Supporting Solar

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)
Written by Claire Suttles

Solar energy is growing by leaps and bounds. “It took us more than 40 years to get to a million [solar installations], and our data tells us that it will take only two years to get to two million,” says Dan Whitten, Vice President of Communications for Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “So we are really growing at a warp speed in the solar industry.”
Just ten years ago, solar accounted for only one tenth of one percent of all the electricity in the United States. Now, solar energy accounts for one percent of the nation’s electricity. “That doesn’t sound like very much, but within the next five years we are going to go up to 3.5 percent. So you are seeing this exponential growth in the use of solar. In the future it will be the energy source of choice for all Americans.”

SEIA is a major driver behind solar energy’s increasing presence in America. “We are charged with building demand for solar and expanding markets,” Mr. Whitten summarizes. The Association represents about 1,000 American solar companies specializing in everything from panel manufacturing to installation and maintenance. “They really account for the entire supply chain for solar energy.”

SEIA is behind a number of effective solar initiatives. “We, as an advocacy group, have really taken a campaign approach to everything that we do, whether that be here in Washington or in state capitals, or even in the media,” says Mr. Whitten. “We really look at how we can throw as much weight as possible behind our initiatives in as comprehensive a way as possible. For example, in December we got the investment tax credit approved by Congress.” This 30 percent tax credit on all solar investments will make the energy source more affordable, helping to increase its use. To accomplish the goal, SEIA used a five-pronged approach that included lobbying, communication, grassroots campaigning, research, and a political action committee. “By bringing all of those together into one campaign I think we were very successful in conveying the importance of this tax credit to lawmakers in both parties.”

SEIA recently enjoyed a similar victory at the state level as well. “In Massachusetts, we were able to get them to expand a cap on net metering.” Net metering involves selling solar energy back to the grid, which helps people get a return on their solar panel investment. To raise the cap, SEIA pulled out all the stops, just as it had at the national level for the tax credit. “We threw a lot of different things at it,” Mr. Whitten recalls. “It was a multifaceted approach.”

SEIA’s Million Strong solar energy campaign has been another recent success. The awareness campaign celebrates the solar industry’s remarkable growth. “That generated almost 100 million impressions on social media. It recognized the fact that we have just hit one million solar installations in this country.” The campaign reminds the public that solar is a viable, affordable solution that is gaining real ground throughout the nation. “Before you might have had a couple of [utility scale] projects out there that people were dabbling with. Now you are seeing it more and more become part of the mainstream. And that was really what the Million Strong solar campaign was about; this shepherding of solar energy into the American mainstream.”

As a carbon free form of electricity, solar energy has the potential to make a lasting positive impact. “It also doesn’t have some of the other pollutants associated with electricity production,” Mr. Whitten adds. “From an environmental standpoint, the solar energy that we are going to be producing in the next five years will be enough to replace 26 coal plants. The million solar installations that we have built in this country provide enough clean energy to power the entire state of Pennsylvania.”

“On the economic side, we have now grown to more than 200,000 employees. That number has grown by 123 percent in the last five years. And over the next five years we are going to double again to 420,000 jobs.” These numbers will continue to rise. “Economic spending is going to be up. We think that by the end of 2020 we will have generated $132 billion in direct investment in solar. One in 83 new jobs last year was a solar job.”

As solar use increases, the price decreases. “The cost of solar has dropped 70 percent in the last decade,” Mr. Whitten reports. As more consumers turn to solar, word of mouth is helping to spread information about the solution‘s affordability and accessibility. “You see your neighbor has a solar panel and they tell you it saves money. You are seeing it pop up in more and more neighborhoods. More and more people are using it in their communities. People see it, they understand that it is part of what is producing clean energy in their communities and they embrace it.”

Mr. Whitten does not envision a world that runs entirely on solar; rather, the energy source will be an important component of a multifaceted energy strategy. “We are still going to need other forms of energy. We are going to need natural gas, and other renewables are growing at a fast rate—wind for example. You are going to probably need some continued nuclear. So solar is not going to do it by itself, but increasingly it will be a central part of the conversation about how we use energy in this country.”

Making solar a central part of this conversation will require ongoing technological advancements. “It took a lot of innovation, especially in the last ten years, to get solar into the mainstream conversation,” Mr. Whitten points out. The next step will be to develop a cost effective way to store solar energy, so that solar is a viable solution even when the sun is not shining. “You can store energy now, but the cost has to come down for it to be competitive with other forms of energy.” Once that price comes down, solar is predicted to become a standard energy source throughout America. “And that is coming. It is happening.”

To keep solar energy moving forward, SEIA will continue working with the government to promote the industry. “We will be working here in Washington and in state capitals to make sure that policies are in place that open up markets for solar and that allow for financing of solar projects. We are going to need to keep up our momentum and make progress.

“I think that some of the policy issues will work themselves out over the long term, but we are going to have to evolve,” Mr. Whitten explains. Infrastructure will need updating and there will need to be greater recognition of the solution’s widespread potential. “So, near term there are specific policy battles that we need to fight in states and in Washington. Longer term there is an evolution that we all have to account for as we do our longer term energy planning. And that needs to start now.”

“It really is incumbent upon our generation to create a world where we are producing clean energy in a cost effective way, in a way that supports our economy and reduces our impact on the environment. That is a charge that we all have to start to take very seriously.”



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