The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this week will highlight solar energy and clean energy job opportunities as President Obama and Democrats continue to work on economic recovery and job creation.
Obama appeared at Lorain County Community College in Ohio on Friday to urge Congress to pass legislation that includes incentives for training in clean energy such as making solar panels and windmill blades. Obama watched formerly laid-off workers weld and shape components for wind turbines as they work toward a certificate or associate's degree.
"I'm calling on Congress to pass a jobs bill to put more Americans to work building off our Recovery Act; put more Americans back to work rebuilding roads and railways; provide tax breaks to small businesses for hiring people; offer families incentives to make their homes more energy-efficient, saving them money while creating jobs," Obama said.
"That's why we enacted initiatives that are beginning to give rise to a clean energy economy. That's part of what's going on in this community college. If we hadn't done anything with the Recovery Act, talk to the people who are building wind turbines and solar panels. They would have told you their industry was about to collapse because credit had completely frozen," Obama added.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Green Jobs and New Economy Subcommittee, who is co-chairing the joint full and subcommittee hearing, has been a leading voice on the need for more incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and successfully added several provisions in last year's stimulus bill for training and education for these "green jobs."
But Sanders has said that the investment was only "a good start," especially in the solar energy industry.
"The solar cell was invented in the United States. Unfortunately, however, we now import almost half our solar panels, while countries like Germany and Spain get more energy from solar energy than we do," Sanders said in November. "There is potential for huge job gains as we manufacture and install photovoltaic panels and solar hot-water systems and construct solar thermal plants in the Southwest."
Sanders said he is planning to reintroduce legislation soon that will provide incentives for buying solar panels and the companies that produce them with a goal to achieve 10 million solar rooftops in the United States in 10 years.
Thursday's hearing will include three leading U.S. solar companies that can help make that happen and are already competing in overseas markets. Vermont-based GroSolar, which distributes and installs solar equipment, has expanded across the United States and helped represent U.S. solar interests at last year's climate talks in Copenhagen.
Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar is the world's largest manufacturer of solar cells with a capacity of producing about 1 gigawatts of solar panels, which is helping to lower the cost of solar technology. The cost of solar energy is still high compared with wind or fossil fuels and is a major barrier to the widespread use of solar generation. First Solar has also provided financing and solar panels for large projects in Germany and is working on projects in France and China.
Meanwhile, Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar is pushing forward on a different type of solar power that does not rely on silicon-based panels but instead a series of mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays into one area to boil water to create steam to turn turbines and create electricity. The company already has a 5 megawatt project in Southern California and this month negotiated a $5 billion deal with Chinese utilities to bring its "concentrating solar power plant" (CSP) technology to China. The company will provide the technology for facilities with a capacity totaling 2,000 megawatts.
Despite the headway some U.S. solar companies are making in the solar manufacturing and technology market, China has recently come to dominate the industry. Tax incentives could aid U.S. manufacturing companies to compete with China, whose solar manufacturing sector now provides a majority of the world's solar components.
Federal and state incentives are helping to bring Chinese manufacturers to the United States. Suntech Power Holdings announced plans in November to build a 100,000-square-foot plant in Arizona that would create up to 250 jobs in the next two years, the company said.
Have project, need land
The growth of U.S. solar energy projects and manufacturing has also been weighed down by a slow permitting process. Large open spaces are prime areas for either "concentrating solar power" or traditional solar panel farms, but many of the suitable places are on federal lands, especially in the West. Until recently, the federal government has been slow in reviewing applications and environmental impact statements, delaying the construction of hundreds of clean energy projects.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who will testify at the hearing, last year streamlined the application process for renewable energy siting and Interior was expected to complete the environmental impact statements for five solar energy projects by the end of last year (Greenwire, Nov. 6, 2009).
Salazar has aggressively pushed his department to facilitate the siting of renewable energy projects, including opening up renewable energy offices in several states, setting aside almost 676,000 acres of public lands to study solar capacity, and creating an energy and climate change task force to create renewable energy zones.
The United States has about 30 million acres of solar energy potential in the Southwest, 20 million acres of potential wind development in the West and 140 million acres of geothermal energy in the West and Alaska, according to Interior.
Sanders is not alone in his call for more funding for solar incentives, particularly in any jobs package the Senate is developing. The House passed a jobs bill in December that included incentives for energy efficiency but not other alternative energy.
Five Democratic senators sent a letter to Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in November asking that equipment and manufacturing facilities for solar companies be covered under the current 30 percent solar investment tax credit, which currently covers solar-technology purchases and installation. It could create 7,200 jobs in manufacturing and another 2,700 in construction, the letter said (E&ENews PM, Nov. 30, 2009).
The letter signed by Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York highlighted that solar technology "creates more jobs per megawatt of energy produced than any other form of energy."
Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, Jan. 28, at 10 a.m. in 406 Dirksen.
Witnesses: Ken Salazar, secretary, Department of the Interior; Robert Rogan, senior vice president, eSolar; Andrew Morriss, professor, University of Illinois College of Law and Senior Fellow, Institute for Energy Research; Rob Gillette, CEO, First Solar; and Jeff Wolfe, CEO, groSolar.