The solar industry's two national trade groups are at odds over a lobbying campaign to extend the federal Investment Tax Credit.
According to documents obtained by GTM, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is planning a multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign to extend the 30 percent credit for another five years, which it says is necessary to save the industry from collapsing in 2017.
However, SEIA hasn't been able to convince leaders of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), the industry's other national trade group based in Washington, D.C., to back the effort.
On August 18, SEIA Chief Executive Rhone Resch sent a letter to SEPA President Julia Hamm asking for $2 million to help fund the ITC campaign.
"If...the ITC is not extended, then the impact to the solar industry and to both our organizations is significant," wrote Resch and Nat Kreamer, SEIA's board chairman.
The letter warned about a projected loss of 100,000 jobs and a 60 percent drop in U.S. installations. Resch and Kreamer also worried about the negative affect on Solar Power International, a large trade show co-organized by SEIA and SEPA taking place this week in Anaheim, California.
"Solar Power International, the primary source for SEPA's budget, would be severely impacted due to a lack of exhibitors, sponsors and attendees. Our ability to carry out our respective missions would be challenged," wrote Resch and Kreamer.
On September 2, Hamm wrote a letter to Resch and the SEIA board of directors rejecting the proposal. Hamm worried that an overt lobbying campaign would threaten SEPA's tax status as an educational organization.
"While SEPA fully appreciates the impact the ITC has had on the solar industry broadly as well as directly on Solar Power International, the Board determined that funding any elements of an advocacy campaign managed by a 501(c)6 may be detrimental to SEPA’s reputation as an unbiased educational organization," wrote Hamm in an email response.
The rejection highlights major differences between the country's two biggest solar trade groups -- both in structure and strategy.
Although the two groups work closely together to fund and plan the Solar Power International conference, they often have very different priorities. SEIA is a 501(c)6 organization, which makes it a lobbying group like the American Wind Energy Association or the Edison Electric Institute (just with a much smaller budget). SEPA is a 501(c)3 organization limited to educational work.
But the differences go beyond tax status. SEPA's mission is to get utilities comfortable with solar through research, surveys, trade missions and executive summits. As a result, it is a more cautious organization that avoids taking a stance on controversial issues like net metering, tax credits, and proposed utility fees on solar customers.
"Obviously, we deeply appreciate the impact of the ITC on the industry," said Hamm in an interview. "But we're an unbiased educational organization and we don't engage in advocacy. We want to stay as pure as possible."
SEIA is much more focused on funding and advocating for specific pro-solar policies on the local, state and federal levels. While the organization seeks to actively engage with utilities on issues, it is much more willing to push back against proposals that it deems damaging to the industry.
These differences can sometimes create tension.
One prominent solar business executive involved with SEIA's ITC lobbying plan said he was upset by SEPA's rejection.
"I think they're worried about who in the utility industry they'll offend," said the executive, who declined to be named for the story. "They're hiding behind comments that they are unbiased. This is the most important thing in the industry right now, and they aren't on board."
SEPA's board of directors includes a number of prominent utilities that have come out in favor of changing net metering, another important policy that the rooftop solar industry is fiercely defending.
When asked for her reaction to the comments, Hamm chuckled.
"I can assure you it has nothing at all to do with that. Our board has a large number of non-utilities with very balanced perspectives. The feeling that an advocacy role was not appropriate for SEPA was strong among the non-utility members as well," she said. SEPA's board is majority utility, but does include a number of solar business leaders.
SEIA's board of directors is almost exclusively made up of solar businesses.
Last Friday, SEIA's board responded by calling SEPA's concerns about its tax status "unfounded." In the letter, Resch explained that all money provided by SEPA would be used only for communication and research efforts, not direct lobbying.
The organization proposed a different plan: change the revenue split from the SPI conference to help fund an ITC-extension campaign.
Currently, SEIA and SEPA share revenues from the conference equally. Resch requested that SEIA get 80 percent of revenues from this week's event, which will bring together 15,000 industry professionals from around the world.
"In order to alleviate your concern for having SEPA directly 'fund' any activity that can be associated with an advocacy campaign, we formally request that you approve a reallocation of the net proceeds from the SPI 2015 event so that 80% of the net proceeds go to SEIA, and 20% of the net proceeds go to SEPA," wrote Resch.
Internally, SEIA is reallocating its resources in an all-out effort to get the federal tax credit extended for another five years. The organization has raised member dues, dipped into its reserve fund, and hired more lobbying staff in Washington. More details about the campaign will be released Wednesday at a press conference.
In last week's letter, Resch worried that SEPA's abstention would send a bad message to businesses at SPI.
"These companies will want to know that the precious resources they are spending to attend, sponsor and exhibit at SPI are being invested directly into supporting education, research and policies that will enable their companies, and the solar industry, to thrive beyond 2016," he wrote. "Absent this reallocation, industry stakeholders will be left wondering how SEPA is using the proceeds from SPI."
Hamm said that SEPA is evaluating how to approach an ITC extension within the scope of its mission. She pointed to the organization's work on net metering since 2013 as an example. Rather than explicitly come out in favor of net metering, SEPA released reports and conducted meetings on various pro-solar rate designs could benefit both the solar industry and utilities.
"Our team is taking a look at certain research-based things that are directly and indirectly related to the ITC. We're certainly not ignoring it; we just don't have an agenda. Not having an agenda ensures that any research we conduct will be credible," said Hamm.
As of this writing, SEPA had not responded to SEIA's request to fund the campaign through conference revenues.
"There are an array of forces working against the ITC," said the worried solar executive interviewed for this story. "We are being outgunned in financial resources -- we need everything we can to fund this push."
When solar industry leaders take the stage at SPI this week, they'll publicly speak with one voice about the need to promote strong federal policies. But privately, they're not at all in agreement on how to fund the effort.