Campaign to slash red tape


What is the background to the Solar Freedom Now Initiative?

The nucleus of the concept was formed when research started pouring in that the costs for photovoltaics in Germany were so much lower than the installation costs to comparable systems in the U.S. Over the last year there’s been good research by NREL, from Berkley University and others, trying to understand why some countries, particularly Germany, were so efficient and inexpensive in installing solar compared to the United States.
When it became brutally apparent that the biggest difference was paperwork – really the regulations, the red tape – some industry leaders here in the U.S. began to say, “this is not a technical problem, we are not installing things wrong, the technology is [not] different, this is really a policy problem in the U.S.” And the most encouraging thing was that in Germany the government managed to solve this policy problem by eliminating all the paperwork related to rooftop and commercial solar. So we said, “let’s see if we can do the same thing here in the U.S.”

These are the so-called “soft costs,” how much hope do you have that these really can be turned around in the U.S.?

The way that it was changed in Germany was that there was a lot of grass-roots support – there was political support for making solar easy and inexpensive to install. But with all of the jurisdictions in the U.S. – there are 18,000 different cities and towns in the country, there are 3,000 different utility districts and there are 50 different states – we can’t solve it individually, we need a national approach and that is what was done in Germany.

Opponents could argue that the U.S. is a huge country with a lot of geographical diversity, and that is very different to Germany where there is more in common between the different cities and regions?

That is true, but there is also a lot of diversity in Germany. The reality is that while there are so many jurisdictions in the U.S., the government does have the ability, for issues that it deems important on a national scale, to change. And one of the things that really kicked off the concept of Solar Freedom Now, not only do we want to emulate what they did in Germany, we were looking at examples of similar home installation issues that were changed in the U.S.
The satellite dish industry faced the same problem around 10 years ago. If you wanted to install a satellite dish there were many different regulations. The satellite dish industry organized and said, “we want to standardize on a type of a dish and we want that dish to be installable everywhere throughout the country under one set of standard regulations.” They were able to do that, and that industry just took off.

How has Solar Freedom Now been received at this stage?

One of the ironies is that the first place that we need to garner support for Solar Freedom Now is within the solar industry itself. I was at Intersolar North America in San Francisco earlier this year and it was apparent to me that many of the people within the solar industry were not aware of the high “soft costs:” the customer acquisition costs, the permitting costs, the interconnection requirements.
The solar industry itself was not aware of it, but when the research came out by Berkeley, by NREL, by Sunshot, and others – that these “soft costs” were really high – then the message started getting through.

What synergies do you see between Solar Freedom Now and the 300 GW initiative?

What Germany did was a great example for the world in completely eliminating the paperwork and regulations for solar. Many other countries around the world need to emulate that. Solar Freedom Now is focusing on the U.S. and if you look at the difference in price between a German system and a U.S. system – something like US$2.50/W versus US$5/W – the U.S. market will not take off until the pricing gets down to German levels.
We have choices here in the U.S., we can either find another US$2.50/W of incentives – whether they be FITs, tax credits or whatever – or we can just do what Germany did and just lop those costs off at the root and just eliminate the paperwork.
So I look at the United States as arguably being the biggest potential market for solar in the next 10 years, and for solar to accomplish the 300 GW per annum goal then we need to eliminate those costs.

And when you look at the number 300 GW p.a., do you think this number is realistic, or is it overreaching?

The number [is] very, very realistic. The only thing that is in the way, where I think on the current path in the U.S. it is unrealistic, is that we don’t have a good national policy for solar. And without that, we’re never going to get to [becoming a] 100 GW market. It’s very encouraging to look at these maps of the U.S., where you look at when solar gets down to a certain point, how common grid parity will be. When you’re down at [the] US$2 or US$2.50/W level, then you have grid parity in most of the country and that’s how you get to a really good market.

As you’ve said, getting a national framework will require political support, but support for renewables has been politically a contentious topic in the U.S. on the federal level, how will that influence things?

Ultimately politicians do what their constituents want them to do. Over 90% of voters in the U.S. have a favorable opinion of solar. As we are building that grass-roots effort, the politicians are going to start to listen to what their voters actually want. We are not naive, it’s not something that can be done immediately, not in six months, maybe not in one year, but we can get there.

We’ve seen how one manufacturer’s failure, that being Solyndra, has skewed the political debate regarding solar in the U.S. How confident are you that the PV industry right along the supply chain is being represented faithfully in the American press and political debate?

First we have to accept the fact that incumbent energy suppliers are going to fight to maintain their market position. That’s the main problem: fossil fuel interests, utility interests, incumbent energy suppliers. They can very easily influence public opinion because they have so much money to spend on advertising, and because of this money they can influence the politics of the parties. The solar industry is doing the best it possibly can with resources that are one percent of what these incumbent energy industries have, but that is going to grow over time and hopefully the press will continue to do the best they can to accurately report what the real story is.

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