Way back when the organization had a website that looked like it was created by a high-schooler with a copy of Dreamweaver, 2008, we both started working at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA): Katherine in February and Justin in July.
The U.S. industry was still small but starting to pick up steam, as entrepreneurs took notice of the 30% federal investment tax credit (ITC) enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the California Solar Initiative, and the first compliance years for key states’ renewable portfolio standards.
The future looked bright for solar; SEIA soon upgraded to a new, professional website… and then the economy tanked. While this caused a bit of a dark cloud over the industry, a silver lining remained. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act extended the ITC for eight years, and thus, by October 2008, we had completed our first run on the “solar coaster.”
Just to be clear, SEIA started 43 years ago, and we are sure those who preceded us had their own runs on the older clackety-clack solar coasters of their time, but in recognition of the 10-year run of the print edition of Solar Industry magazine, we wanted to take a trip back in time over the last decade.
Many in the industry lament the frequent ups and downs of the solar market, but each dip, turn and climb has been a learning and growing experience for our industry and for the policymakers who regulate it.
In 2008, many in the industry came from backgrounds in technology, finance and construction (and that’s still the case today), but relatively few were steeped in the arcane details of highly regulated electricity markets. And the industry was growing so quickly that, mathematically, it was impossible for most people to have more than one or two years of solar experience.
Solar was new to policymakers, too. Most places just hadn’t seen much of it yet. The U.S. added 350 MW-DC of solar capacity in 2008 and supplied less than one-tenth of 1% of U.S. electricity.
This combination of new professionals, new technology and rapidly increasing volume made for an exciting, albeit sometimes rocky, start to our solar careers.
Yet here we are in 2017, the year after adding 15,000 MW-DC of PV, with solar being the single-largest source of new generating capacity in the country. Solar energy now supplies more than 10% of California’s electric consumption and about 1.5% of our nation’s electricity. By 2020, that percentage is expected to soar to 3.5%. To put that in context, that’s an increase of more than 3,000% in just a decade.
So, how did we get here? Well, to start, this industry is fiercely competitive. While solar companies clearly compete among each other, increasingly, the industry realizes that its future lies in the larger electricity market and competing with incumbent electricity technologies. And, there, the competition is even tougher. We’ve seen the carnage as solar companies test different business models or technologies, but the companies that thrive define the industry. As solar costs continue to decline, those incumbent electricity technologies are taking increasing notice of this once-scrappy, now-formidable competitor: solar energy.
At each stage of competition, the industry has found areas of common interest, ways to promote a rising tide that lifts all boats. The work SEIA has done has helped advance the entire industry, and we are proud of that.
It’s impossible to rattle off every accomplishment in one article, but some of the highlights over this last decade include the following:
• Multiple extensions of the solar ITC and the establishment of a commence-construction provision;
• The wide expansion of state-level policies, such as net metering and renewable portfolio standards, that promote increased solar deployment;
• The establishment of a consumer-protection education campaign;
• The creation of a national PV recycling program;
• The launch of a Women’s Empowerment Committee and the creation of a diversity initiative focused on making sure our industry and our customer base are reflective of the communities we serve; and
• Numerous events, including Solar Power International, which have grown to become the gold standard for solar networking.
Although that’s an impressive – albeit not comprehensive – list, we’re not unrolling our sleeves just yet. As everyone reading this magazine knows, SEIA is currently the lead opponent in the Section 201 trade case. While we were disappointed in the U.S. International Trade Commission’s vote on injury on Sept. 22, as an organization, we remain undeterred.
We’re fighting on behalf of tens of thousands of American solar workers whose jobs are at risk if this petition prevails. Tariffs could have far-reaching and devastating impacts on our industry, and we remain steadfast in our campaign to continue the growth of solar and solar jobs here in America.
When we first started at SEIA, the solar industry employed about 36,000 workers. Now, we’re at more than 260,000, with one of every 50 new jobs created here in America in 2016 a solar job. As the head of SEIA’s research team, Justin has tracked the market closely over the last decade and seen personally how solar growth translates into real-life impacts. When a state’s solar market grows, so do the jobs and so do the investment dollars.
Meanwhile, from her job working in government affairs, Katherine has seen solar’s popularity soar. Poll after poll shows strong public support for the expansion of solar energy – and the best part is that’s across party lines. Solar is not a partisan technology.
That has become exceptionally clear with this trade case, in which a coalition of workers and groups, including utilities, the Heritage Foundation and ALEC, has joined our side in fighting this fight, and we’re not surprised. We believe that bestowing trade relief upon two foreign-owned companies to the detriment of the rest of the industry is not only unwise, it’s unwarranted. Furthermore, although we hope we’re successful in reducing the harm these companies are threatening to cause the solar industry, we know this unified front is the best counterattack.
History has shown us that working together strengthens the industry as a whole, in addition to individual companies and employees. The success of SEIA, a member-based organization, is measured on the collective success of the companies we represent. In our time at SEIA, it has become clear that those who engage in industry development have the best insight into the mechanics of the industry; they learn the risks and see the opportunities before the rest.
The both of us find it hard to believe it has been almost 10 years. We’ve had a front-row seat to one of the fastest-growing industries in America, and we can say with certainty that the view lives up to the hype. So, here’s to another decade, one we hope will be filled with continued growth, prosperity, and fewer solar coaster dips and turns.
Katherine Gensler is SEIA’s director of government affairs, and Justin Baca is SEIA’s vice president of markets and research.