WASHINGTON—With members of Congress up to their armpits in acrimony on Capitol Hill, Sen. Bernie Sanders figures bipartisanship isn't enough to advance ideas anymore.
So he is trying a broadened approach to lift legislators out of that muddled morass: tripartisanship.
The adept Vermont independent has lured New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman into co-sponsoring his reinvented measure aimed at sparking installation of solar power systems atop 10 million homes and businesses within the next decade.
Sanders expects his "10 Million Solar Roofs Act of 2011" (S. 1108) to have its first public airing this month at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, a panel Bingaman chairs.
His measure is designed to be executed in tandem with SunShot, a Department of Energy initiative unveiled in February. SunShot is geared at dropping the price of homegrown solar so it is competitive with coal and other conventional fuels. In a nutshell, Sanders's bill would recognize and reward communities intent on streamlining cumbersome solar energy permitting processes into economical and efficient models.
"As we lower the cost of solar energy and increase our use of solar, we can create hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing and installation jobs in this country," Sanders said about his effort to make access to solar more affordable. "This bill also sets strong targets for American solar energy production, to ensure we compete vigorously with China and Europe for solar energy jobs."
Unlikely Ally in Arkansas
Bingaman's co-sponsorship is not at all surprising. Within the last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters he is open to clearing time on the Senate floor to discuss a strong package of energy bills because the chamber is woefully behind on showcasing any environmental legislation this session.
Support from Boozman, however, is a bit of a shock to Congress-watchers.
The freshman GOP senator, who defeated vulnerable Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln last November, didn't accumulate much, if any, of a green voting record during his five House terms. For instance, the League of Conservation Voters consistently awarded him single-digit ratings in its annual National Environmental Scorecard rankings.
Evidently, Sanders figured out how to dangle bait that wooed Boozman.
One, he emphasized the jobs angle for small-scale solar entrepreneurs. And two, he found a funding mechanism that doesn't require new money. This incarnation of the bill carries a total price tag of $250 million over a five-year span beginning in 2012. DOE would "borrow" that $50 million annual cost from a pot of money already designated for energy storage projects in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, according to staffers in Sanders's office.
Sanders and Boozman not only serve together on the Environment and Public Works Committee but also have forged a bond while paired as the top two senators on the Green Jobs and the New Economy subpanel.
This measure appeals to Boozman because it "reduces our dependence on foreign sources," spokesperson Patrick Creamer told SolveClimate News. "His view has always been that our nation has to use the resources we've been blessed with — whether that is oil, wind, solar, natural gas or nuclear — in a common-sense and safe manner."
"A simplified permitting process will make solar energy more affordable," Boozman said via a news release issued with Sanders. "I am especially pleased that our bill is fully offset and uses existing authorized spending to spur improvements in solar permitting and encourage the deployment of solar energy systems."
New Congress, New Bill
A different and more expensive solar bill Sanders floated last year gained a nod of approval from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July before petering out.
However, now that the Senate's Democratic caucus carries a slim 53-47 majority, energy bills are iffy, at best. And Bingaman has to tread much more gently because his 22-member committee has only a 12-10 Democratic advantage. Sanders serves on that panel but Boozman does not.
Last year's bill called for $250 million for fiscal year 2012 and an additional $500 million annually through 2021. That money was targeted for a competitive grant program so state and local governments could receive incentives to boost the use of rooftop solar panels and water heaters in homes, schools and businesses.
This time around, Sanders tweaked the bill so it zeroes in on slicing through the red tape of overpriced permits and inspections that are a barrier to smooth growth of solar.
For instance, DOE would give preference to grant applicants that have partnered with states, public utility commissions or other stakeholders to adopt standards that encourage utility interconnection and net metering.
"The approach here is really a carrot and not a stick," Darren Springer, senior legislative assistant for Sanders, told SolveClimate News. "DOE is tasked with seeking out best practices on permitting and inspections. This bill puts federal funds on the table for communities to scale up those best practices."
Local governments could receive grant money for efficiency-enhancers such as training inspectors tasked with reviewing solar installations, designing less burdensome application forms and crafting new policies that reduce the wait time for processing those applications from weeks to days or hours.
Solar to Eclipse Fossil Fuels?
In the 2010 version of Sanders's bill, DOE estimated that the nation could bump electricity production from solar to 40,000 megawatts by 2020 by outfitting 10 million homes with photovoltaics (PV).
That's quite a heady number when you consider that countries such as China and India have set ambitious targets of expanding their solar capabilities by at least 20,000 megawatts over the next 10 years. In 2009, the United States ranked behind Germany, Italy and Japan on the solar installation front, according to Solar Energy Industries Association figures.
DOE's SunShot enterprise, which borrows its moniker from President John F. Kennedy's bold 1960s moon shot command, is all about accelerating solar energy research and development.
Energy experts predict that pumping $200 million annually into such efforts could drop the total installed cost of utility-scale solar electricity 75 percent from today's rates by 2020. That $1 per watt price would put it on par with power from fossil fuels — minus emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
In contrast, insiders such as Seth Masia at the American Solar Energy Society say that residential and small-scale commercial solar installations would reach a significant milestone if the cost per watt rings in under $2.
Such a solar revolution can happen, Masia stressed, only if permitting and inspection fees across the United States match the trend of falling prices for labor and materials. That's why he lauds the Sanders-Boozman-Bingaman bill.
Beating Back the Bureaucracy
Realistically, permitting and inspection fees should average out to several hundred dollars or even less, Masia told SolveClimate News. But those fees can add at least $2,500 to a typical system, according to calculations in a January report issued by the solar financing company SunRun.
Masia's Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit organization hears plenty of horror stories about how arbitrary and unpredictable permitting and inspection fees can make otherwise affordable PV system installations cost-prohibitive.
"There should be no mystery," he continued, adding that grounding and wiring specifications are covered by the National Electrical Code and inverters are built to a standard approved by the Underwriters Laboratories. "If you live in Boulder you're golden because the inspectors and planning commissions understand all of this and don't charge an arm and a leg for it. In a lot of places, utility companies don't want to deal with it and localities can put up all kinds of roadblocks."
He heaped praise on places such as Colorado and Vermont for passing statewide directives that simplify PV installation by stripping away opaque and confusing rules.
Masia figures Boozman is on board with the Senate bill because it beats back a regulatory bureaucracy that inhibits solar entrepreneurs.
As well, such employment-enhancing legislation could click with a Congress that is fixated on deficit reduction and downsizing government yet seemingly incapable of venturing beyond lip service about job creation as constituents wallow in an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.
"Solar employers are small to medium businesses that are heavily affected by local permitting costs," Masia concluded. "This bill strikes me as being very friendly to small business."