Reenergizing Solar in the US: A National Security Priority

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat gave the keynote address at today’s George Washington University Solar Institute Symposium here in Washington, D.C.  Eizenstat, domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter, was there when Carter installed solar panels on the White House in the late 1970s, when the promise of solar seemed bright. Eizenstat recounted that the “momentum waned” and the solar panels were “dismantled by the next president.”

Eizenstat laid out a powerful argument for solar: national security. As he described, the largest component of our trade deficit is the importation of foreign oil. Solar energy, which we do not need to import from countries with wavering allegiances, represents the great untapped potential to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  And the potential for solar in the United States is vast: the Symposium was held just days after an industry study showed that the residential solar market in the US doubled in 2009.

Eizenstat excoriated policies that have allowed China to take the lead from the US in manufacturing solar panels.  According to Eizenstat, “we need to reenergize ourselves.” But at the same time, he moved away from the protectionist policies advocated by Senator Schumer to require those receiving federal grants to comply with the Buy American Act.  US producers need to price to market, and it is not a good policy to hamstring US producers with restrictions on sourcing equipment. We should “use the international market to build bridges not barriers.”

Eizenstat emphasized what we have said often at SolarTown–that we need a stable and certain legal framework to support the solar industry and that fits and starts will only hinder our ability to compete with other international actors. The extension of the investment tax credit to 2016 was a good start, but other policies such as the so-called grant in lieu of the credit are scheduled to terminate at the end of this year, without further Congressional action. Many of the panelists at the Symposium suggested that extension of this law is the number one priority to support the continued growth of solar in the United States. This law has been an essential driver growing the solar industry in the United States.

It is one of the advantages of being here in Washington, DC, is that a forum such as that organized by the GW Solar Institute can easily bring together industry with policymakers. During question and answer sessions, audience members identified themselves as advisers to this or that congressman or to the White House. We hope that these advisers will take back what they learned at the Symposium to craft a energy and climate bill later this year that will protect not only our environment, but also our national security.

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