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After a first debate that mentioned infamous solar manufacturer Solyndra but offered little substantive energy policy discussion, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made energy issues a central topic during their second debate on Tuesday night. Solar energy garnered several specific call-outs from both candidates.

Disagreement over gasoline prices and oil companies' drilling leases led to some of the candidates' most contentious exchanges of the night. Overall, however, Romney and Obama wound up stressing similar platforms: U.S. energy independence and their support of all types of energy - both fossil fuels and renewable sources such as solar.

"[W]e can't just produce traditional sources of energy; we've also got to look to the future," Obama said, noting that his administration has "doubled clean energy production, like wind and solar and biofuels."

Obama added that under his presidency, oil imports have fallen to the lowest level seen in 16 years, and he plans to continue to make the development of natural gas a priority. According to Romney, however, Obama's restrictions on oil and gas drilling have resulted in a decline in domestic production of these sources on federal lands.

An energy policy paper released by the Romney campaign in August calls for removing regulatory hurdles to developing all types of energy. In Tuesday's debate, Romney reiterated his support of making full use of  "our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables."

"I believe very much in our renewable capabilities - ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix," he continued. "But what we don't need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas."

Although Obama and Romney did not delve into specific solar incentives, renewable energy reappeared later in the debate as the candidates discussed the wind production tax credit's (PTC) looming year-end expiration, which has already had a detrimental effect on the wind energy industry.

Some solar executives fear that a similar cliff could occur in the solar sector as the scheduled 2016 expiration of the investment tax credit approaches.

Romney has stated that he does not support extending the PTC - a position Obama criticized as "not an energy strategy for the future." Obama also called out Romney for the latter's characterizations of green energy jobs, such as wind industry jobs in Iowa and Colorado, as "imaginary."

"I don't have a policy of stopping wind jobs in Iowa … they're not phantom jobs," Romney countered. "They're real jobs. I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa and across our country. I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas."

Staying neutral?
As the debate played out, the solar sector's leadership and professionals actively weighed in on social media.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) led an effort on Twitter to tout statistics on the industry's job-creation power and other accomplishments. But as the election race heats up in its final weeks, some solar professionals have noticed what they believe is illogical neutrality in SEIA's approach to presidential politics. 

Despite Obama and Romney's similar debate-night rhetoric about an "all of the above" energy strategy, the two candidates have presented plans with starkly different implications for the solar sector. Back in August, SEIA's largely supportive statement in response to Romney's official energy paper - which calls for major cutbacks in government spending on renewable energy - raised a few eyebrows.

During the debate, some also questioned the accuracy of a tweet from Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA, who wrote, "Romney believes in renewables - wind and solar" - but did not mention any of Obama's solar initiatives.

Resch explains the careful approach that the group must take as it navigates the maze of Washington politics.

"As a trade association, we have a pretty structured policy not to endorse one candidate over another," he tells Solar Industry. Ultimately, the group must maintain a balance between reflecting the legislative priorities of its members and keeping lines of communication friendly with politicians of all persuasions.

"You have to hedge your bets and work with whoever gets elected," Resch points out.

Resch notes that Obama has done a "great job" supporting solar deployment during his presidency, and that the Romney and Obama camps emphasize different types of energy in their respective platforms. However, he adds, both candidates endorse renewables - and both parties can expect to continue to hear from SEIA's legislative outreach team.

"We are working with both campaigns and both parties to advance solar energy," Resch says. "We're spending a significant amount of time educating them about the importance of solar to the economy."

Even in the case of candidates whose policies are perceived as blatantly unfriendly to the solar sector, SEIA avoids public rebuke. "In that type of education, criticism doesn't play a particularly productive role," Resch explains.

As for the "Romney believes in renewables" tweet, Resch says that - like many industry professionals watching the debate - he was simply excited to see solar receive several specific shout-outs from both sides of the aisle. During George W. Bush's administration, mentions of solar power were few and far between, he notes.

Resch remains optimistic about the future of the industry, no matter who is occupying the White House in January. "I'm confident that both candidates will embrace solar and its potential," he predicts.

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