Many in the solar industry see the United States as the next big market for solar. But former Rhode Island Rep. Claudine Schneider says the nation's huge potential market will not materialize without major policy changes.
To promote and support those changes, 22 solar companies on Wednesday formed The Solar Alliance and appointed the former congresswoman as president.
Alliance members include Sharp Solar, Kyocera Solar (NYSE:KYO), Sanyo Energy (TYO: SANYY), First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) and Mitsubishi Electric, among others. (For a full list of members, click here.)
According to the announcement, the alliance will focus on "supporting state lawmakers, regulators and utilities in their efforts to establish more effective solar policies and programs throughout the United States."
Greentech Media got on the phone with Schneider - a Republican during her time in Congress - to find out more about the changes the alliance is advocating.
Q: What policies are needed?
A: There are four pillars of cost-effective solar policy: utility rates, incentives, net metering and interconnection.
Q: What will happen if the policies remain the same as they are today?
A: If we don't have these policies, the market will not open. At this point, it is opening very slowly on a state-by-state basis. This is absurd. Having been a federal policy-maker, a wave of the federal wand to have federal legislation would make all the difference. But in the meantime, [solar companies] are looking at us with a huge appetite, thinking, 'Wow, here's a land of opportunity, if they would only move their policies forward.' … Some states are talking about having 2 or 3 percent renewable energy by 2015 and that's rather ridiculous when you think it could be 25 or 35 percent by then.
Q: The solar industry has been growing at a compound annual rate of 36 percent for at least six years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. So why do you think the solar industry needs more regulatory support?
A: There are new solar companies coming on the horizon every day, and the American solar manufacturers are a new and budding industry. If you look at the members, you'll see many of them are German, Japanese or British companies. American companies are emerging, so it's an enormous opportunity for installers, integrators and for people who are developing new technologies, whether it's ribbon solar or nanotechnology. And when you look at the United States and polling data, the numbers are enormous - the majority would love to have solar panels on their roofs - so we haven't even begun to meet the demand or the potential.
Q: There already are a number of solar organizations out there. Why do you think there's a need for another one?
A: There are a number of solar organizations, but there is only one solar alliance that looks at the entire country and selects specific states to work with to open their solar markets. We represent all the world's solar manufacturers, installers and integrators and we attempt to speak with one voice. And that voice is in concert with some of the smaller state-based organizations, with the corporations and others. We're also working hand in hand with the Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Solar Society and with local grassroots associations supporting solar.
Q: Where are you focusing your initial efforts?
A: We're focused on individual states and specific policies that will open the markets to solar power. In terms of federal policies, they're not there, so there is a vacuum. … We have put substantial resources into California - we have been working there on the program handbook, which will make it easier for consumers to use solar - and have also invested in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as Colorado and Arizona. We select specific states where we see some form of leadership, on the part of the government or a utility, and assist them to removing barriers to the installation of solar.
Q: Why should people who are not in the solar industry care about these policies?
A: We need solar energy in this country ASAP for a variety of different reasons - to reduce the volume of energy costs for senior citizens and people on fixed incomes, energy security, a healthy environment for individuals and for the planet. … If people care about having diversified energy for our country, there's only one way to get there and that's through policy. One assumes you can go out and buy a solar panel and stick it to your roof. Not so. Without legislation that enables a consumer to sell surplus energy back into the grid or a policy that allows a consumer to even connect to the grid, you're not in a position to open solar markets.