If you read just the headlines these days, you might think renewable energy in America is going the way of Solyndra. Don’t take our word for it: a recent headline from Fox News declared “ENTIRE Solar Industry on Brink of Collapse.”
We cannot allow long-time opponents of renewable energy to focus the discussion only on Solyndra (whose higher priced panels could not compete as solar costs came down) when we should be thinking about competing with China to win the next energy revolution. Why? Because the race is on to put the right policies in place so hundreds of thousands of new, good-paying renewable energy jobs will be created here, and not in China. With Bloomberg New Energy Finance reporting that for the first time ever, global investments in renewable electricity have exceeded investments in fossil fuel power plants, the question is not whether renewable energy is creating jobs; it is which country is going to lead the clean energy jobs revolution. We want it to be America.
The truth is we can win this race. The American solar energy industry is thriving, as is the renewable energy industry more broadly. Just look at the facts: we have doubled the number of solar jobs in America since 2009, and today more than 100,000 Americans work in the solar industry, at more than 5,000 companies in every single state. These include manufacturing, installation, and supply chain jobs.
Last year, we installed nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar power in the United States, more than double the amount installed in 2009. With the solar industry growing at a rate of 69 percent annually, it is one of America’s fastest growing industries and is creating jobs all across the country. The cost of solar panels has fallen 30 percent over just the last two years, continuing a long-term decline in the price of solar.
As solar becomes more cost-competitive with conventional fossil fuels, everyone from Walmart to the United States Marine Corps is looking to solar. Walmart is installing solar panels at 130 stores in California and says “Walmart has reduced energy expenses by more than a million dollars through our solar program.” The military is using solar energy with battery storage to fully power forward operating bases in Afghanistan, and Marine Colonel Bob Charette says for the Marines renewable energy is “about saving lives” by reducing the number of dangerous fuel convoys needed for resupply.
The wind industry is also growing rapidly. Texas alone has more than 10,000 megawatts of wind energy installed, which is equivalent in capacity to 10 nuclear reactors. Iowa now gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind. There are 75,000 wind energy jobs in America today, and more than 400 manufacturing facilities in 43 states. The price of wind energy has dropped by 90 percent since 1980, and wind electricity today is competitive with fossil fuels at 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour. At the same time, we are increasing American manufacturing of wind turbines, and now 60 percent of turbine components installed in the United States are made in America, up from 25 percent in 2005.
In these tough economic times, the story of renewable energy in the United States is actually a rare good news story. Renewable energy is helping to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, is making our nation more energy independent, and is cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
As with every energy technology in the past, federal policies play an important role in supporting renewable energy in America. Key among those policies is a provision known as the Treasury Grant Program (or 1603) which turns an existing wind and solar tax credit into a grant. This provides better financing options for American renewable energy developers and has helped to attract nearly $23 billion in private sector investments in renewable energy, supporting 22,000 projects. Unfortunately this program is set to expire at the end of this year, unless Congress acts to extend it. What is at stake in this fight? If this program expires, one study shows that financing for renewable energy projects would be cut in half, just at the time when renewable energy is experiencing explosive growth.
Although Solyndra is the major headline right now, the real challenge is that Congress is debating whether we can even extend the Treasury Grant Program and other important renewable energy incentives for another year.
Meanwhile, China outpaces the United States by a 2-to-1 margin in clean energy investments according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. America needs to out-compete China on solar and wind, not surrender to China. At a time of nagging unemployment, with the middle class squeezed, and greenhouse gas emissions rising, it is imperative that our nation take the lead in creating clean energy jobs right here in America.
It is time to put in place stable, long-term policies to support these critical industries. Rather than fight to turn one energy company’s demise into partisan points, it is time to point the way towards our energy future — so that all Americans win.
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