The Solar Industry Needs Political Power

ener The Solar Industry Needs Political Power

Washington D.C.-General Wesley Clark today calledupon the solar and wind developers of the United States to hireconsultants from K Street.

Speaking at the Creating Climate Wealth Summit, Clark-who currentlyserves as chairman of the strategic advisory firm Rodman and Renshaw-said that solar,wind and the entire renewable industry suffers from a lack of visibility and influence in Washington and state capitals, particularly comparedto the fossil fuel gang.

"How can you articulate the right message? Ultimately that is theprincipal challenge we face," he said. "Unlike the dot.coms, we’repushing against old established systems. You’re pushing against BigCoal. You’re pushing against Big Oil. You’re pushing against BigUtility."

He also thundered against investment banks and Wall Street for notbeing particularly willing to extend financing for wind and solar powerplants. At times, It was sort of like listening to a folksy Che Guevarain a suit. (Rise up! You have nothing to lose but your retainer fees!)

Clark backed up his comments with some interesting examples of howWall Street and the bureaucrats of the world have failed in theindustry. Clark relayed how he asked a friend, a partner at a majorinvestment bank, to fund approximately 1,000 solar projects in the U.S.The return would be ten percent after taxes.

"’It’s not good enough," the banker said, Clark recalled. "’We’relooking abroad.’"

A wind developer he knows has 450 megawatts worth of projects itwants to build in the U.S. The developer has 110 megawatts worth ofpower purchase agreements. But, because it can’t get financing, it can’t get built. In all, 10 gigawatts of wind are currently being upheld inthe U.S. because of how the turbines could interfere with radar. Othershave also noted how the solar industry has sometimes floundered in thehalls of power in the U.S. too. The federal investment tax credit, after all, was stalled in Washington until after the government agreed to amuch more massive bailout under the TARP program for Wall Street.

The picture has improved a bit. SunPower today cut the ribbon on amanufacturing facility in Milpitas while Suntech, the Chinese company,will build a panel facility in Arizona. Danny Kennedy, founder ofSungevity, has also noted that 70 percent of solar jobs revolve aroundinstallation and distribution. Still, the U.S. is not benefitting asmuch as it could, said Clark.

"We need that power. We need it to grow unless you assume we willship all of our manufacturing to China," he said. "We import at least 12 million barrels a day of petroleum. That is $300 to $400 billiondollars that is subtracted from the U.S. economy each year…It isfunding Swiss Chalets. It is doing a lot of things. It is not improvingeducation in this country. It is not improving welfare in this country."

No afternoon with the Hero of Herzegovina, of course, without arousing defense of corn ethanol. Clark worked with Poet, the ethanolproducer, to form Growth Energy to advocate for ethanol. Corn ethanolwas a cute, quaint industry, until volumes hit a billion gallons a yearand continued to grow. After that, oil refiners started a disinformation campaign, including the now famous food vs. fuel debate.

The corn price hike in 2008 came as a result of wheat failureselsewhere (a point made, but often overlooked, by several scientists at the time.)Corn now costs $3.50 a bushel and each bushel is good for three gallons. Corn costs 70 cents a gallon to produce that regular gas. Corn ethanolcurrently is making something of a comeback, GTM Research analyst Joshua Kagan hasnoted.

The ethanol industry now generates $66 million in revenue a year andsupports 500,000 jobs. If the U.S. moved to E15 fuel, in which 15percent of a gallon of gas would actually be ethanol, it would add136,000 jobs and 500,000 construction jobs.

"Corn ethanol is about 40 percent carbon intensive as gasoline," hesaid, adding that improved engines will drop that figure to 20 percent.

"Ethanol has political power. What does the renewable industry havein political power?" he asked.