The solar energy industry’s chief lobbyist called for a full-court press in the days and weeks ahead to urge Congress to pass an energy bill this year, and longer-term for solar to assert itself as a listened-to voice in Washington, DC. Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), made these comments last Tuesday in what he called the largest U.S. solar meeting ever in Long Beach, CA.

Solar Power 2007, a four-day conference, drew 8,000 industry stakeholders, according to its cosponsors, SEIA and the nonprofit Solar Electric Power Association, which staged the conference and trade show.

“This current energy bill in both the House and the Senate versions is the best proposal for solar ever,” Resch said. “It has 22 policy provisions dealing with solar, including an extension of the investment tax credit (ITC).”

Resch called the proposed ITC provisions “absolutely spectacular” for the solar industry’s future growth, and keynote speakers, including cable television mogul Ted Turner and an investment banking consultant, Ray Lane, managing partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said solar is also the biggest economic opportunity to hit the United States in the 21st Century.

Both current versions of the energy bill — House and Senate — contain “very favorable provisions” for solar and Resch said he is “97% confident” they will survive conference debate in Congress. However, he thinks there is only a 50-50 chance that an energy bill will be passed this year.

“That’s why we are trying to kick start a grassroots effort on solar and alternative energy,” he said. “This is the best energy bill ever proposed, and when you build in the investment tax credit provisions it is absolutely spectacular with eight-year and six-year extensions of the business and residential ITCs, respectively.”

Even if the energy bill does not make it, Resch is confident that solar will get the ITC extended two to three years when Congress passes budget extension bills at the end of the year.

A variety of speakers called for coal’s demise and a seat at the policymaking table in Washington, DC. The speakers declared their time has come as an economic and environmental driver in the United States. The head of the solar lobby, a venture capitalist and various thermal-solar utility-scale project developers all predicted a solar renaissance.

“Congress needs to hear from us on the critical need for an energy bill because right now the oil industry is telling them the country doesn’t need one,” said President Rhone Resch. “It is absolutely critical that Washington starts to step up as California and other states have. And to get them to do that, we need a stronger presence.

“We [SEIA] are going to become a political force. Solar is going to help dictate outcomes in Washington, DC. It’s our time.”

Commercially and technologically, advances have picked up in recent years for solar, which historically has continued to lag relative to other major renewable energy sources, particularly wind. Overall, there are more than 2,000 MW of solar-generated power nationally, and rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems, usually sized in watts and kilowatt-hours, jumped from 140 MW last year to 250 MW worth of installations currently, according to Resch.

Lane said the “probable projected cost of coal” with some sort of externalities cost, such as a carbon tax, may not be very competitive when it comes to solar, wind and other renewables. Today, coal is in the 6-12-cents/kWh range, while combined-cycle natural gas-fired generation is about 10 cents/kWh, natural gas peaking plants come in as high as 16 cents/kWh, and residential solar with subsidies makes it to 15 cents/kWh, but it promises to go a lot lower, Lane said. Coal does not.

“We have choices when it comes to global warming, we have time to solve the problem, and solar power is a big part of it,” Lane said.

Lane called the convergence of global warming mitigation measures and solar energy’s role to be the “largest economic opportunity of the 21st Century.” A few minutes later a packed general meeting room was told by Turner that solar power is the “greatest business opportunity in the history of humanity.

“The entire world is going to have to change its energy systems, and solar has got to have a part in that,” Turner said.

Although he considered the solar convention more of a distributed generation, PV conference, Tom Mancini, who heads concentrating solar power (CSP) programs at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, moderated a discussion of various utility-scale solar technologies as represented by Stirling Energy Systems Inc., Ausra, BrightSource Energy Inc. and Abengoa.

“This is the wholesale solar market — not the retail market — and there are a lot of different drivers to it,” Mancini said. “These are large power projects that take long-term agreements with a utility or some other purchaser, and they take years to put a project together and years to build it.

“CSP historically has been referred to as solar-thermal electric power, here we are talking about taking the sun’s energy, converting it to heat and using the heat to drive a heat engine so you have mechanical power to drive a generator and put electricity on the grid. You’re talking about real mechanical energy stuff.”

None of the speakers have utility-scale plants operating now, but several have major contracts and plants slated to begin construction in the next two or three years, with Stirling Energy having the largest contracts — two totaling more than 1,700 MW with Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E).

Nevertheless, Stirling’s Executive Vice President Robert Liden said the company has been consumed by a dual need to continue project development steps (transmission interconnection agreements, site engineering, etc.) and accelerate the commercialization process for its technology, which has not been mass produced and has only been proven (in Sandia tests) on a small scale. The first panels currently are scheduled to be erected early in 2009, almost four years after Stirling signed its major deals with SCE and SDG&E.

“The number one issue is the price,” said John O’Donnell, an executive with Australian-based Ausra Inc. “That is the thing utilities are interested in — first and foremost. No one wants to have complying with renewable portfolio standards to put them in a long-term competitive disadvantage against later new entrants. There is also tremendous focus on security of supply, reliability and utility-grade engineering, but the number one issue is always price.”

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