13 September 2012
President Clinton delivered the keynote address at Solar Power International 2012 with the message that Americans need to understand the role that solar can play in our economic future and that it’s a story that those in the solar industry, gathered here in Orlando, Florida, need to tell.
Bill Clinton served as President of the United States for eight years, during which time the country enjoyed economic prosperity. He brought his influence and vision to what is the largest gathering of solar industry professionals in the US, encouraging cooperation as the industry faces many challenges on the way to building a strong future based on shared goals and values.
“It’s time to educate Americans about solar.”
Julia Hamm, President and CEO of Solar Electric Power Association, introduced the President to a packed audience of 7200 people, saying that SPI show organizers had tried to get the former President every year for the past 8 years but, while he always wanted to come, he always had conflicts. Now in this election year, the keynote, she said was “the talk of the town.”
The President opened by saying, “I love what you guys are doing.” He said the place is full of people in concentrated solar, distributed, young, old, democrats, republican, independents. “People who represent what I believe in.” He encouraged cooperation between government, the private sector and the non-government sector to solve our energy problems.
Tell Americans what they need to know
“I’m preaching to the saved here, I know that,” he said, and then focused on those who are not in the solar industry. It’s time to educate Americans about solar, he said. They need to know that 100,000 people work in this industry. “They would be shocked to know that even in the depths of recession, this industry was growing at 8% and that pay, on average is greater.” They need to know that the best venture capital catapulted America to the top of renewable energy in 2011. And that $22 is still being spent for coal, oil and nuclear for every $1 spent on our clean energy future.
“We need a modern electric grid and we’ve got to get the policies right.”
A bi-partisan or “multi-partisan” approach is what is needed, he said, “where we favour arithmetic over ideology.” He cited examples of government investments in alternative energy in Europe saying that “Most don’t know that the European economies coming out of economic crisis with the best future prospects also have the best energy policies.” And he said that it’s time that everybody understands that climate change is real, noting that the reinsurance companies have already decided it’s real because natural disaster claims have doubled or tripled.
A story that the industry failed to tell is the truth about Solyndra. “Most people don’t know what really happened to Solyndra,” the President said. Rather than continuing with “Too much lobbying about yesterday’s energy,” he behooves those in the solar industry to explain that Solyndra had an innovative, interesting design that was supposed to increase the efficiency of photovoltaics, which he said has stubbornly resisted going above 20% efficiency. He believes the loan was extended with the intention of keeping production going until the price would go up and it could be competitive. “No one foresaw the Chinese subsidies. Nobody explained that to the American people. And they can be forgiven for believing the worst possible explanation.”
A call for policy
The southwest desert of the United States where the sun shines brightest and the wind blows hardest is a great place for alternate energy, but there are no people, the President said. We need a modern electric grid and we’ve got to get the policies right, he said. Taking a minor jab at the current administration he said that given the “current level of support and expiration of 1603,” he warned that the US will be powered by only 15% renewables by 2030, whereas places with strong government policy, such as Europe much more much sooner. “If we are not first in the world by power produced by renewables, then shame on us.”
Beyond making good economic sense, the President said that one of the beauties of solar is that it can help the poorest people of our nation. With solar, Native Americans living on tribal lands can generate much needed electricity and revenue from the power, plus it can relieve their reliance on coal power that hurts their health, he said, adding that “Lucky for us they have the sun and the wind. We should give them solar to lift them out of poverty, diversity their futures. That will help us all.”
Rhone Resch, President and CEO of Solar Energy Industries Association, asked the President some questions at the end of the keynote, beginning with “Has solar become cool yet?” Clinton responded that if people understood the role that solar can play in our economic future, “it would be a lot cooler than it is.” He came back to the Solyndra debacle saying that the industry made a mistake by not offering a credible explanation for what happened. “People will accept that you made a mistake or that the Energy Department made a mistake.” He used the analogy that the government has subsidized the oil industry since 1916 and today has great technology for finding oil and gas. “But once in a while people drill a dry well. And they still get tax subsidies.”
On the topic of how to get the solar industry and utilities to work together, Clinton talked cooperation. “You have to work out a deal so the economics work for everyone.” He surmised that people running the utilities know that we’d be better off maximizing solar and wind resources. And in a statement that hinted that the current administration has been lax in moving the discussion forward, he said “You just got to do it, if you want it bad enough. Or if you don’t keep doing what you doing.”
“One of the beauties of solar is that it can help the poorest people of our nation.”
Then Resch asked the six-million-dollar question: In terms of solar and renewable energy, what separates Romney and Obama? The President said to listen to what the candidates say in the campaign because you should assume that they’ll do what they say. He said that it used to be that some Republican constituents were supporters of the environment and conservation, but he said that today you may not get nominated by the Republican party if you thought global warming was real. And he cited the Obama administration’s commitment to R&D and said that if Obama were to win he’d expect him to bring back 1603. And if Romney wins and does what he says he will do, he will cut taxes to reduce the deficit, which, as Clinton put it, would mean cutting everything in sight, including energy support.
The President encouraged the audience of solar industry professionals to make sure that political candidates in both parties know what the solar industry has done and how they did it. He said to make sure there are visible manifestations and to not make the mistake of worrying about what will happen next year. The tipping point will come, he said, when people see that this is good economics and increases national security.
Written by Anne Fischer, Managing Editor, Solar Novus Today