Solar: The Solution to America's Energy and Economic Crisis


Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), praised the rise of the solar energy sector while attempting to galvanize its stakeholders at the three-day Solar Power International 2013 event in Chicago.

Resch welcomed visitors to the gathering, which began Monday, with the following address:

"Since 2006, when the solar Investment Tax Credit first went into effect, we’ve gone from being an “upstart industry”—one that our critics predicted would fail miserably—to one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States, today employing 120,000 Americans at more than 6,000 companies from coast to coast and pumping billions of dollars in the U.S. economy. 

When it’s all said and done, 2013 will go down as a record-shattering year for America’s solar energy industry. And if we’re smart—and we keep working together as a team in the future, speaking with one powerful voice—the best is yet to come.

You know it. I know it. And a lot of people in Washington, D.C. know it, too, including the President of the U.S.

This year, America heard us roar. By the end of this year, we expect to have 13 GW of cumulative solar electric capacity installed in the U.S.—enough to power more than 2 million American homes, including the White House!

Graphic credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

But we are just beginning. Next year, it’s estimated that an additional 5.5 GW of PV and 700 MW of CSP will be installed, which is enough to power another 1 million homes across the nation. All totaled, we’re talking about the capacity very soon to power more than 3 million American homes.

To put that in some perspective, our industry—by the end of 2014—will be cranking out enough electricity to effectively power every home Delaware, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming combined.

Like I said, welcome to the Big Leagues!

But to be a true champion, you need to have “staying power.” Any way you look at it, that’s the real challenge for our industry moving forward. Our federal tax credit is set to expire at the end of 2016. And that’s why we need to work together, every single one of us, to extend the solar ITC past 2016—work that has to begin now, not six months before the law expires!

How many people in this room benefit either directly or indirectly from the solar ITC? That's right, everyone. Every single person in this industry benefits from the ITC. That's why we all need to step up and get involved.

We also need to pass commence construction language in Congress, expand Net Energy Metering, protect and expand Renewable Portfolio Standards in states all across the country and collectively promote the enormous societal benefits of using solar energy to the U.S. economy and to our world’s increasingly fragile environment. 

You can be sure of one thing: If you don’t get involved and we as an industry don’t participate in a committed and shared effort, we will only make it that much easier for our critics and enemies to silence our roar. 

Earlier this year, the Edison Electric Institute, which represents about 200 investor-owned electric companies, issued a white paper called “Disruptive Challenges.” Well, guess what was singled out as the biggest threat to electric utilities nationwide? Cybersecurity and terrorism? Nope. EPA Carbon Pollution Standards? Wrong again. How about rising energy prices? Not even mentioned. 

Instead, EEI’s report singles out distributed generation and solar energy as its number one long-term threat. And since that report was published, utility CEOs around the country have been singing from the same song sheet—roll back net metering, institute fixed monthly charges for solar customers, protect us from consumer choice. They are aligned in their approach to dismantle net metering laws in this country.

Graphic credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

Fortunately, we’re not in this fight alone. Today, 90 percent of Americans want to see an expanded use of solar. That’s right, 90 percent of utility customers want more solar. It’s time for utilities to start listening to their customers rather than their shareholders.

From the Heartland Institute—funded in large part by the Koch Brothers—to the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, groups all across the U.S. are lined up to oppose an expansion of solar energy.

Simply put, our critics will do everything they can to make sure solar becomes nothing more than a footnote in history. We cannot let that happen. So buckle up and tighten your chin straps folks, we’ve got a lot of big challenges ahead of us.

Working together, we can—and we will—keep solar strong and growing.

So to the Climate Change Deniers out there and the card-carrying members of the Flat Earth Society, I’ll simply say this: Go ahead. See what happens when you grab the tail of a tiger!

And that’s one reason why SEIA and its member companies will soon be launching a new, nationwide “America Supports Solar” campaign. You can learn more by going to Americasupportssolar.org.

A key part of this exciting, multi-dimensional campaign is to reach out and educate our core audiences—Members of Congress and the White House, state legislators and governors, regulators and commissioners and our allies and advocates. 

Think about it—nine out of 10 Americans support solar. We need to be shouting this from the rooftops and from every street corner. 

To Main Street America, it’s easy to understand why solar energy is so important to our future. It’s a no-brainer.

Solar is clean, safe, affordable, reliable and abundant. It creates jobs, grows our economy, fosters U.S. innovation and powers our homes, schools and businesses. But, just as importantly, solar also offers freedom and security—the freedom to choose your own energy source based on your own individual needs, while at the same time, enhancing America’s national security by reducing our risky dependence on dirty sources of energy.

These are just a few reasons why America Supports Solar overwhelmingly. We need your help to make this campaign a huge success.

Another way we can come together is through our sister organization, The Solar Foundation, which also needs your help. Right now, The Solar Foundation is collecting data for the fourth Annual National Solar Jobs Census. Please make sure you complete the survey so we can compile the most up-to-date U.S. jobs numbers. This is critically important information to have as part of our argument when we’re talking to Members of Congress, regulators and state legislators around the country.

There’s some other good news that I want to share with you today. The annual Solar Means Business Report, which identifies major commercial solar projects and ranks America’s top corporate solar users, was just released by SEIA and Vote Solar. 

And for the second year in a row, Walmart is America’s commercial solar leader with 89 MW installed at 215 locations.

These large companies are the top solar customers in the U.S. The numbers in red show capacity in megawatts, while blue shows the number of installations. Graphic credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

Today, the list of companies moving to clean, affordable solar energy reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the most successful corporations in America. Simply put, these iconic brands—from Apple to General Motors—are leading the way when it comes to efforts to transition to clean, renewable energy. By doing so, they’re helping to create thousands of American jobs, boost the U.S. economy and improve our environment. At the same time, they’re also reducing operating expenses, which benefits both their customers and shareholders.

Combined, these Top 25 companies have deployed 445 MW of solar capacity—a whopping 48 percent increase from one year ago. 

And the growth of solar in the United States isn’t limited to commercial businesses – it’s spread across all sectors. For example, today there are nearly 40 utility-scale, clean energy solar projects under construction in the U.S.—utilizing both PV and CSP technologies—putting thousands of electricians, steelworkers and laborers to work, while also helping to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. 

In addition, innovative solar heating and cooling systems are offering American consumers cost-efficient, effective options for meeting their energy needs, while lowering their utility bills. In fact, in the Solar Heating and Cooling Roadmap, prepared by SEIA, we outline an aggressive plan to install 100 million SHC panels in the United States by 2050. That action alone would create over 50,000 new American jobs and save more than $60 billion in future energy costs.

Meanwhile, the Solar Market Insight Report, produced by SEIA and GTM Research shows the U.S. installed 832 MW of new PV capacity in the second quarter of this year—with the U.S. residential solar market growing by almost 50 percent over Q2 2012.

What’s spurring this growth? For one thing, solar energy is now more affordable than ever. Average PV system prices have declined by more than 40 percent since the beginning of 2011, while average module prices have declined by more than 60 percent over the same time period. 

So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that solar energy is once again helping to power the White House. Clearly, installing solar panels on the First Family’s official residence, arguably the most famous building in America, underscores the growing popularity of solar energy nationwide. There’s no billboard in the world better for your industry than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In some ways, this is like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. SEIA put a bug in President Obama’s ear about installing solar panels on the White House when he first took office in 2009, and we’ve worked with a coalition to bring it up in every meeting since then. To see this finally happen is not only gratifying, but it also helps to highlight solar as a mainstream source of clean, abundant and affordable energy.

For years, there was only one real argument against solar: It was too expensive. That’s no longer the case. When President Carter was in office solar thermal applications dominated, and PV solar panels were, in fact, very costly and used primarily for off-grid and space applications. Since then, the cost of PV has plummeted by more than 97 percent and the industry has become one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial sectors of our economy.

Graphic credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

This is what happens when we work together. Today, we’re creating thousands of new jobs, growing the U.S. economy, strengthening our nation’s long-term energy security and fighting climate change. 

So in closing, thanks for everything you do to make clean, affordable solar energy an important part of our future—both for America, and the world.

But remember, for us to be successful over the long haul, it will take enhanced collaboration, dedication and teamwork. And as President Obama told us in his remarks—we need to fight for a brighter future. 

The most important step you can take is to join this fight. Join us, become part of your industry’s trade association— join SEIA. If you’re not a member of national SEIA already, join now. We need your help and support if we’re going to have the resources necessary to win these important battles, which will determine the future of your business and the future of solar in America. 

I’m reminded of something the legendary industrialist Henry Ford once said:

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” 

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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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