Spotlight Solar had an opportunity yesterday to contribute ideas on Winning The Future. The Obama administration has deployed agency leaders to 100+ sites to collect input from business on how the government can act to foster growth and innovation. We were honored to be invited;  my thanks to Henry McKoy, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for NC for the invitation, and to the host, Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of HUD.

Our suggestion is to couple education initiatives (training a team) with market development (creating a playing field). Government support for the development of new markets is important in renewable energy, since regulation of energy prevents free market forces from functioning efficiently. We need to create favorable conditions for new, promising sources (e.g., solar) for three reasons: 1) the merits of clean energy which use free/renewable inputs are compelling; 2) the early stage of these sources prevent them from competing on cost (yet) with mature but problematic sources; and 3) clean energy/tech is a huge growth opportunity wherein the US lags. 

To be clear, we do not favor long term subsidization of solar, or any other energy source.  Over time, different viable energy sources should be allowed to compete based on their true costs and merits (total costs, including environmental impact).  But some things need help to get started, especially in sectors like energy where the “market” is highly regulated.  Solar needs help to get started.  It is already a $6B industry in the US, but makes up a fraction of 1% of generation, and is still 1/8th of the market in Germany, where policy has provided a solid foundation (and a known phase-out of subsidies). And some things have outgrown a need to be subsidized (e.g., coal).  See Blair Kendall’s blog post on this.

We’d like to see more investment in building demand for renewable energy.  People hold very positive attitudes (a recent study by Elon University in NC found 84% of people in NC supportive of solar), but have limited understanding, low mind-share, and low consideration rates.  We need to bring solar to people’s attention.  I call it marketing, the government calls it public education.  Either way, if we can bring solar to more people’s attention, it can stand on its own feet.  This is why we create visible and attractive solar structures.