Workers install solar panels containing photovoltaic cells near Muencheberg, Germany. Could the U.S. make similar investments?

Workers install solar panels containing photovoltaic cells near Muencheberg, Germany. Could the U.S. make similar investments?

Last week, President Donald Trump announced that the United States will be pulling out of the Paris climate accord. The move comes as a blow to alternative energy advocates who see green power as the most sustainable and environmentally responsible way forward.

But by many accounts, solar power is already growing. Fast. According to one report, solar jobs have grown about 17 times faster than America’s overall economy.

Given this, does it even matter that the president has decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement? Is solar power here to stay, no matter what steps the president might take?

Guests

  • Robert Bryce Senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; author of "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future"
  • Allison Clements Founder, goodgrid; former senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council's Energy & Transportation Group
  • Dan Reicher Executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University; former assistant secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under President Clinton
  • Dan Conant Founder, Solar Holler

Interview Highlights

What does the future of the clean energy industry look like in the wake of President Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement?

Allison Clements: I think you see growth in the news this week — in the people that are driving this evolution towards a cleaner, more reliable and frankly more affordable energy future. It’s the over 1,000 mayors that have come out in support of clean energy this week. It’s the 19 states. It’s the companies. Not just the Facebooks, the Googles, the Microsofts, but GM — where my dad worked for 30 years — and Johnson and Johnson and Anheuser-Busch and Walmart. These are real people, real market forces that are driving this change for regular people across the country.

Why is solar hot right now?

Dan Reicher: I think it’s hot for a variety of reasons. One is that the price has gone down so dramatically. It was really a technology not ready for prime time not too many years ago, and with this price drop it can work increasingly competitively with a variety of traditional sources. We also have states driving it through requirements for deploying renewable energy and we also have federal tax incentives, which have helped in the massive deployment of solar over the last several years.

Is solar inevitably going to spread?

Robert Bryce: Well, there’s no question solar is growing very rapidly and I have solar panels on the roof of my house here in Austin. I put [an 8.5 kilowatt solar system] on my roof last year. But let’s be clear, I only did it because I got three different subsidies … The prices are coming down, but the growth in the industry, particularly here in the U.S., has really been driven by tax policy.

What has changed in solar technology in the last few decades?

Dan Reicher: We’ve made huge progress. The only place that was cost-effective in the 1960s, in a sense, was in outer space where you pay any amount to have a little bit of electricity. But we’ve literally brought the solar cell — inside of a solar — down to earth. And over time it has become increasingly cost competitive and a lot of that is a result of real breakthroughs in the laboratory, [in] laboratories all over the world. Much of the R&D [is] in the United States, but increasingly countries like China [are] getting very, very aggressive in the R&D world. And what that means is, we can produce more electricity from a given cell — what’s called solar cell efficiency has gone up dramatically. And we can also produce the cells and the panels in which they sit much more cheaply than we used to be able to do.

Is China the world leader in solar?

Dan Reicher: We’ve deployed 40,000 megawatts of solar to date in the U.S. The Chinese have deployed about 80,000 … They manufacture the vast percentage of all the solar panels in the world. We’re just in the couple of percent in the U.S., they’re in the many, many tens of percents in terms of their manufacturing. The place where we have led for decades is in R&D because as I said, we invented solar at the Bell Labs in the 1950s, but just a year ago the Chinese broke an R&D record for solar cell efficiency of one of the most important types of solar cells … We still have huge struggles in R&D but we need to nurture it. That’s where federal investment in R&D becomes so important.

Where would you look for a job in the solar industry?

Allison Clements: You could look in any one of the 50 states across the country. There are solar jobs in every single [state]. In fact, as I think Dan mentioned, the job growth has been at least 20 percent a year over the last five years across the country and there’s now at least over 260,000 jobs available for people who want to get involved in all parts of the solar industry.

What is the transition like for someone trying to move from working in the coal industry to the solar one?

Dan Conant: There is so much experience and skill coming out of the mines. Our very first crew chief, he spent eight years up to a mile underground working on high-voltage lines. That’s a really impressive skillset that transfers really well to solar. West Virginia, we’ve always viewed ourselves as a coal state, but we need to view ourselves as an energy state, and solar’s just the next form, the next iteration of that.

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