Obama Administration: Addressing “Energy Inequality” with Solar Goals

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When President Obama comes out with a “visionary” executive plan to bring solar energy to America’s underclass, it is sure to elicit “vigorous” responses from supporters and detractors alike. The question is, does either side have an accurate view of what the President’s plan really MEANS?

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In general, the President isn’t getting much love from either the left or the right when it comes to the approach he has taken toward renewable energy projects so far. He has neither been willing to level the playing field by reducing the massive tax breaks enjoyed by the coal and gas industries, nor has he moved to open monopoly utility markets to competition from solar. His latest initiative, designed to bring solar power to federally subsidized housing is finding lukewarm support on the left, and skepticism, dismissiveness and contempt on the right.

Neal Asbury of NewsMax Finance succinctly summed up the hair-on-fire extremity of the radical opposition in his July 9th exercise in selective fact torturing entitled Renewable Energy May Be Popular, But Beware the Costs:

“As we’ve discovered, corruption runs rampant in green energy, thanks to massive tax breaks and other taxpayer handouts for Obama cronies. In most cases the money granted to these projects is never repaid, and instead of creating jobs, jobs are actually lost because we don’t invest these valuable resources in more productive areas of our economy.”

Asbury goes on to pillory Obama’s support for renewable energy, with a throw away line about the cost effectiveness of nuclear energy that is questionable at best. “If you factor in the cost to buy land and build the plants and run them, nuclear is far cheaper for the amount of energy it can generate.” As written, Neal’s statement may be true, but it’s intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately, what he is leaving out are the most important factors. The environmental costs of mining Uranium are huge, not to mention the cost of processing, and of course, disposal of spent fuel. Add in the cost of insuring nuclear plants (which taxpayers are on the hook for) and President Obama’s little plan for solar on low income housing suddenly looks pretty cheap. If one is looking for cronyism in the energy business, one needs to look at cronyism in ALL sectors, not just solar.

In an opinion piece from the other end of the political spectrum at the Huffingtom Post, Kyle Ash of Greenpeace gave the president a brief compliment by writing that:

“On Tuesday, President Obama announced a great initiative to increase the affordability of solar power in communities across the country. This is part of the White House’s plan to increase the installation of climate-friendly energy sources while recognizing the country has serious challenges when it comes to environmental justice.”

A few paragraphs later, Ash blasts Obama:

“President Obama’s climate legacy will come down to a simple equation—his efforts to reduce climate pollution minus his actions that increase it. There is so much bold action the President could take on climate as the chief executive of taxpayer-owned fossil fuels and federal policy on fossil fuel supply. But this President is often doing the opposite of what he should.”

Unfortunately, neither Asbury nor Ash spend much time on the details of the President’s announced plans. The entire laundry list of executive actions can be read at whitehouse.gov, but a few of the highlights include:

  • Launching a National Community Solar Partnership to unlock access to solar for the nearly 50 percent of households and business that are renters or do not have adequate roof space to install solar systems.
  • Setting a goal to install 300 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing and providing technical assistance to make it easier to install solar, including clarifying how to use Federal funding;
  • Housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, power companies, and organizations in more than 20 states across the country are committing to put in place more than 260 solar energy projects, including projects to help low- and moderate- income communities save on their energy bills and further community solar; and
  • More than $520 million in independent commitments from philanthropic and impact investors, states, and cities to advance community solar and scale up solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households.

To continue enhancing employment opportunities for all Americans in the solar industry, the Administration is announcing the following executive actions and private sector commitments, including:

  • AmeriCorps funding to deploy solar and create jobs in underserved communities;
  • Expanding solar energy education and opportunities for job training; and
  • The solar industry is also setting its own, independent goal of becoming the most diverse sector of the U.S. energy industry, and a number of companies are announcing that they are taking steps to build a more inclusive solar workforce.

So what is the administration’s plan actually going to DO? As it turns out, not much. The plan consists of a lot of tweaking on existing programs, convening new “partnerships,” (made up of the usual cast of utilities, industry groups and NGOs), setting new implementation goals, launching a webinar series on job opportunities, and setting a goal for diversity in the solar workforce. Hardly a bold step forward, and an initiative anyone in the solar industry would consider “too little, too late” in an 8 year tenure.

The question is, why bother? With the 2016 presidential race ramping up earlier than ever, it’s no wonder that the President’s modest proposal has gotten very little press, and even lease praise. Any community-based projects that Mr. Obama launches at this late date are bound to be orphaned in a little more than a year.

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About the Author: Rich Dana serves as Director of Microenterprise Development for the Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management. He works with students to develop ideas and implement new projects. He is a serial entrepreneur, a freelance writer and partner in Plan B Consulting. He has served as an energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and President of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association. At 53, he still likes to climb on roofs and install solar equipment.

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