US must develop national cleantech policy

As reported yesterday, in its Clean Economy: Living Planet, the World Wildlife Fund–Netherlands (WWF), found that the U.S. cleantech sector grew 17 percent between 2010 and 2011, to €37 billion (US$46.3 billion). While expansion slowed from an average of 24 percent annually between 2008 and 2010, it still exceeded average global cleantech sector growth.

Despite this, the organization says the country must develop a stable policy support system for cleantech products at the national level – and align policies across states – in order to support an industry that is aiming to be number one worldwide.

Replacing short-term programs with a more comprehensive, long-term approach would create more stable demand and offer companies greater investment security, according to the analysts. Meanwhile, long-term R&D roadmaps should be matched with long-term R&D budgets that enable researchers to achieve their objectives.

"Other countries are moving on clean technology opportunities and making big investments in the industry, while U.S. policymakers in Washington seem to be content to let all the recent growth in the United States wither on the vine by not providing policy certainty and not going after growth opportunities," said Marty Spitzer, director of U.S. Climate Policy for the WWF. "It’s stable, visionary policy that’s driving the market leaders to the top."

Frank Felder, PhD, director of the Center for Energy, Economic & Environmental Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, further told pv magazine, "I agree that the first order of business for the United States is to have a long-term, stable energy policy that internalizes all of the costs of using fossil fuels, including their contribution to climate change; other air emissions that adversely affect health and property; and in the case of oil, the associated costs on national security. Once such a policy is in place, then research and development and manufacturing of clean and cleaner energy technologies will follow."

On the industry side, Cassandra Kling, vice president of Sales for Suntuity, thinks that, with just a little fine-tuning, the U.S. could regain the lead. "It was just a few short years ago that the United States was the global leader in manufacturing for solar energy panels," she recalled in an interview with pv magazine.

"We could easily regain that title with a just a few tweaks to some of the programs that already are in place in America. Also, it’s very important to note that, while we would like to have the manufacturing back here, the true generation of jobs comes in the form of sales, marketing, construction, and financing – and all of these factors cannot be exported to create high- value jobs in the United States. A strong national policy supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency would be a huge boost to the U.S. economy."

Meanwhile, solar thermal expert Steve Elkin, CEO of SolarUS, Inc., thinks his sector should lead the way. Commenting, he said, "Solar thermal is where the largest growth will be in the next several years. As funds and programs [for other renewable energy technologies] dry up, ST will become the most economical option. When you look at the average carbon footprint of buildings in both the commercial and residential markets, 40 percent to 60 percent of that is for heating, cooling, and hot water, which can be generated most effectively with solar thermal technology.

Deep Patel, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based GoGreenSolar, which sells and distributes solar panels, said the cost of doing business in the U.S. is too high to be truly competitive with the Chinese economy, however.

"Solar panels are all about a balance between cost per watt and quality," he said, adding, "The Chinese have found that balance quickly, because the manufacturing landscape is completely different in China, including labor, insurance, wages, handling of toxic by-products of PV manufacturing process, and other issues. By contrast, in the United States, we not only have a high cost of labor, but health insurance, environmental regulations, and rules on how to dispose of toxic by-products. The cost of doing business is much higher here than in China; therefore to manufacture anything in the United States is difficult."

He also believes that the domestic content regulations under the Ontario, Canada solar feed-in tariff drafted policy "created a wave of manufacturers from China and other countries establishing factories in Ontario. In the USA, you can get all rebates and federal tax credits for private projects with products made outside of the country. With that type of policy in place, why would any manufacturer want to set up base here?"

Finally, "The view that new industries set sail on their own defies history," said the WWF’s Spitzer. "The U.S. government has played a strong role in investing in and fostering new industries – from rail and coal, to the oil, natural gas and nuclear industries. Cleantech industries are no different. For the near term, our clean energy manufacturing industries, like wind and solar, need and deserve support to maintain their growth."

Edited by Becky Beetz.