Markets

Future of US solar in voters’ hands


31 Aug. 2015 by Susan Kraemer, Solarplaza

America’s solar future is very much in the balance in elections next year.



US voters in next year's presidential elections have a stark choice when it comes to clean energy support. The 17 Republican candidates have rejected all climate policies in the US and offer no plans to support clean energy or solar. Between Democratic frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, there is a more nuanced choice between two long-time clean energy supporters.

Technically an Independent, Sander's clean-energy votes over his years in the Senate mirror democrats'. The difference is that Sanders offers a protest vote, while Clinton proposes detailed prescriptions. Sanders has been a regular feature over the years in the bully pulpit, promoting climate solutions and chastising his GOP counterparts [Grand Old Party is another common name for the Republican Party, Ed. note]. However, his solution to climate change is on the scale of the small state he represents. He has called for a million solar roofs; a terrific goal for a nation the size of Vermont, but easily surpassed by election day in the US.

In contrast, Clinton's administration would boost solar capacity from the current 20 GW to 140 GW by 2020. Clinton’s focus is not just on rooftop solar but on large-scale projects as well. Not every homeowner is a fan of solar, and utility-scale projects gets them all off the grid. She would protect the 30% solar investment tax credit (ITC), and get states to compete for federal funds through "competitive grants and other market-based incentives, to exceed federal carbon pollution standards and accelerate clean energy deployment.”

The opposition portrays Clinton as "calculating" and “expedient” in her plans, but her clean energy support predates 2015. As the very ‘green’ former San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsome, said of her in 2007: “With her it’s always been about making change. That’s why she’s been so controversial. They say that dogs don't bark at parked cars."

Hers is a more inventive and pragmatic approach to solving climate change than Sanders. In her 2008 presidential bid she proposed that companies include climate risk in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. The SEC safeguards investors against risk, and including climate risk would be a shot in the arm for divestment.

Sanders has not had much influence in passing Senate bills, while in both her previous positions Clinton has leveraged every opportunity to move effective legislation. Clinton’s 2006 Strategic Energy Fund Act was the model to fund half the ITC extension using fossil fees in 2008. “In the end, USD$10 billion of the ITC went on the deficit, but $10 billion came from oil and gas. It was taken from the big five,” said Amit Ronen, who steered its eight-year extension through congress.

As Secretary of State, Clinton created the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) of nations agreeing to cut short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP). This emphasis on action to capture methane and to locate substitutes for technologies that create black carbon and other SLCPs earned plaudits from the American Society of International Law. It assessed that CCAC could fill the regulatory gap in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "Until 2020, this fast action to mitigate SLCP emissions could help slow the rate of climate change and improve the chances of staying below the 2°C target,” it said.

Chances are that Clinton, like Obama, would similarly exploit whatever loopholes can be found to advance clean energy, despite congress. None of the GOP candidates support renewable energy, but the level of rejection ranges from passive aggression to active hostility. While pulling out of the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) previously agreed by the New Jersey legislature, Governor Christie raided his state's share of its cap-and-trade funds.

Ted Cruz, as keynote speaker for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a GOP policy advisory body, declared that homeowners who install solar on their roofs are "free riders" who must be fined. And Ohio Governor John Kasich halted the renewable energy standard regulation in his state.

Meanwhile real-estate magnate Donald Trump wrote in his book, Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again: "Obama promised to create millions of so-called ‘green collar’ jobs to justify his massive government giveaway of billions and billions of taxpayers' dollars to green energy companies."

Jeb Bush told Bloomberg the federal government should not “pick winners and losers,” a widely deployed GOP euphemism for clean-energy incentives. "I think we should phase out, through tax reform, the tax credits for wind, for solar, for the oil and gas sector, for all that stuff," Bush said.This was a little disingenuous. In family of oilmen, Bush knows oil and gas tax breaks are permanently baked into the tax code. So only recent, constantly expiring clean-energy incentives can be dislodged.

Anthropogenic climate change is "an issue," albeit one that is "unimportant."

Alone among GOP candidates, Carly Fiorina conceded in a recent interview with Katie Couric that anthropogenic climate change is "an issue," albeit one that is "unimportant." Promoting carbon capture and sequestration of coal is its solution, Fiorina said. Along with nuclear, removing CO2 from coal is favoured by the right, despite an unwillingness to publicly connect the dots between CO2 and climate.

Republicans propose rolling back the Obama Clean Power Plan, and could do so. One of the few ways a president can alter domestic policy is by impeding legislation. For example, the Obama administration has slow-walked Keystone Pipeline approval for years, driving off investment. The Bush administration, meanwhile, delayed acknowledging Supreme Court classification of CO2 as a pollutant, to avoid regulating it. Obama has been resourceful in locating those few areas where a president can move clean energy forward despite GOP opposition.

If a democrat were to win, absent a democratic House and Senate, it would take similar determination to keep clean energy momentum going. But the fact remains that it would take a democratic majority House and a 60% majority Senate to deliver an effective US climate policy. With all the House seats and some of the Senate seats are up for grabs in the 2016 presidential election; the future of solar in the US is up to voters.