The solar industry called on Congress on Tuesday to extend a contentious grant program in the lame-duck session that it says produced 20,000 solar jobs in a year and half and helped to jump-start the U.S. clean energy economy.
Under the program, green energy developers earn almost immediate grants of 30 percent of project costs, unleashing funds quickly, in lieu of longstanding tax credits.
As of late October, the money supported roughly 1,100 solar energy systems in 42 states, including 97 solar thermal installations, according to figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the top trade group.
“It is absolutely critical that during the lame-duck session … Congress extend this program and give support and consistency to those companies who are investing in the solar industry,” Rhone Resch, chief executive of SEIA, said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Resch said relying on the tax credit would be a mistake because it depends on tax equity markets that froze up amid the 2008 financial crisis and may not recover until 2012.
“We still have a massive gap between the tax equity appetite of the marketplace and what’s available from the lending institutions,” Resch said.
He and his colleagues at solar companies are pushing for two more years of grants.
Edward Fenster, co-founder and CEO of SunRun, a Calif.-based residential solar financing firm, said that with the extension SunRun would “likely generate” 6,000 new jobs and add 36,000 home solar installations.
The push comes a month after the 1603 program was under fire from critics who said supporters had falsely exaggerated its successes, including jobs gains. The criticisms were a result of media analyses by Greenwire and the Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW) at American University that found that green energy developers ate up hundreds of millions of dollars for facilities they had completed before the program began.
The IRW analysis, co-published with MSNBC, said that 11 wind farms that received a total of $600 million had built their facilities during the Bush administration. Another 19 were completed under Pres. Obama but before stimulus dollars were doled out.
About 85 percent of the nearly $5.5 billion that has been dispersed has gone to the wind sector, according to estimates.
The solar industry strongly defends the program and says it needs the money to stay alive.
The SEIA cites a study by the U.S. Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance, a non-profit organization, which estimated that if 1603 grants end this year, total financing for renewable energy projects would shrink by about 56 percent in 2011.
“There is no better return on the taxpayer’s dollar than the 1603 program,” Resch said.
But Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, told SolveClimate News that claims of job creation from the grants are “nonsense.”
“The money given to the solar power sector comes from elsewhere in the economy, where it would be creating jobs,” Green said in an email. “Whether invested in the stock market, or sitting in your savings account at the bank, your savings creates jobs in the economy. Virtually every economic analysis shows that on net, government interference in the market leads to less jobs on net, not more.”
Green said such subsidies “harm the economy, and should all be removed,” including handouts to “conventional sources of energy like coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear.”
The post-election lame duck session of the 111th Congress began this week and is expected to last approximately one month.
Resch expressed cautious optimism. “The good news is that this  program actually enjoys bipartisan support,” he said. “What we’re looking for is a tax extender’s bill or an omnibus appropriations bill in which this program can be attached.”