SAN JOSE, Calif. – Just a few miles from the shuttered Solyndra plants where 1,100 workers were laid off seven months ago, former presidential candidate General Wesley Clark called for putting the fledgling solar industry at the front of a new U.S. national economic strategy focusing on being a world leader in the production of low cost clean energy.
“This is an industry central to Americas future” but it will require government support beyond 2016 “for the technology to mature and stand on its own feet,” he said, getting a standing ovation from some of the several hundred attendees at the PV America West conference here.
The U.S. solar industry now employs slightly more than 100,000 people, more than twice the level it employed in 2009, thanks to deployments that jumped nearly a gigawatt to 1,889 megawatts last year, said Rhone Resch, the chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The solar industry could employ as many as 250,000 people over the next five years, he added.
Eight utilities plan to invest $2.5 billion in various solar programs, said Julia Hamm, the chief executive of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) which includes about 400 utilities among its members. “We’ve often heard it said utilities hate solar, but that’s not true--utility skepticism has diminished dramatically, but it has not vanished altogether,” she said.
But big challenges loom.
Photovoltaic panel prices plunged as much as 50 percent in the past year according to some reports in the wake of billions of China government subsidies to its manufacturers in the sector starting in 2010. High-profile U.S. panel startup Solyndra got caught in the dynamics, folding and laying off 1,100 people last August.
The U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to issue a ruling as early as today on claims of China dumping solar panels brought by Solarworld, a large German PV maker.
In the wake of Solyndra’s failure, some say its game over for PV panel manufacturing in the U.S. Trade groups such as SEIA and advocates such as Clark continue to promote a role for PV and other solar manufacturing roles in the U.S.
“The energy sector has been seen as declining, but we should make it instead a bigger pie not a smaller pie,” said Clark in his keynote. “We have to talk about a new vision for distributed energy, captured close to where it’s produced and made cheaper,” he said.
“We need an X Prize for solar efficiency and get it into classrooms in America to publicize it,” Clark said, calling for greater academic and industry involvement in solar technology.
“We’re not going to be energy independent in near term on solar, so don’t wrap energy independence and solar together in the near term,” Clarke warned, noting the shift to electric and hybrid cars is “going slowly.”
However, “we are dealing with climate change, we have got to move away from carbon-based fuels, and the center of that program is solar energy,” he said. “That’s the national security argument we need,” he added.
Clark did not directly answer a question of whether or not he would run for president again. “I’ve been there and have a couple T-shirts,” he said.
The solar industry faces other immediate challenges, said Resch of SEIA.
A 30 percent tax credit on solar installations Resch called “the backbone of solar” is under fire by legislators. Some utilities want to cap the amount of solar energy residential users can sell back to them.
In addition, some new smart meters don’t support selling back energy from rooftop solar panels. And the so-called 1603 program supporting use of solar in small installations is set to expire.
“Changes in meters could shut down the entire industry in California, the largest solar market state in the nation,” Resch warned, noting pressure is building in Washington for fundamental tax reforms. “Without the right policy your co could go out of business, he said.