What President Clinton Wants You to Know About American Solar Power

Last week I had the privilege of hearing President Clinton speak at the Solar Power International Conference in Orlando. Here's a recap of his speech highlights, with key facts and figures he wants the American people to know.
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Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in Orlando, Fla., as he campaigns for President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in Orlando, Fla., as he campaigns for President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

How informed do you feel about U.S.-produced solar power? President Clinton feels that you're not getting the right information about this very important industry sector. This will help.

"We've got to get the basic facts out there first, about our capacity to produce this energy, about current job creation and about future job prospects too," said President Bill Clinton.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing President Clinton speak at the Solar Power International Conference in Orlando. Here's a recap of his speech highlights, with key facts and figures he wants the American people to know. It's critical that America's citizens and politicians really understand the basic facts. Then perhaps we can stop playing games with our energy future and get behind the much-needed effort to create our own solar-powered electricity in this nation.

First, some key facts the President shared:

  • Over 100,000 Americans are employed in the solar electric industry, in 5,600 small businesses, across all 50 states.
  • The number of solar installations grew 116% year over year, from Q2 2011 to Q2 2012 (U.S. Solar Market Insight Report). This makes solar one of the fastest growing segments in the renewable energy sector.
  • Solyndra was less than one percent of the DOE portfolio.

Last year's Solyndra story was obviously hijacked and twisted by those wanting to gain political advantage from the failure of one administration-backed venture. I wrote about the exaggerated headlines and the disservice they did in a HuffPost piece here entitled "A Teaching Moment about the Green Economy." That there were people who wanted to use this one incident to mischaracterize the entire emerging green economy was frankly, sickening.

President Clinton also made the point that the money Solyndra received as a DOE portfolio investment has nothing to do with the tax credits given today for organizations and homeowners who install solar systems. Yet, in many minds, these are somehow erroneously linked and portrayed negatively to preserve the status quo.

As he laid out the facts at SPI, in that unique way he has of teaching history with a forward-looking view, President Clinton reminded us of this:

"We've been giving oil subsidies since 1916. Sometimes they dig a dry well, but we persevere. You've got to take chances if you're going to tomorrow's dance."

I'm hoping that this simple visual of equating the Solyndra events with a dry well will help Americans understand this: when our government decides to help industry push the envelope of possibility and pursue innovative solutions to national energy problems, not all wells will result in oil. Solyndra turned out to be an early dry well as we seek to meet our nation's increasing energy needs with alternative forms of energy.

On the bad press regarding subsidies to renewable energy companies, he said, "There is still $22 spent on other subsidies for every dollar spent on renewable energy. The Baker Report found that recent government subsidies are in no way out of line with what our government has always done to subsidize new industries."

This is a key point. Read complaints about renewable energy subsidies from Americans on Facebook; you'll assume subsidies are something new to our nation. They are most certainly not new, not to us, not to other governments interested in stimulating innovation to create greater economic opportunity and revenue. This is part of the perception problem and points to why President Clinton emphasized the need to communicate facts to the American people. Researching further on this topic, I learned that subsidies to solar, wind, biofuels and other developing renewables industries are about one percent of the subsidies given to fossil fuel industries. (Yes, 1%!) Furthermore, in the U.S., most of the largest fossil fuel subsidies are written into the tax code as permanent provisions. Subsidies for renewables however, are time-limited initiatives via energy bills, all with expiration dates, making them far less useful. (Climate Capitalism by L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen)

President Clinton also reminded us that the European countries doing best economically today are those, like Denmark, that have invested heavily for years, on developing clean energy sources. If you're curious about changing trends in government subsidies, from fossil-fuel producers to renewable energy sources, here's a Scientific American article that sums it nice succinctly. Key point from the article: "Subsidies to fossil fuels--a mature, developed industry that has enjoyed government support for many years--totaled approximately $72 billion annually over the study period (2002-2008), representing a direct cost to taxpayers. Subsidies for renewable fuels, a relatively young and developing industry, totaled $29 billion over the same period."

A humbling moment for the Americans in the audience was when he made comparisons to what other nations have been able to do versus what we've done here.

"According to Deutche Bank, Germany is 300,000 jobs ahead now because of their commitment to the solar industry," shared President Clinton.

One panelist at SPI who is a managing partner at a firm that invests in solar power projects, estimates the industry will employ 500,000 Americans in the next few years.

President Clinton then shared parts of a conversation with the President of Costa Rica.

"She told me 'People tell me there is oil underground in Costa Rica and also offshore, but I don't want to know. That's not who we are.' 92% of that nation's energy needs are now provided by clean sources. I asked her how I can help and she said, 'Get me an electric car manufacturer down here. We'll buy 100% of their cars until we replace all our vehicles here currently running on fossil fuels.' "

Yes, we're talking about a much smaller country than the United States, but what impressed me was the Costa Rican President's commitment to weaning her nation off imported fossil fuels. In this country, we have a President every bit as committed to clean energy and alternative fuels. Our President, however, is continuously pressured and lobbied, as are members of our legislative bodies, by those needing to preserve their subsidies and the status quo. What's the answer?

President Clinton stressed "creative cooperation" among the many stakeholders needed to successfully implement solar energy projects and other renewable sources.

"You've just got to work out a deal so that the economics work for everybody. It is possible."

When asked to advise the professionals sitting in the audience working to move our world towards higher levels of production of renewable energy, President Clinton said this:

'You have got to let your politicians know of the great work you are doing and the successes that you have had. Keep working hard, just persevere, until we reach that tipping point that we all know is coming."

Where are YOU with this? Have you looked into leasing or buying a solar electric system for your home? Why or why not? Do you know about the many financing options and tax credits that are available to homeowners? Have you explored how taking this step would save you money in the short and long term, including adding value to the price of your home? Have you tasked your school board to ask for bids to install a solar system at your child's school? Have you thought about how powerful it would be to have an on-site example of applied science and technology to stimulate curious young minds? Have you considered that having a solar-powered school would directly spark questions and curiosity about the science behind the system and other renewable energy sources? Have you considered that having our children attend schools powered by alternative energy could directly motivate them to consider learning more about the STEM professions that make these systems possible?

These are questions we must ask ourselves; the status quo energy situation is unsustainable -we must learn these basic facts emphasized by President Clinton. We must pressure our local politicians and national representatives with phone calls and emails, asking them to actively remove barriers for widespread adoption of renewable sources (look into the permitting process/fees for homeowner solar installations and you'll see what I mean.) We must demand the end of subsidies for profit-rich oil companies that do not need them but whose lobbyists don't want the gravy train to stop. If we do not act and demand this increased production, this will be one more way America fell way short of her potential.

President Clinton left us with a final and profound thought. He said he had never read an analyst report ranking the world's nations' capacities to produce solar energy that didn't rank the USA as #1 or #2. We have a uniquely excellent location on the globe. Our potential to produce solar energy for our nation is tremendous.

"But, if we in the USA are first or second in world in capacity to produce solar energy, but are not first or second in the world in actually producing it, then shame on us."

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