SALT LAKE CITY — The solar industry met in Utah this week with a more sweeping and disciplined message than in some years past: Rally to extend the federal Investment Tax Credit and buckle up for a decade of massive industry growth.
The hosts of Solar Power International claimed the mantle of the largest energy conference in North America, but the goal is to grow much larger. The Solar Energy Industries Association industry group published a roadmap Monday to increase solar power to 20 percent of U.S. power generation by 2030, branded as the "Solar+ Decade."
Solar contributed about 2 percent of U.S. generation in 2018, compared to wind and hydropower at around 7 percent each, nuclear at 19 percent, coal at 27 percent, and natural gas at 35 percent.
Solar industry leaders used the opening keynote and a series of potent adjectives to rally the troops to pursue that 20 percent vision together.
“The next decade will be one of radical market transformation for energy in the United States,” SEIA CEO and President Abigail Ross Hopper said. “Think about your business in 2030. How much of that marketplace will you control?”
Getting there will require “aggressive collaboration” within the solar industry and adjacent industries like energy storage, microgrids, wind, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells. That coalition is reflected in the rebranding of SPI this year as North America Smart Energy Week.
“We have to expand our list of allies and fend off well-funded challenges from fuel sources moving toward obsolescence,” Ross Hopper said.
At the same time, she added, the industry must manage its rapid growth by maintaining ethical sales tactics, dealing with waste at the end of product life, investing in cybersecurity and prioritizing equity in the workforce and the customer population.
Aggressive collaboration also calls for setting aside old tensions in pursuit of shared interests. Policies that help rooftop solar, like carve-outs in state renewables targets and net metering, don’t necessarily help utility-scale developers, and vice versa.
But internal divisions weaken solar’s political capital at a time when traditional energy industries like coal, nuclear and natural gas exceed solar in political influence, said Tom Starrs, vice president for market strategy and policy at SunPower Corporation.
Tensions between large-scale and distributed solar, or between solar and wind, “seem parochial and shortsighted and play into the hands of incumbent generators,” Starrs said. “That needs to end.”
"DEFEND the ITC"
The first priority in SEIA’s new “Solar+ Decade” mobilization is — no surprise here — is an extension of the ITC. The group sprinkled circular stickers reading “I Pledge to DEFEND the ITC” on attendees' seats in the conference center.
Defend it, that is, from the scheduled annual decline slated to start next year according to the 2015 compromise deal that extended the tax credit last time.
“The ITC is one of the most important tools in our toolbox to help us meet that 20 percent goal,” Ross Hopper said.
According to new research from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and SEIA, an extension through 2030 would increase WoodMac’s base solar forecast by 81 gigawatts, a 36 percent jump.
In addition to an ITC extension, in the next one to two years SEIA said the industry should work to reduce trade barriers, create cross-industry priorities for policies “in the pan-renewable space,” and collaborate on carbon legislation that can provide the industry certainty (which solar advocates argue has been scarce).
As the solar industry pushes on Capitol Hill to renew its favored acronym of the day, attendees in Salt Lake City heard advice on political messaging from Stephanie Cutter, who served as deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2012.
“The biggest challenge in communicating is not to get caught up in the details,” she said. “Don’t assume that people know how solar even works.”
Diversity "top of mind"
Over the rest of the decade, SEIA wants to build a more diverse workforce, ensure that clean energy factors prominently in future climate policy and make solar-plus-storage the go-to resource for marginal power.
“If we hit our 2030 goal, it will not just be about reaching 20 percent of generation for solar,” said Ross Hopper onstage. “It will be about achieving a complete and total shift in how we generate, how we distribute and how we consume energy in this country.”
Though SEIA acknowledges in its plan that solar will continue growing regardless of levers like an ITC extension, the trade group argues that strong climate policy and a concerted push to 20 percent solar electricity will provide more significant stability for the industry’s future.
The organization said the mobilization would double the solar workforce and spur private investment of $345 billion. Today, the solar industry generates $17 billion in revenue annually and employs about 242,000 people, SEIA said.
Paula Glover, president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, said at the opening that the 20 percent target provides an opportunity for solar to broaden its workforce and include communities of color, who face higher rates of energy insecurity than do white communities.
“If it’s not top of mind,” said Glover, “It should be.”
Ross Hopper highlighted equity as key to the industry’s growth as well, while also tying solar’s goals to amplified calls for climate action. SEIA said the targets of the Solar+ Decade will offset emissions from the electricity sector by 35 percent.
“We provide a solution for what people are in the streets protesting about,” said Ross Hopper. "It's a little wonky, but the answer is more clean energy."
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