U.S. Unveils Measures to Encourage Solar Power Use
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday announced a slew of small measures designed to encourage the use of solar power hours before President Obama was scheduled to fly to Nevada to speak at the National Clean Energy Summit there.
The measures included making an additional $1 billion in loan guarantee authority available in an existing federal program for innovative versions of the kind of residential rooftop solar projects that have become popular in places like California. But none of the announced measures would provide the impact on the solar industry of the Clean Power Plan, which was announced this month and requires states to cut carbon emissions by an average of 32 percent. That plan provides strong incentives for much of those reductions to come from the development of renewable energy resources — exactly what executives at the conference in Nevada are looking to sell.
For Mr. Obama, the solar measures and speech on Monday are part of an increasingly intense effort to highlight the dangers of climate change and implement policies to address them.
On Thursday, he will fly to New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and to talk about how to protect cities against some of the more disruptive effects of climate change. Next week, he will become the first sitting president to visit the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and next month he will host Pope Francis at the White House to talk, in part, about the moral dimensions of the problems.
“So we’re incredibly focused on this issue,” Brian Deese, a senior adviser to the president, said in a call with reporters on Monday morning. In his speech in Las Vegas, Mr. Obama is expected to talk about the coming transformation of the power sector in the United States, particularly the role that residential solar panels could play in providing clean power and improving grid resilience, Mr. Deese said.
With the nation’s new electrical needs growing only modestly, renewable power executives are depending on electric utilities finally retiring their aging coal-fired power plants and replacing them with renewable power sources. That process is happening anyway, but the administration’s power plan is expected to accelerate it.
Despite the attention showered on solar power, it still provides less than 1 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. In 2014, renewable energy sources provided 13 percent of the nation’s electricity — about half of which came from hydroelectric dams, a third from wind and just 3 percent from solar, according to federal data.
But the price of solar power dropped 78 percent between 2009 and 2014 while the price of wind power dropped 58 percent during that same time period. Wind is now among the cheapest sources of power in the United States, with solar not far behind. The development of hydraulic fracturing, a form of drilling that efficiently releases natural gas, has also led to a rapid increase in the amount of natural gas generated in the United States and a plunge in its price.
As a result, 90 percent of the electrical generating capacity added in the United States between 2012 and 2014 was either natural gas, wind or solar, according to Matt Stanberry, vice president of market development at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade association.
“If you look at the last five to 10 years, those are the technologies that are rapidly growing and are now dominating the market anyway,” Mr. Stanberry said.
In multiple interviews, solar power executives were at pains to emphasize that their industry — once heavily dependent on government incentives, loans and rules — would do just fine without new government initiatives. The failure of Solyndra, a solar manufacturer based in Fremont, Calif., that went bankrupt in 2011 despite getting a $536 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department as part of Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus program, tainted the solar industry.
“We’re pretty confident our market is going to grow with or without the Clean Power Plan,” said Colin Meehan, a spokesman for First Solar, one of the nation’s largest solar panel manufacturers, installers and operators, which is based in Tempe, Ariz. “The demand for solar is already pretty high. Utilities are coming to us because they know their customers want it.”
Still, solar power executives said the Clean Power Plan was a landmark.
“This is business intersecting with what’s good for the planet,” said Tom Werner, chief executive of SunPower, a solar power utility provider based in San Jose, Calif. “To have the president of the United States acknowledging that solar can make a huge difference in climate change and the way the world gets energy ratifies what we’re seeing.”
Mr. Obama’s new energy rules will be challenged in court by state attorneys general from across the country, and experts estimate that as many as 25 states will join lawsuits that will likely end up before the Supreme Court. But officials and executives say that no matter how those challenges are resolved, the administration’s new energy rules will transform the nation’s electricity market in the coming years.
Many states will adhere to the federal rules regardless of how the courts rule, according to analysts. Janet McCabe, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting assistant administrator, said in an interview that in recent weeks she has spoken with officials from every state to explain the new rules. The rules require states to develop their own plans for reducing carbon emissions to meet federal targets. States that fail to do so will have a plan imposed upon them by federal officials.
“There were substantive and good questions on those calls,” Ms. McCabe said. “The states always prefer their own plans to federal plans imposed upon them, and that’s what they have turned their attention to.”
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