Monday, July 22, 2013

Intersolar North America 2013: Policy as a Foundation for the Solar Industry

With the solar industry at a crossroads, what will move it forward? Financing and technological advances are necessary ingredients. But a key foundation without which neither of these can thrive is a stable, consistent regulatory and policy environment.

Attendees of Intersolar North America last week had a chance to learn more about how policy affects the industry.

The local factor

When it comes to policy, people tend to play favorites. One very vocal and persistent gentleman showed up at several panel discussions to promote an aggressive feed-in tariff (FIT). This is the policy that has led to widespread adoption of solar in Germany, not to mention a large percentage of local ownership of solar there. In Germany, FITs are decreasing, while in some developing countries they’re on the rise. There’s no question that they can be robust vehicles for solar adoption.

Not all FITs are created equal, though, and they may not be the best choice in all situations. Gary Gerber of Sun Light & Power called California’s current FIT “laughable.” According to Gerber, that’s because it was designed by utilities rather than people in the industry. On the other hand, a successful FIT in LA was born from the roots up. A group of businesspeople reached out to public entities and commissioned a UCLA study to determine the best way to promote commercial solar. The result was a FIT so popular that it sold out in 45 minutes.

Similar programs could sprout up in other cities around the U.S.; one in place in Gainesville, Florida, has made that city a solar leader in an otherwise not-so-solar Sunshine State.

A key lesson here is that policy, at least in the U.S., works best when implemented at the local level, from the roots up. A good example of this is Community Choice Aggregation (CCA, sometimes called Community Choice Energy), a model that’s spreading locally -- out of frustration that projects aren’t happening. In the CCA model, a community works to reduce costs and bring clean energy to a region. The main feature of these programs is local control.

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