Clinton Seeks to Reduce Cost of Renewable Energy and Solar Electric Power

Investigating President Clinton's pledge to increase solar roofing, offer more green energy options and hedge energy inflation.

| February/March 1998

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    President Clinton speaks with Secretary of Energy Frederico Pena. Critics questioned whether Clinton's "Million Solar Rooftops" initiative was just a pipe dream.

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They say the darkest hour is just before dawn. Ever since solar electric technologies were developed in the 1950s as a means of powering up the space program, the industry has been alternately hailed as the only viable solution for energy independence and lamented as the unworkable pipe dream of a handful of environmental idealists. With the disappointing performance and subsequent disappearance of 1980s era tax rebates for solarization, and an increase in the availability of cheap fossil fuels from foreign markets, the future of solar electric has made those of us who live to perpetuate it at once hopeful and daunted. The imminent deregulation of utility providers, aggressive new government incentives, and President Clinton's ambitious initiative to bring one million solar electric energy systems to American rooftops by 2010 has dramatically altered the global future of renewable energy, however.

While government and utility industry nay-sayers have been moaning about the impracticality of producing, delivering, and metering solar electric energy, it has been left to relatively small companies to perfect the technology that makes home-based solar electric generation not only practical, but cost-competitive with utility generated electricity. As utility deregulation becomes a reality, beginning early in 1998, consumers will—for the first time in history—be able to put their utility dollars where their convictions are.

On January 1, 1998, California led the way down the road to energy independence by fully embracing utility deregulation years before the rest of the nation. This is not surprising considering the exorbitant rates California residents have been shelling out for their power. Despite the promises of cheap electricity mouthed by utility company executives attempting to justify their nuclear boondoggles, California rates have historically been among the highest in the country. Essentially, deregulation means that, once Big Power has been dissected into a number of Little Power Lines, consumers should be able to sort through the rhetoric and choose not only the price per kilowatt, but the source of the electrons zooming into their stereo systems.

For those whose only consideration is the bottom line, there will undoubtedly be cheap coal-fired and nuclear-generated power, priced to keep consumers on the fossil fuel grid. Fortunately for the planet, there are dozens of renewable energy based players gearing up to deliver the same reliable power, but generated by solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and small scale hydro technologies. What constitutes truly renewable, sustainable, or "green" electricity is still a subject of avid debate, with partisans lining up behind their personal pick. The good news is that consumers will be able do the same thing: investigate the pros and cons of various electricity-generation methods, make an informed decision, and switch to the source of their choice. On the one hand, you won't have to let the governing body of your local power company choose for you anymore. On the other hand, the responsibility for choosing wisely will rest squarely on the individual consumer.

With all our optimism, even deregulation is just a glimmer of the coming dawn of our new solar era. Although deregulation promises lower rates, it virtually guarantees that power consumers will be bombarded with competing claims and confusion. Everyone remembers how telephone service started sliding down the slippery slope after deregulation; business analysts and consumers alike agree that the quality of phone service today leaves much to be desired compared to the pre-regulation era. Will the same thing happen to utility delivery after deregulation? It might. All the more reason to beat the fossil fuel industry by taking advantage of the incredible new incentives for generating your power at home.

Federal Government "Teams Up" for Energy Incentives

It's hard to believe, but the U.S. government actually learned something from the ill-fated rebate programs it staged in the 1980s. Brave new incentives are now offered directly to manufacturers, giving consumers the benefit of lower prices without reams of paperwork, initial cash outlay, or waiting for a rebate check. Similar to programs deployed effectively in Japan and Germany, the federal "Team Up" incentives subsidize the maker's cost of producing utility-connected residential photovoltaic systems, rather than rebating the user's purchase price. Similar state sponsored subsidy programs currently in the works will allow even more savings, varying by state. In bottom line terms, the result is an incredible, hassle-free 40 percent to 70 percent reduction of the consumer cost of installing a solar-electric system.

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