Four Policy Questions For Solar Advocate Bill Ritter, Former Colo. Governor


The state of Colorado has established itself as one of the U.S.' leading markets for PV installations, ranking No. 7 in a recent report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

During his 2007-2011 tenure as governor, Bill Ritter helped to encourage Colorado's solar market through a range of clean energy policy goals. After leaving office, he was named director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, where his work focuses on state-level clean energy and economic initiatives.

Ritter delivered the keynote speech at the AEE Solar Dealer Convention in Orlando, Fla., earlier this week. After his address, Solar Industry sat down with the former governor to discuss his vision and strategies for deploying solar power in both Colorado and the rest of the U.S.Â

During your time as governor of Colorado, what were your main solar- and renewables-related goals? What obstacles were you up against?

‘The broad goal was to promote a clean energy agenda to diversify our energy resources in order to make full use of domestic clean energy,’ Ritter says, stressing that such initiatives also needed to deliver economic benefits.

Both renewable energy and energy efficiency factored heavily into the equation. Among other solar-specific initiatives, Ritter says his administration introduced a 3% solar carve-out in Colorado's renewable portfolio standard and worked to offer new financing options for residential solar, such as property-assessed clean energy finance and homebuilder-provided PV systems.

Obstacles to pursuing his clean energy goals while in office were ‘partly political,’ Ritter recalls. ‘There are naysayers out there who say you can't get to 30 percent renewable energy without it becoming very expensive.’

Colorado, in particular, currently enjoys inexpensive fossil-fuel-generated electricity – one reason that promoting natural gas in concert with renewables makes sense, Ritter adds.

The severe national recession that hit just as Ritter's term as governor got under way also somewhat hindered progress. ‘Cleantech was one sector that grew, but it was still constrained in its potential,’ he says.

On a national level, what policies do you see as crucial for ensuring the continued development of solar in the U.S.?

The Dec. 31, 2011, expiration of the U.S. Department of Treasury's Section 1603 cash-grant program continues to receive a great deal of attention from solar power advocates who are eager to see an extension of this project-finance tool. Ritter agrees that this program is important in the short term.

‘The fact that the investment tax credit is not going to expire for a while is helpful for the industry,’ he adds.

Overall, he believes the most important long-term policy need is putting a price on carbon. ‘Everyone experiences the consequences that flow from emitting carbon,’ he points out. ‘It is incumbent upon us to find a way to price that fairly.’

In the meantime, Ritter notes, solar is helping its own case with its price-reduction curve. ‘Solar was the most expensive of any [type of] renewable energy when I became governor – more expensive than wind,’ he says. ‘That's changed a lot. The price of solar has come down significantly.’Â

How important is it that we see a national renewable portfolio standard passed in the U.S.?

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed an 80% by 2035 clean energy standard, which would include natural gas, nuclear energy and ‘clean coal’ as acceptable energy sources for meeting the goal.

‘That was a concession of sorts to Republicans – he wanted to go across party lines and build a bridge,’ Ritter says. He adds that focus has since shifted more toward a low-carbon standard, as Obama and others recognize that many locales and policymakers in the U.S. reject the idea of a traditional renewable portfolio standard.

Solar advocates may view this shift as a weakening of support for solar power, but Ritter says the low-carbon approach has its practical benefits. ‘If what we care about most is emitting [carbon], then by a low-carbon standard, we will get to the same goal,’ he says.

Can the U.S. maintain a global presence in the manufacture of solar products?

The increasing dominance of low-cost Chinese solar cell and module manufacturers has cast doubts on U.S. manufacturers' abilities to compete, but Ritter believes the U.S. ‘should absolutely pursue a solar manufacturing market.’

Thin film may be the market segment where domestic manufacturers have the best chance. Ritter cites First Solar, Abound Solar and GE as examples of U.S. firms that are ‘pushing the price curve down.’

On the crystalline PV side, he is adamant that Chinese manufacturers play by the rules and not sell their product for less that what it cost to both produce and ship.

‘One thing we, as Americans, believe in is not just free trade, but fair trade,’ he says. ‘The U.S. still has a role to play [in solar manufacturing], and we should do everything we can to compete on fair terms.’

Photo: Colorado State University Photo Services Department

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