A panel of solar CEOs said the United States needs new policies to help solar reach its potential in the potentially large market, but each had different ideas about what they should be.

SunPower CEO Thomas Werner said a federal tax credit in the United States would play a large role in growing a North American market.

He cited the two energy bills being considered by the Senate and the House, both of which include a solar tax credit, and said the question is whether the credit would pass the committees by the end of the year. "It's absolutely critical," he said.

In the meantime, Q-Cells CEO Anton Milner said the United States should emulate Germany's successful feed-in tariff, which pays homeowners and businesses a higher rate for renewable energy fed back into the electrical grid.

"Look at the lead market, the market that's really created the platform globally," he said, referring to Germany. "The feed-in tariff makes it not just a hearts-and-minds issue, but financially [competitive]. … This should be a no-brainer."

He also gave a word of warning from Germany's earlier experiences: "When you have uncertainty, it really kills the market," he said.

Conergy CEO Hans-Martin Ruter agreed that more feed-in tariffs around the world are needed.

But Steve Hill, president of Kyocera Solar, said such a tariff might not work as well in the United States.

"I don't think we'll have a federal feed-in tariff, realistically," he said. "It's a different place. What we need is the [federal tax credit], then work state-by-state."

Other speakers also have urged different U.S. policies (see Solar Speakers Call for More Government Support).

In the meantime, China also is setting up its solar policy. While a law aiming to boost the country's renewable energy capacity up to 15 percent by 2020 took effect in 2006, it is basically a frame with no detail, Shi said.

Shi said solar companies proposed both subsidies and a feed-in tariff to the Chinese government. The government announced it would install 150 megawatts in six provinces over the next three years to figure out what subsidies are needed in each location, Shi said.

Panelists also spoke about the need to work with utilities and to emphasize the business benefits that utilities can gain from solar power.

While it seems like solar companies might compete with utilities, that doesn't have to be the case, Werner said. Utilities such as San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. have "decoupled" energy generation from the rest of the business.

"Historically, there has been an adversarial relationship between PV and utilities," Hill said. "It can't be an adversarial relationship. If we can get utilities to benefit from solar, that's really the tipping point where we can get solar into the mainstream."

But Milner said the whole pricing structure in the energy industry isn't working today because global-warming costs aren't taken into account.

"Add the cost of global warming … and you get a whole different [pricing structure]," he said. "I don't think that will happen with market mechanisms. I think utilities need to think about this strategically instead of defensively."