What Hath Obama Wrought? (A eulogy for solar power)

In February 2009, a newly sworn in President Obama and a democratic-party-packed congress approved an $831 billion economic stimulus program – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – to respond to the recession. A prominent feature of the stimulus bill was a planned infusion of $90 billion into the green energy sector. This $90 billion, in the form of tax credits, direct loans, and other incentives went to support clean energy technology, energy conservation, mass transit projects, and other programs. Of course, the most well-known part of this green stimulus was the government loan program for solar power and electric vehicle industries. President Obama was directing a green energy industrial policy with the goal of giving the United States a clean energy future.

We now know that his attempt at green industrial policy has failed.

Was it ineptitude? Poor planning? Pressure to spend the money that led to sloppy investment decisions? Was the failure an outright example of government graft and cronyism? Is it possible, given the complexities of modern industrial nations, that government simply isn’t capable of directing national economic policy of this magnitude?

Whatever the cause, it is the consequence, specifically for residential solar power, that I fear. I believe we are at a crossroads, a tipping point, for solar power in the United States. Prices for photovoltaics are dropping rapidly, and the pace of rooftop solar installations is gaining steam. Distributed solar capacity is expected to double from 3,536 megawatts in 2011 to 7,000 megawatts by the end of this year. I’m also following stories like this one pointing out that simply removing government red tape could dramatically reduce residential solar installation costs. Soon the price per kilowatt hour between solar and coal may reach parity, which many believe is the tipping point at which widespread adoption of residential solar will occur.

But will we get to this tipping point, given the inevitable political backlash against government-funded energy investment? Amongst our political class, who now is willing to support more spending for solar? I’ll go so far as to say that given the present political environment, the current 30% federal tax credit for residential solar is at real risk of expiring in 2016, if it is even allowed to last that long.

For solar supporters, casting blame does no good. I reckon the voters will hold Obama responsible at the polls. But win or lose, President Obama’s ability to pursue his green energy agenda is irredeemably compromised. Our best option now is to change the debate: we need to move beyond the failed stimulus approach and offer new ideas and new policies for achieving our solar goals. In death, we offer eulogies to praise the recently passed. Let us hope that the eulogy we may find ourselves offering is for the failed policies of one president, and not for our within-reach solar future.

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