Interview with Monique Hanis, Spokesperson for the Solar Energy Industries Association

It seems wherever the money goes, competition follows. The “hot” solar energy industry is booming, creating wealth and jobs in the USA and around the globe. Yet that same success is creating competition for government funding at a time when taxpayers are demanding accountability.  In the case of the USA-China trade dispute, it’s also creating competition over trade.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) was formed in 1974 to advocate on behalf of its members and educate the public on solar energy’s many benefits. Cleantech Authority interviewed SEIA spokesperson Monique Hanis to get the association’s perspective on some of the current issues facing the solar energy industry.

The Section 1603 Treasury Program is set to expire on December 31, 2011. Your association is fighting to have it extended. How does this program benefit American taxpayers?

This is one of the most effective policies for stimulating jobs and installing clean, renewable energy. It is an alternative way to tap an investment tax credit that is more efficient, but it’s only paid out when energy generation projects are completed. It’s open to a dozen clean energy technologies and does not pick winners or losers.

The 1603 Program has leveraged $23 billion in private sector investment for over 22,000 energy projects covering all 50 US states. It has created tens of thousands of jobs in professions hit hard by the economic downturn — roofers, electricians, plumbers, contractors, and more. It will create 37,000 solar jobs in 2012 alone, if extended.

Solyndra’s bankruptcy generated some pretty big headlines. What’s often lost in the headlines is the details — in this case, the reasons behind the loan guarantees program. Can you explain how this program helps cash-strapped start-ups obtain affordable commercial financing?

The Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Program is particularly critical for utility-scale solar power projects, because it sends a signal to the financial markets that these projects are a solid investment with solid returns. This is the challenge that many fast-growing industries face in financing. No one wants to be the first to invest, but everyone wants to be the next investor after they see success. These are large projects which require significant financing investment over several years to complete construction.

Why is your association promoting the development of a government-run Clean Energy Bank? Government-owned businesses aren’t exactly well-received by the American public. Can you explain how this bank would succeed?

Obtaining financing on reasonable terms is one of the key challenges facing renewable-energy developers. Commercial banks are often reluctant to offer financing to small projects and unfamiliar technologies. Similar to loan guarantees, a Clean Energy Bank would reduce the cost of debt financing for renewable energy projects and send a signal to private capital markets that solar energy projects are a solid investment.

A lot of myths circulate about solar power. In dispelling the myth that solar power only works in sunny states like California, your website states that “more PV was installed on commercial buildings in New Jersey than in California during that quarter [Q2 2011].” How much energy do these solar installations produce when compared to a high-solar area such as California? Are businesses (such as those in New Jersey) putting up solar panels only because they receive subsidies, or would these systems be economically feasible without subsidies?

Solar PV works practically everywhere. Germany, the global leader in solar energy, has the solar resource of Anchorage, Alaska. States like New Jersey have seen the value solar energy brings to their citizens — in terms of energy production, benefits to the grid, etc. — and have crafted policies that open energy markets, so that solar developers are able to compete.

The SolarWorld coalition claims that Chinese solar panel prices are as much as 250% lower than American prices. They’re seeking anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties to protect the American market. But another coalition of American solar companies takes the opposite stance, saying that duties would hurt the US solar industry and the American economy overall, as they would lead to higher prices, lower demand, and ultimately a loss of jobs. Where does your association stand on this divisive issue?

SEIA is not a party to the USA’s solar antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigation and has remained neutral. Our role is to help educate our diverse membership about the investigatory process and, in particular, the US Department of Commerce and US International Trade Commission proceedings.

Your website mentions that the number of people working in the solar industry doubled since 2009 and last year alone saw a 69% increase. Where do you see solar employment going in the next few years?

Much of the job growth going forward depends on whether the 1603 Program is extended. According to a report by EuPD Research, a one-year extension of 1603 would create 37,000 jobs in the solar industry alone in 2012, and result in an additional 2,000 megawatts of installed solar energy by 2016 — enough to power 400,000 homes.