[Editor's note: This story is the first part of a three-part series on how the U.S. presidential election could impact the greentech industry. Come back Monday for a look at what a new president will mean for biofuels and Tuesday for an article exploring how green car companies could be affected by the ballots cast that same day.]
As the U.S. presidential election approaches, the solar sector – along with the rest of the greentech industry and the country – is deciding how to cast its vote.
The good news is that both presidential candidates have touted solar power as part of their energy plans.
Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain have repeatedly mentioned solar power in speeches and interviews to show their support for alternative energy. The two men, in fact, share some similar goals that could help the country gradually move away from power plants fueled by coal and natural gas.
For example, they both support the creation of a carbon emissions-trading program, which will prompt heavy polluters such as power-plant operators who can't meet emissions requirements to buy credits from those who can. Obama and McCain also want to upgrade the nation's decrepit electrical grid, a move supporters say is critical for transporting wind and solar power from generation facilities in remote areas.
Neither candidate has pledged to spend money specifically on renewable-power generation. Obama says he would set aside $15 billion per year for clean energy, but the spending would be spread over a wide range of areas, including plug-in hybrid cars, biofuels, "low-emission coal plants" and, yes, renewable-electricity production.
McCain proposes a $300 million prize for an advanced battery technology for cars. Advances in battery technology also could benefit solar power, which is limited by its ability to only produce power when the sun is shining while customers use power throughout the day and evening, whether it's raining or not. Being able to store and dispatch the electricity whenever it's needed could boost the demand for solar, industry insiders have said.
Both men also have given their energy plans what they believe to be catchy names. McCain calls his the Lexington Project, named after the town in Massachusetts where the first shot in the American Revolution was fired. Obama, meanwhile, told Time Magazine he wants to launch an "Apollo project" to build an alternative-energy economy.
But Obama has laid out a few more policies specifically targeted at growing solar power faster.
According to Obama's plan, the federal government would mandate renewable-energy use and create legislation that divorces a utility's revenues and its electricity use. A decoupling law already in place in California, for example, rewards utilities for programs that conserve energy, such as by offering customer rebates for buying energy-efficient appliances.
This type of utility regulation, coupled with a renewable-energy mandate that would require 10 percent of the electrical power to come from renewable sources by 2012, would give utilities more incentives to install or buy power from solar-energy plants than coal-fired plants, according to his campaign.
These two ideas are not novel. Several states, including New York, Maryland and Idaho, also have decoupling regulations for electric utilities. About half the states in the country have renewable-energy mandates, which have pushed utilities to develop solar and wind projects, as well as to sign long-term contracts with companies that build and operate those types of power plants. But Obama is proposing taking these initiatives national.
His plan also calls for a five-year extension of federal renewable-energy production credits. An energy tax package recently passed by Congress extends the wind-energy production credit by one year and credits for other alternative sources by two years starting Jan. 1.
McCain, on the other hand, doesn't embrace setting renewable-energy requirements. The argument? Any federal standard will not set the right goals for encouraging solar power, said Howard Berke, who represented McCain during a debate at the Solar Power International conference in San Diego in mid-October.
"It's difficult to accept that a national mandate will be the right solution for all 50 states," said Berke, the co-founder and executive chairman of Konarka Technologies. "You will find that it will set the lowest bar."
Berke does believe in requiring the White House to use solar energy in some fashion. Asked whether either candidate would reinstall a solar water heater – Ronald Reagan got rid of one when he was in the White House – Berke provided a more definitive answer than his debate opponent, Dan Reicher from Google.org.
"I guarantee that McCain will install solar, and I will personally supervise the installation," Berke said. "If we don't lead by example, then we don't lead at all."
Reicher didn't commit to an answer, aside from saying that Obama supports installing solar energy on federal buildings because the senator believes in making the buildings more energy efficient – which McCain also favors.
In the end, it's not just the candidates' rhetoric on solar power that will decide how the solar industry votes Tuesday. The voting records of both candidates and their other energy policies also will play a part.
Congress recently passed a set of renewable-energy tax credits that will make solar energy more affordable to consumers and businesses. But before its passage in October, lawmakers had repeatedly fought over issues such as how to pay for certain provisions and whether to take incentives away from oil companies.
McCain failed to show up to vote for the tax credits eight times, noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in August. Obama voted for it three times. Both showed up to cast a "yes" vote in early October, when lawmakers attached the tax credits to a bill for bailing out financial institutions (see Lawmakers Approve Energy Tax Credits, Bailout).
McCain's support of offshore oil drilling also hasn't endeared him to many solar energy advocates, who see the policy as shortsighted and bad for the environment. His strong support for nuclear power - he would like to see 45 new nuclear plants built by 2030 - also hasn't gone over well.
"Sen. Obama has been more supportive of renewable energy," said Ron French, whose solar installation business, Solar Works, recently merged with another installer, SolarWrights. "Sen. McCain is talking nuclear a lot, and offshore drilling. That, to us, doesn't feel right."
Join industry leaders and influencers at Greentech Media's new conference series Greentech Innovations: End-to-End Electricity on November 17 and 18 in New York City.