A law in New Jersey requiring more use of solar power was approved with virtually no opposition—which speaks to the growing importance of solar to the state's economy, according to industry experts.
Late last month, Gov. Chris Christie, a popular Republican party figure, signed into law a bill that aims to break the state's boom-bust solar cycle by tweaking its broken incentives program. The move could double its 800 megawatts of solar capacity by 2014.
Christie's signing of S-1925 comes as Congressional Republicans and conservative groups ramp up opposition and ad campaigns attacking Pres. Obama's support for clean energy—especially for solar, in the wake of the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a recipient of federal loan guarantees. The governor's move was heralded by some as a sign of him breaking with his party on clean energy policy.
But solar energy advocates say Christie hardly had a choice, because the economics of the state's solar industry have become too compelling to turn away from.
Marco Mangelsdorf thought he made a smart move early this year when he bought nearly 300 solar panels from a manufacturer in China rather than from the United States.
The modest $54,000 purchase was expected to help his customers save 50 percent on their solar systems. Mangelsdorf's company ProVision Solar engineers and installs rooftop solar on homes and businesses in Hawaii.
"I'm beating myself up," he says now.
Last month, Mangelsdorf had to fork over approximately $140,000 to U.S. Customs and Border Protection on that order—the result of a May ruling by U.S. trade officials to slap tariffs on Chinese solar imports that have shipped since February. That's nearly two and a half times what he paid Ori Solar Limited, the Chinese manufacturer, for the panels.
Cap and trade is long dead in the United States, a victim of shifting political winds, fierce oil industry opposition and a weak economy.
Or is it?
Congress and a dozen Midwest and Western states abandoned plans for such programs during the past three years. That's left California and nine Northeast states alone in their embrace of the scheme, which sets a ceiling on CO2 emissions and allows polluters to meet it by buying permits in auctions—and sends hundreds of millions of dollars into state coffers.
With many states in financial trouble—and with evidence building that cap and trade can bolster a new revenue stream and create jobs—some states are starting to take a second look.
In interviews with InsideClimate News, economists, analysts and state officials say that conversations on the topic are generally taking place quietly and under the radar in a few governors' offices and in state legislatures, where both Democrats and Republicans dominate.
One sweltering summer in the 1950s, Denny Doyle, then a small boy in Chicago, had his first lesson in environmental consciousness. An invasive species from the Atlantic Ocean migrated to Lake Michigan through a manmade canal, devastating local fish populations and washing ashore.
"It made the beaches less than pleasant, and mom refused to take us," he recalls. "It was a real eye-opener."
Doyle credits that with helping him to "start thinking about the world and the impact people have."
The renewable energy industry's main trade group has officially come out swinging against the political backlash and negative press its members have endured since solar manufacturer Solyndra went bankrupt last year.
"We decided that we're not going to just stand by and be defensive ... in the face of this overwhelming onslaught of misinformation," said Retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), at the group's two-day annual meeting.
ACORE's 600-plus members represent billions of dollars in renewable energy business, and are involved in more than 80 percent of the nation's existing and contracted clean energy projects, the group says.
New Jersey added more solar panels than any other state last quarter, marking the first time that another state swiped California's crown for the most new installations.
In the first three months of 2012, New Jersey installed just under 16,000 solar projects totaling 174 megawatts, according to a new report by the Solar Energy Industries Association and consulting firm GTM Research, enough to power roughly 26,000 homes. California came in second, at 148 new megawatts.
A third of the solar power installed in the United States in the first quarter was installed in New Jersey.
But according to the report, the Garden State's lead as the fastest-growing solar market could be short-lived. "We're expecting to see a downturn in the New Jersey market" starting in 2013, Shayle Kann, vice president of research at GTM Research, told reporters on a conference call.
Republicans in the House of Representatives quietly passed 13 provisions last week that would choke off Energy Department financing for existing clean energy and efficiency programs.
The House adopted the amendments on June 6 as part of its 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill. The proposed cuts reflect a broader trend. As the Tea Party reshapes the GOP, opposition to policies that reduce climate-changing gases and stoke the clean energy economy is soaring.
More than half of the targeted DOE programs were started under Pres. George W. Bush, while some go back decades. They range from wind technology supports to mandates for zero-carbon buildings, LED light bulbs and electric golf carts (and, of course, the controversial program behind the Solyndra loan).
For six years, California has been embroiled in disputes and lawsuits over the creation of its economywide carbon trading program, the first such program in the nation and second-largest in the world.
Now, with just five months to go until its first carbon credit auction, one crucial debate remains: how to spend the billions that will be generated by the initiative.
Narrowly, the question is whether proceeds should go only to promote renewable energy and other low-carbon programs, or whether the state can use the money in other ways.
More broadly, the issue is whether California can show that the environmental and economic benefits of cap and trade, maligned in Republican circles as a regressive tax, will exceed its costs.
Environmental groups took what might be their last recourse to reinstate New Jersey into a multistate cap-and-trade initiative: suing the governor.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environment New Jersey filed a lawsuit Wednesday in a state court against Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The groups say Christie's exit from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, was unlawful because it didn't give the public any chance to weigh in.
"The governor acted unilaterally ... We think it's illegal for him to act that way," Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey told InsideClimate News.
If successful, the lawsuit could force the Christie administration to immediately rejoin RGGI—and then to hold public hearings on the future of the state's participation, if it chooses to drop out again.
It's no secret that wind farms and solar plants have a reliability problem, and that a clear way to conquer that hurdle is to deploy batteries that store power and deliver it to the grid when needed.
But there are two obstacles limiting the success of that solution—the enormous cost and low durability of today's batteries.
Now, engineers at the City University of New York's Energy Institute in Manhattan say they found a fix: a nickel-zinc battery technology that is just as cheap as short-lived, lead-acid batteries and just as long-lasting as lithium-ion batteries, one of the costliest technologies on the market.
"There was a giant hole in the middle" between the top battery types, says Eric McFarland, a chemical engineering professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a consultant for the institute.
The four-year-old Energy Institute is in the midst of launching a company called Urban Electric Power that will commercialize its nickel-zinc battery technology. McFarland says the startup expects to create about 20 local jobs by the end of this year.