Obama pledges more US solar buildings and jobs

U.S. President Barack Obama dodged labor protestors Thursday to take the stage at a Walmart store here in Mountain View, California, where he pledged $2 billion more in funding energy efficiency in federal buildings and pledged to train 50,000 new solar workers by 2020.

He also singled out venue host Walmart as a model corporation for its solar adoption program, with a goal of generating 7 billion kilowatt hours from its roof tops by 2020.

"We know that making buildings more energy efficient is one of the easiest, cheapest ways to create jobs, save money and cut down on harmful pollution that causes climate change. It could save our businesses tens of billions of dollars a year on their energy bills — and they can then use that money to grow and hire more folks. It would put construction workers back to work installing new systems and technologies. So this is what you call a win-win-win,” said Obama.

His administration has already invested $2 billion in energy efficiency in federal buildings, and the pledge of an additional $2 billion by 2016 doubles the program, with much of the funding going into PV systems. The U.S. government is estimated to own 500,000 buildings in the country. Obama recently had the vintage solar system on the White House upgraded to a 6.3 kW system using all-American components.

Obama’s pledge to train another 50,000 solar workers is part of his Building a Skilled Solar Workforce program, led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Instructor Training Network, which supports training programs at community colleges. This also builds upon work done by DOE’s SunShot program, the Solar Instructor Training Network, which involves close to “400 community colleges in 49 states that have trained over 22,000 people to join the solar industry since 2010,” according to the White House.

A third solar initiative Obama supported in his 14-minute speech is the Better Buildings Challenge, initially launched in 2011. “It’s an ambitious plan to make commercial and industrial buildings 20 percent more energy efficient over the next 10 years and accelerate private sector investment in energy efficiency,” Obama said. Thus far, some 300 businesses and schools have committed to the program, which represent some 3 billion square feet of affected space.

Obama had high praise for Walmart’s solar leadership within the Challenge. “Walmart has already got the most installed on-site solar capacity of any company in America. And now you’ve announced plans to double that capacity. And it’s all part of your goal to buy or produce 7 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy by 2020 — something that could save Walmart $1 billion a year in energy costs,” he said.

Outside the store, protesters and labor union supporters demonstrated against Obama’s choice of Walmart to promote renewable energy in view of the retail giant’s labor practices, noting that the company has kept unions out of its stores and wages and benefits low.

Perhaps one reason Obama chose Mountain View as a solar rallying point is the extensive PV research and development being conducted in the city, located at the northern end of the Silicon Valley. For example, less than four miles away, Cogenra Solar launched its T14 concentrating solar product in November, which can generate electricity for as little as five U.S. cents per kilowatt/hour, according to Mani Thothadri, the vice president of products for the company.

"We are commercializing the fourth generation of the technology now. We have a 1 MW demonstration plant almost done at the University of Arizona that will be interconnected this month by Tucson Electric,” he says. “This project was funded by Washington, D.C.-based Washington Gas, the non-utility arm of the company, and we will be doing more projects with them in the United States,” he says.

The T14 system concentrates light 14 times, which is double the closest competitor, SunPower’s C7 technology, that concentrates light seven times, Thothadri says. The T14 uses less expensive flat mirrors to reflect sunlight than the C7, which uses curved mirrors, he explains. The light is focused on the company’s proprietary receivers built from 24 percent efficient Japanese cells, which are unusual outside of Japan’s residential market, he says. The system is mounted on proprietary single-axis trackers built from off-the-shelf components, he notes. The combination of these elements “makes us the lowest cost producer in the country on a singe axis,” he claims. “Since January, the T14 is being sold at a per-watt installed cost of 50 cents; we are cheaper than the cheapest Chinese modules,” he reckons.

Meanwhile, on Friday, SunPower announced a 5.1 MW rooftop solar power installation at the Los Angeles headquarters of fashion retailer Forever 21.

The project is "proof that companies like SunPower also realize the importance of helping businesses impact the president’s energy agenda and simultaneously generate substantial electricity savings over the life of a solar power system," said SunPower spokeswoman Amy Smith.

At completion, the SunPower solar system at Forever 21 will be Los Angeles County’s largest single-rooftop installation. It’s also the first project to utilize both of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s (LADWP) local solar programs — the FiT100 Set Pricing Program and the Solar Incentive Program.

Edgar Meza contributed to this report.