Could Climate Change Denial Threaten the US Solar Industry?

Author:Lucy Woods     Source:PV Tech     Click:885     Publish time:2013-8-30 11:03:33

Solar in the US is booming and international firms are increasingly focusing on America.

As the US solar industry erupts over environmental policy wars, economic crises and an ever increasing partisan in political ideologies, how should the industry market itself? As an environmental choice, energy diversification, both, or bypass straight to end-user’s pockets?

President Carter installed solar panels at the White house in 1979, and the Reagan administration tore them down in 1986. Obama has reinstalled them this week at a time when solar energy is not as divisive as it once was.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in America called Obama’s lead in using solar to combat climate change “encouraging” and positioning America's solar energy industry as “uniquely poised to help” battle climate change. Linking solar with the widely contested, ongoing climate change debate could prove hazardous.

“The US solar industry employs roughly 120,000 Americans at more than 5,600 companies, most of which are small businesses spread across the US, making solar one of the fastest growing industries in America,” says Rhone. There is a lot at stake.

As Obama prioritises solar as part of a "coordinated assault on a changing climate", cue the inevitable rally against what is perceived as the Democrat’s push on climate change – and solar’s association with it.

Media

Experts from Arizona, Yale, George Mason and the American University (which all have solar research programmes) published a report this month entitled ‘An attack on Science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming’. The report unearthed partisan media chipping away at trust in science to lead its viewers to decide climate change is not real.

Media matters for America also reported a 50-50% split in media coverage between scientists who don’t believe in climate change and those who do. In reality it is actually a 97% and 3% split.

Fox News guest Ben Stein, according to Media Matters, also labelled climate change scientists…as “climate change terrorists”.  

Media has the power to change public opinions and influence political decisions – such as subsidies and regulations for climate change fighting solar, or subsidies and regulations for fossil fuels.

Simon Decker, business development and marketing manager for Phoenix Solar USA told PV Tech: “There is the potential for polarisation – putting democrats and climate change and solar and Greenpeace etc. all in one basket…There is a high level of polarisation”.

Partisan politics

Pre-election, US residential solar installers SunRun revealed from a national survey that 33% of would-be Romney voters did not believe in climate change, and Obama voters outnumbered Romney voters in eco-friendly lifestyle changes such as considering installing solar.

Last February it was reported Californian congressman Henry Waxman – following Obama’s lead on climate change – formed the ‘safe climate caucus’, changing from the 2001 more controversially named ‘climate change caucus’…not a single republican joined.

The taxpayer costs for renewable subsidies to combat climate change, turned climate change into an issue of political ideology.

“America's solar energy industry stands ready to do our part to help fight climate change and usher in a new era of clean energy in America and around the world,” said SEIA’s Resch.

Phoenix Solar’s Decker says: “It is very democratic to support renewables, but there are plenty of republicans who support it too”.

Founder of solar installers, One Block Off The Grid, Dave Llorens describes himself as “a fiscal conservative, I own a gun, and capitalism is the blood that runs through my veins” adding it “killed” him that solar power “is such a partisan issue because it has so many conservative values…But since the Obama administration pushed solar as a part of its platform, the right must disapprove of it at any turn”.

It would appear solar has many Republicans just as excited as Obama. Solar is arguably a Republican energy source just as much as a democratic one; the individual ability to be free of over-regulated utilities, to compete in the international energy market, to boost the economy, and most importantly to be free from other energy suppliers such as the Middle East.

Although Romney and others are against renewable subsidies and carbon taxes, when it comes to energy independence he is on the same page as Democrats. “Romney was the first politician of stance to support the US in the solar anti-dumping dispute against China,” says Ben Santarris, head of corporate communications and sustainability at Solar World USA.

Resch also supported Romney in a 2012 statement: “America's solar industry shares Governor Romney's desire to achieve energy independence by 2020…We also applaud Governor Romney's recognition that the federal government can help ensure access to diverse, reliable sources of energy.”

The Bottom Line

“The climate change debate became polarised and emotionalised…For the solar industry the strategy is not to emphasise on climate change, focus on finance – that is what I would do,” Decker told PV Tech.

In February The Guardian uncovered conservative billionaires, including oil tycoons the Koch brothers, using secretive funding to channel US$120 million into more than 100 groups to cast doubts on climate change, and the subsidised renewables combating it.

“For geo-political reasons, the conflict between the US military and oil rich countries, these interactions will only escalate as energy resources dwindle,” says Santarris, as the bottom line between renewables and fossil fuels boils down to economics – US solar companies are focusing on that bottom line.

“Issues of climate change will not threaten solar,” says Santarris, “from focus groups, and talking directly to end-users or using independent research contractors, people are trying to find the best energy resource for them – that’s capitalism.”

“It is all about financial solutions,” agrees Decker; in the SunRun national survey, both voting groups identified “saving money” as their primary motivating factor for installing solar.

“This data shows us that a new shade of green is emerging, and it’s not dominated by any particular side of the political spectrum,” said Sunrun President and co-Founder Lynn Jurich. “Americans are motivated by savings, and now there are environmental choices that are also the smartest choices for your bank account.” Jurich says he calls this “Pocketbook Environmentalism”.

The SEIA’s national solar survey in 2012 summarised that voters of all demographics “express a strongly favourable view of solar energy” and that “positive perceptions extend to support for government policies that encourage the development and expansion of solar energy use in the United States” with 9 out of 10 voters saying it was important for the US to develop solar.

America’s leading solar programme, the US department of energy’s SunShot Initiative, announced in 2011 when solar electricity reaches US$0.06 per kWh, “it will be cost-competitive with other non-renewable forms of electricity”.

The cost of a solar system has dropped by nearly 40% over the past two years says Resch – it seems as long as solar in America keeps following a downward trend in costs, no amount of money pumped into climate change denying or anti-solar subsidy groups, will overtake the dramatic savings of Americans from all demographics using solar.


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