Mitt Romney reveals his own internal solar power struggles

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Felicity Carus
Felicity Carus
Felicity Carus is the only UK journalist to be regularly reporting on clean energy policy and finance from California for a global audience. Before arriving in San Francisco in 2010, Felicity was on the Guardian's environment desk in London after stints at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and Interfax in Russia. She first "broke" into the renewables industry with a commission in the mid-90s to write a book on how to install a solar water heating system with a rusty old radiator. The industry has come a long way since then, thankfully…

Mitt Romney's joke last week mocking Barack Obama's acceptance of global warming has been ridiculed by US news networks, with perhaps the exception of Fox.

"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet," he told the Republican National Convention. "MY promise is to help you and your family."

Romney's joke was only marginally less of a joke than Clint Eastwood talking to an invisible Obama.

Congressional deadlock can be explained by the sad truth that too many Republicans want to see Obama as a one-term president, making comparisons with the last benighted one-term president, Jimmy Carter.

But Carter's brief tenure had a profound impact on the development of solar in the US, and possibly globally. Among other things, Carter spent his four short years dealing with 1979 energy crisis and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident — a nuclear engineer by training, Carter insisted on visiting the damaged plant himself.

Carter's solar thermal panels on the White House roof were seen as symbolic of his solar policy and political failure; installed in 1979, the system was removed by his successor Ronald Regan. 

But before the former Hollywood actor replaced him, Carter had been very productive in laying the foundations for the renewables sector we see today.

In 1978, Carter initiated the Solar Domestic Policy Review and the following year announced his solar message to Congress, which established an ambitious goal for 20% of electricity from solar and renewable sources by 2020 and committed US$1 billion to that effort. Carter's federal policy introduced tax incentives and the Solar Energy and Energy Conservation Bank.

Never mind that even 12 years after that target date, solar now only accounts for less than 1% of US electricity generation.

Carter also established the Department of Energy and the National Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado, which later became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
After spending on imported oil had ballooned to US$45 billion in 1977, Carter said at the opening of the centre in Golden:

"We must begin the long, slow job of winning back our economic independence. Nobody can embargo sunlight. No cartel controls the sun. Its energy will not run out. It will not pollute the air; it will not poison our waters. It's free from stench and smog. The sun's power needs only to be collected, stored, and used.

"Government, private industry are working together and separately to develop dramatic new techniques, as well. Acres of mirrors can focus the sun on 'power towers' which will generate steam for electricity and for other use. Both gas and liquid fuel can be produced from animal wastes, wood chips, even garbage. Small, sun-powered engines are already in use for irrigation. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity.

"The question is no longer whether solar energy works. We know it works. The only question is how to cut costs so that solar power can be used more widely and so that it will set a cap on rising oil prices.

"In many places, solar heating is as economical today as power from nonrenewable sources. And solar energy will become ever more competitive as the prices of energy from traditional sources rise and the enormous Federal subsidies for oil and other energy uses drop.

"The cost of generating power from the sun is going down even as the cost of oil is rising. The price of photovoltaic cells, for example, has gone down 50-fold since they first began to be used extensively in the space program."

Sound familiar? Obama could have said most of the above only yesterday. Obama is often seen as Carter's natural heir — and doomed to failure if you listen to people like Romney.

The Republican presidential candidate last month outlined his policy to get America energy independent by 2020 at a New Mexico trucking service company.

Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on crucial policy issues such as renewables. He clearly doesn't like to cause offence and perhaps because he didn't want to insult his host state's shining example of good solar policy, Romney started soft, turned immediately hardball and then ended with fantasy:

"I like wind and solar like the next person, but I don't want the law to be used to stop production of oil and gas and coal.

"I want to promote energy innovation. We've watched the president take a different path, he's taken your federal dollars, your money to invest in companies — solar companies, wind companies, about US$90 billion in so-called green jobs.

"The government of the US is not a very good venture capitalist — he's been picking winners and losers, mostly he's been picking losers, Solyndra, Ener1, Fisker and Tesla."

Everyone gets the Solyndra reference to the US$535 million Department of Energy loan guaranteed by the government, ie US taxpayers. But last I heard, battery company Ener1 had been rebooted from bankruptcy earlier this year and singling out Fisker and Elon Musk's Tesla as "losers" is just bizarre. As reported here last week, Tesla is doing relatively well and Fisker may well yet go public this year.

But Republican grasp of the truth has never been more questionable. Romney tried to portray himself as the hero of the oil industry. But Obama has been no slouch when it comes to oil production, which has increased significantly since George W Bush left the White House and despite his love of the black gold.

Given Romney's record of state investment in clean energy and picking his own "losers" it's unlikely that he would ditch all support for the sector if he makes into the White House.

"I don't want the government investing in companies, particularly companies of his campaign contributors. I want our government investing in basic science. We shouldn't be putting money into businesses that sometimes fail, but science and research."

Investments in science and innovation are all very well, and Steven Chu's DoE has been highly effective in bringing down the cost of solar.

But what Romney's "strategy" lacks is a vision of how to stimulate demand, create new markets and make it easier for companies to scale when the economics of the energy industry are still tipped in favour of fossil fuel subsidies. This can only be done through government incentives either as Carter's policy goals or tax credits started by George W Bush and continued by his successor and as state-based mandates like the Renewable Portfolio Standard.

In fact, you could even argue that Romney is wrong about betting on individual companies when the Chinese have succeeded in dominating the PV industry by extending billions of dollars of credit to "favourites".

Even more worryingly, Romney has already said that he would not extend the Production Tax Credit for the wind industry. Extension of the Investment Tax Credit — or even a level playing field for solar vs fossil fuels — would be unlikely under President Romney, regardless of his rhetoric about jobs.

Romney might 'heart' solar but it's a love starved of any real substance if he doesn't want to pay for it and even if Obama's policy is on some shaky ground with Solyndra, the legacy of his commitment to solar will outshine his presidency and that of his successors for decades to come.

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