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Industry Updates

Getting from ‘Smart Energy Week’ to the ‘Solar+ Decade’

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As a famous frog once sang, “It’s not easy being green.” That’s certainly the case for the renewable energy industry, which faces significant headwinds in 2020. But, like Kermit, the key players in green energy remain optimistic about their future. One of them — the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) — is so bullish, in fact, that it declared 2020-2030 to be “the Solar+ Decade.”

At around the time the renewable sector was convening late last year in Salt Lake City for the Smart Energy Week conference, we reached out to the leadership of SEIA and the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA). We wanted their assessments on the current state of the renewables industry, particularly solar, and their thoughts on where the sector is headed in the “Solar+ Decade.”

What follows is our interview with Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of SEIA. In another article, we’ll share our Q&A with Julia Hamm, CEO of SEPA.

We started our conversation with SEIA’s Ross Hopper with a question about the solar investment tax credit (ITC). An analysis showed that a 10-year extension of the ITC would have resulted in an additional 82 gigawatts of solar deployment, 113,000 new jobs, $87 billion in private investment and 363 million fewer metric tons of CO2. However, the legislation to renew the credit did not garner enough votes in Congress to pass in 2019.

Energy & Resources Best Practices: What is next for efforts to renew the ITC? Do you remain optimistic?

Abigail Ross Hopper: Congress let a crucial opportunity slip by, advancing a massive government spending bill without extending one of the most successful clean energy tax policies in history, the solar investment tax credit.

While I’m disappointed by this missed opportunity to boost the U.S. economy and jobs, and tackle climate change, I’m heartened that voter support for clean energy policies is at an all-time high. The solar ITC is a proven way to generate tens of billions of dollars in private investment each year, while substantially reducing carbon emissions. We will look for opportunities to again engage our incredibly supportive solar community and work with Congress on clean energy policies that work for all Americans.

ERBP: We’ve seen the general public begin to pay more attention to the issue of climate change — particularly young people. Does this make you more optimistic? How could this impact the solar industry?

ARH: It’s been great to see the conversation shift on climate. Americans now understand that solar is a major solution and the ITC is the best policy we have on the books to meaningfully cut carbon emissions. We certainly see an appetite in Washington to take some kind of action and soon.

ERBP: The SEIA Solar Market Insight report noted that the solar growth rate in the residential and non-residential markets declined last year, while the utility supply market picked up speed. What accounted for those trends, and how do you expect them to look in 2019-20?

ARH: Our Solar Market Insight report with Wood Mackenzie shows that the non-residential market, which comprises commercial, industrial, nonprofit and community solar installations, declined from 2017 to 2018, mostly due to policy shifts in big solar states like California and Massachusetts. However, residential solar growth is up 8 percent from last year (as of late 2019). All of this underscores how important a stable policy environment is for market certainty and why we need to extend the ITC and remove harmful trade policies.

ERBP: How is the solar/renewables industry faring under the Trump administration?

ARH: The solar industry is strong and we’re on the offensive fighting for policies that allow us to compete with incumbent generators, create jobs and reduce emissions. I’ll say that the tariffs have been bad for us; in fact, we just had tariffs re-imposed on bifacial solar modules after the administration made that technology exempt earlier in the year. But this industry, our companies and our workers are resilient, and we’re innovating to drive down costs and continue to make solar a top choice for American families and businesses.                                    

ERBP: What were your impressions of North America Smart Energy Week in 2019? Did any particular topics or technologies especially interest attendees – or you?

ARH: Solar Power International and North America Smart Energy Week were incredible. Our vision for the Solar+ Decade permeated throughout the show, and we worked to build consensus around our campaign to extend the ITC and fight for fair trade policy. There was also a ton of collaboration happening this year and I was excited to see us continue to feature other renewable energy technologies. 

ERBP: SEIA’s Solar+ Decade Roadmap calls for solar to account for 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2030. Currently solar is at 2 percent. What will it take to achieve this ambitious goal?

ARH: Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. We have to work with our partners in energy storage and wind and alongside other technologies to build critical grid infrastructure, continue to cut  soft costs and pass state policies that allow solar to compete. We’ll also need fair tax and trade policies at the federal level. 

Once we create these opportunities, we’ll need to manage our growth by proactively addressing cybersecurity, recycling, diversity and inclusion, and land use challenges. All of this needs to happen now and throughout the Solar+ Decade for us to be successful. 

As we prosper in the Solar+ Decade and create even more growth opportunities, we need to be intentional about this growth and ensure that it includes all Americans. When I started at SEIA, I identified diversity and inclusion as one of my top priorities. For too long, this industry and the energy sector broadly has not reflected the diversity of our nation. Acting on these inequities should be an urgent priority for all energy companies and organizations. It’s simple math: Companies that have more diverse senior leadership teams perform better and are more profitable than their peers. 

Companies can start by reading our diversity best practices guide and following the steps we’ve outlined to improve internal practices and create a more welcoming environment. Visit seia.org/diversity to learn more. 

ERBP: What role do you expect other renewable energies to play in America’s energy future? What are the main obstacles solar faces in reaching the 20 percent goal?

ARH: Renewable energy will play an important role in our nation’s energy future. This goal is certainly achievable, but it’s not inevitable. We have to get to work right away and invest the necessary resources to make it happen. Clean energy technologies are all up against the same entrenched, well-funded interests, so we’ll need to expand our fundraising and advocacy efforts as well as get buy-in from allies outside of renewables to achieve this goal.   

ERBP: What was the significance of the passage in 2019 of the Energy  Act in South Carolina on the rest of the country and on the industry? Do you see the states playing a greater role in the adoption of solar? How so?

ARH: That victory shows that solar has bipartisan support, and that strong solar policy aligns with a broad array of political ideologies. State policy has always played an important role in driving adoption of solar. While you may see some of our big campaigns focused on trade or the ITC, SEIA also has a team of staff members that are hard at work in state capitals across the country. They provide frontline support for some of the most important policy battles and help to lead successful coalitions, like in South Carolina.

ERBP: Do you have any other thoughts or observations on the industry that you’d like to share?

ARH: If you’re reading this and you care about the solar industry, I strongly encourage you to join SEIA — whether that be as a member, part of our PAC, or part of our advocacy network — there are so many ways that you can lend your voice to our state and federal policy efforts. Right now, we are focused on moderating the solar tariffs and securing an extension of the solar investment tax credit. Winning these fights benefits all of us, but we need all of our players in the game to make that happen. 

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