Losing the Solar Race

To Get Competitive, the U.S. Needs to Ramp Up the Solar Incentives

Sonnenschiff solar village in Freiburg. Germany has the most solar installations in the world.© Solarsiedlung.de

Plans to expand solar power in the United States look a lot different from my seat in a cafe near Tiananmen Square in China than from my office in Northern California, where I am the CEO of one of America’s largest solar power companies. Many of the measures and half measures that we read about every day in American papers are things the Germans, Chinese, Spanish and French decided to do 10 years ago.

So now we are playing catch-up—but still not taking the steps our foreign competitors have long since regarded as routine. Take Germany, for example. Hardly a sunny hot spot, but it has more solar installations than any country in the world. In fact, 200 times more than England. That is because German citizens get 75 cents per kilowatt-hour for the solar power they sell back to the grid. Spain is similar. Great Britain and France and Ontario recently raised their so-called "feed-in tariffs" to comparable levels.

In California, we get less than 10 cents. And that is more than most places. In the U.S., we limit not just the price but also the amount of solar energy an owner can sell back to the grid. So we limit our results as well. If we allowed the price to rise, and removed the limits on how much solar energy a farmer or business owner or school or police station could generate, we would see an explosion in demand for solar and other renewables. That would reduce our dependence on foreign energy and stimulate domestic manufacturing as well. It’s a two-fer.

That is our best chance of creating solar panel manufacturing jobs in the United States. But it is already very late in the game. Half measures won’t work anymore.

TOM ROONEY is the president and CEO of SPG Solar.