The U.S. is About to Get Smoked

The U.S. is About to Get Smoked

California will miss its 20% RPS target in 2010, and the very issues that caused the state to miss its 2010 goal will persist as we slog toward a 33% RPS goal by 2020. So say some folks that ought to know.

Last night, Climate One and the Commonweatlh Club of California hosted a roundtable with four highly successful professionals, each dedicated to achieving California’s aggressive RPS goals while also establishing a robust clean tech industry that creates and keeps jobs in the state of California. On stage was (L to R) a pro-renewable chairman of the California Public Utility Commission, Mike Peevey, an executive from a progressive utility, Nancy McFadden of PG&E, a CEO from the #1 solar capital equipment company, Mike Splinter of Applied Materials, a practical environmentalist, Bob Epstein of Environmental Entrepreneurs, and, no, that’s not an oxymoron, as well as moderator, Greg Dalton founder of Climate One.

Individually these are impressive people and collectively you (read: me) could easily assume that if only this gang of four aligned on goals, opportunities, and barriers to address, then rapidly scaling solar in California would be vastly simplified.

If you (read: me) made that assumption, you (read: I) would be wrong.

After the hour I left somewhat discouraged. There was no disagreement and all aligned (at least publicly): we don’t need new technology breakthroughs; solar is becoming cost effective today; solar is important and can scale but we need all forms of energy in our portfolio; and we need an effective federal energy policy.

The solution, they said, is within our grasp. But each panelist expressed profound frustration at the rigidity of government. Frustration at the pace and complexity of decision making covering scores of federal, state, local agencies that need to act in concert. Frustration at the myriad land use issues surrounding transmission and renewable power plant development. Frustration that agreements get signed but nothing happens. Frustration at the lack of accountability. (The Federal Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Game were mentioned several times.)

Meanwhile, China is cranking away and is poised to capture the supply line of another industry. Fifty percent of all module manufacturing is now in China; that’s double from a few years ago. The point isn’t new and Thomas Friedman wrote passionately about this back in September. However, somewhat ironically, all the panelists sounded downright wistful when discussing China’s ability to accelerate and forge action given their central command and control. And when asked the ONE thing they would change both Peevy and McFadden suggested an uninspiring call for more government cooperation.

The most positive thing I heard was Bob Epstein talk about the enormous economic leverage a community can gain if it stops exporting energy $$ and, instead, develops a self-sustaining local ecosystem – an ecosystem that manufactures solar panels and deploys those panels in locally built solar farms. Instead of sending your precious energy $$ to, say, Canada to buy natural gas, those same energy dollars are used to locally manufacture energy which fuel local jobs and economic development. Re-circulating those dollars has a multiplier effect. Epstein estimated a 50:1 leverage. If you’re serious about developing a robust industry, focus on keeping the jobs local and building out the supply chain. Without knowing it, Bob was describing what we at Applied Materials are calling fab2farm - a solar deployment model that links communities, utilities and solar panel manufacturers to meet peak energy needs while generating billions in local economic development.

It was good to see accomplished leaders dedicated to addressing change. The alternative could be far worse, such as a place where the utility commission and utilities are full of climate denialists. But if this is the best it gets, we have to ask ourselves, are we (the U.S.) still going to get smoked?

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