finally, the Roadmapisn’t the only funding mechanism for renewable energy. Yesterday, forexample, President Obama announced $3.4 billion in grants to upgradethe nation’s electrical grid, a tremendous boon to the solar industry.

WhileGiffords’ office doesn’t seek or expect funding from any sources otherthan those spelled out in the bill, I suspect that even they think ofthe Roadmap as a good start—necessary but insufficient to achieve allof the bill’s goals.

For now, the road Giffords’ bill must travel before it becomes law passes through what could be treacherous terrain: the Senate.

Themorning after her bill passed the House, I asked Giffords how she feltabout the Roadmap’s chances in the upper house. She was, unremarkably,“cautiously optimistic.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” she said. “But I’m hoping it will land on the president’s desk by the end of this year.”

Butthere’s little chance of that happening, given the other pressingissues before the Senate and the dwindling days in this session. It’smore likely to be taken up next session when it stands a good chance ofpassing.

There is, however, a tantalizing scenario in which theRoadmap could become law this year—as an amendment to the climate billnow being debated in the Senate. Given the broad bipartisan support forthe Giffords’ Roadmap in the House, the bill could actually attract avote or two for the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs and American PowerAct.

The chance that funding for solar power could actually bean enticement forSenators who emphasize national security and a pro-business agendashows just how far the industry has traveled and how well Giffords hasframed the debate.

This Article Originally Ran in Grist. LINK