This Week in Clean Economy: Pressure Is on Obama to Finalize National Solar Plan

Advocates trumpet the nation's first solar plan on public lands and urge quick action. Election-year debate over jobs spills into U.S.-China solar spat.

The Blythe Solar Power Project under construction in Riverside County, Calif
The Blythe Solar Power Project under construction in Riverside County, Calif./Credit: First Solar

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Pressure has begun to build for President Obama to make good on his State of the Union pledge to greenlight vast solar installations on public lands by year’s end, with supporters seemingly growing antsy that it’s either that or nothing in 2012.

On Monday, about 20 solar industry advocates, electric utilities and major environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged Obama to formally put into effect rules for the country’s first solar program on government-owned lands by this fall.

The national solar plan, unveiled by the Obama administration more than a year ago, would open 20 million acres of federal lands in six Western states to large-scale solar plants. The most essential part of the plan is to remove permitting roadblocks that have strangled renewable energy growth on public lands blessed with abundant sunshine and other green resources. Another part is to build transmission corridors to carry the sun-powered electricity to surrounding communities. 

Concerns have grown that the program could linger in bureaucratic purgatory, while government officials, conservationists, solar firms and power companies hash out complex rules for speeding up the process for getting giant solar plants built without harming environmentally fragile areas. The Department of Interior has garnered more than 100,000 comments from stakeholders eager to shape the program.

Obama’s State of the Union last week gave advocates an opportunity to trumpet the Interior Department’s solar plan and urge quick action.

In his speech, the president said he was “directing” his administration to approve 10,000 megawatts of clean-electricity generation on public lands by the end of 2012, enough to power three million homes. (In total, solar power now provides about 30,000 megawatts, or roughly one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s electricity.)

If the Obama administration is to reach that goal, “it must move quickly to put in place a smart solar energy program that speeds up permitting of projects,” said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based conservation group, in a collective statement of the solar plan supporters.

The Obama administration’s federal-land program is seen as a test of its commitment to redouble its efforts to create the clean economy. That’s mainly because it’s one of Obama’s only green energy promises that can be delivered without Congress. The administration’s other State of the Union priorities—passing a federal clean energy standard and billions of dollars inrenewable energy tax breaks—need Congressional approval, an unlikely prospect in the current Congress.

Since Obama took office, the Interior Department has approved the nation’s first 27 renewable energy projects on public lands. More than half of those are utility-scale solar farms, the bulk of which are in or around California’s Mojave Desert. The permit process was slow, overly cumbersome and frustrating for developers, delaying solar expansion, the industry and its supporters say.

On Jan. 27, the roughly 20 groups sent a nine-page joint letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with recommendations on a draft version of the new program, whose 90-day public comment period closed this week. A final draft is expected from the Interior Department in July.

Election-Year Jobs Debate Spills into China-U.S. Solar Spat

The job creation debate that has dominated other high-profile energy issues this election season, especially the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, spilled into the solar sector this week.

A long-running dispute about whether China’s cheap solar panels are good or bad for the U.S. solar industry is now, too, becoming about jobs—tens of thousands of them, according to a new analysis

The analysis, released on Monday by the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), a group of 145 companies that sell and install solar panels in America, claims that 60,000 U.S. jobs could be lost in the next few years if the country levies hefty fines on imports of Chinese panels, an increasingly likely event.  

CASE formed last November after a separate group of 150 U.S. solar firms, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM), filed a trade case with the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. International Trade Commission. The solar manufacturers accused their Chinese competitors of using enormous subsidies from Beijing to flood the U.S. market with cheap panels, making it impossible for domestic suppliers to compete at home. They asked the U.S. government to impose duties of 50 to 250 percent on new imports of Chinese panels.

In its report, CASE claims that the tariffs would have a devastating effect on their bottom lines. They would force panel makers to boost prices, which would slow demand for new solar installations and trigger “substantial job losses,” the report says.

“Even under the most conservative assumptions, we did not find a scenario where imposing a tariff would create more jobs than it eliminates,” Mark Berkman, the report’s author, said in a statement. 

For every megawatt of new solar capacity installed in America, the report argues, 30 new jobs are created. Three of those jobs are in manufacturing; the rest go to solar installers, contractors and engineers, which represent most of the members of the anti-tariff coalition.

For Jigar Shah, CASE’s president and the founder of SunEdison, a solar panel installer, the numbers should be a wake-up call for solar players to end efforts to penalize Chinese imports. “We cannot allow one company’s anti-China crusade to threaten the U.S. solar industry and tens of thousands of American jobs,” he said, referring to SolarWorld Industries America, the Oregon solar panel maker leading the solar manufacturing group.

On Wednesday, however, the pro-tariff crowd fired back by publishing a new report on its website that refutes the CASE analysis.

The report, by Auriga USA, a New York-based investment firm, said it finds “the study’s assumptions highly questionable and conclusions at best misleading, and at worst feeding on imaginary fears.”

Hari Chandra Polavarapu, managing director of solar and clean-technology research for Auriga and the report’s author, wrote that, “We believe U.S. market demand will see some pressure if import tariffs are imposed, but not the extreme level the [CASE] study implies.”

Commerce officials are expected to make a preliminary decision on the tariffs on March 2. Their probe follows a finding by the International Trade Commission from December that there is “a reasonable indication” that cheap solar panels from China either injure or threaten to injure U.S. manufacturers. 

Still, a decision by the Commerce Department next month to impose fees wouldn’t mean victory for SolarWorld and its allies just yet. For the import tariffs to stick, the International Trade Commission must also agree—which it often doesn’t, David M. Spooner, a former assistant secretary for import administration, told the New York Times