Lisa McCrummen is a strategic communications consultant and WBCA board member. Solar: Cheaper, Stronger, Faster – if the Legislature will provide certainty.
The solar industry is truly one of the unsung clean energy economic heroes in our state.
While most people have seen the nearly daily “good news” solar stories, and are aware how quickly the industry has grown and how pervasive its energy disruption has been– few recognize that Washington’s solar industry’s future is at a crossroads. The 161 solar-related companies in our state believe the future of this robust industry will be in big trouble unless the Washington legislature acts quickly to clarify the “rules of road” for solar.
Washington’s solar industry took off in 2006, when the legislature created the Renewable Energy Cost Recovery Incentive Payment Program. The program laid a foundation for an in-state solar manufacturing sector, and also provided a framework for Washington residents to put solar power to work on homes, commercial buildings, and community facilities.
The program has been even more successful than hoped. So far, it’s deployed almost 85 Megawatts in solar production, helping more than 13,000 homes and businesses convert to solar.
To do so, the solar industry employs a lot of people - some 3,700 people work in solar manufacturing, system design and installation jobs in Washington. At a time when family wage jobs are becoming harder to come by, the fact that the average solar worker makes $50,000 matters a lot. It also matters that these jobs are found both East and West of the mountains – from Seattle to Vancouver and Yakima to Richmond. It also is spurring new investments in innovation, leading to serious export opportunities already.
And the economics go way beyond just the jobs. The very act of solar is an economic and environmental amplifier.
First, it’s an investment that pays off for every buyer; helping residential and commercial customers save money ($75,000 over the lifetime for a medium-sized residential system). This money can be used on other local purchases that drive new sales tax revenue for city and county governments across the state. Additionally: A Western Washington University study found that every $1 in solar in WA yields $16-$20 in local economic activity. A whopping $86.2 million (in the form of federal tax credits) are brought into the state. There’s more: It also helps keep expensive energy projects at bay; utilities are not under pressure to add, build, and source more expensive energy generation plants.
The future ‘economic amplifier’ is even more astounding: As the state transitions to electric vehicles, we could actually keep $2 billion a year in our area by 2035, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a utility industry group, through home-grown solar generation rather than buying gasoline purchased from elsewhere.
Clearly Washington state has been in the national spotlight, after the Trump Administration pulled out of Paris Accord, for its strength on environmental and carbon emissions leadership. It seems obvious that solar ought to be part of this platform. Solar clearly reduces carbon emissions and reduces other pollutants that create additional environmental and health problems. Our state has already avoided carbon emissions thanks to existing solar projects, saving over sixteen million trees’ worth of carbon – that would be a forest covering everything within Seattle City Limits. A Western Washington University study calculates the environmental benefits of solar are worth $9 per kilowatt to the state, or approximately $5.4 million so far. The solar impact on health can’t be overstated, especially as we transition from gasoline to electric transportation. There’s a clear link from the air and water pollution of coal and natural gas to diseases like cancer, heart attacks, neurological damage, and breathing problems like asthma.
Nationally, solar’s economic impact already is staggering. The Solar Foundation’s 2015 National Solar Jobs Census found that the industry is adding workers nearly twelve times faster than the overall economy. Solar employs more than three hundred thousand people across the US: that’s 6 jobs in solar for every 1 remaining coal job, and solar continues to hire. This has been driven by the demand for solar, coupled with new technology that has led to a staggering drop in solar costs – and clearly the demand is rising. According to the Solar Industries Energy Association, The U.S. solar market had its biggest year ever in 2016, nearly doubling its previous record and adding more electric generating capacity than any other source of energy for the first time ever. Over the next five years, the cumulative U.S. solar market is expected to nearly triple in size.
This is the kind of economic, environmental, and health case that clearly makes sense to embrace. But in Washington state – that’s just not the case.
How Uncertainty Undermines Washington’s Solar Future
Washington solar businesses are up against the age-old business axiom – without certainty, it’s tough going. And while everything in the market shows that solar is an economic winner and that demand continues to grow --- without some level of policy certainty, the industry is limbo. That’s because the Washington State Legislature failed to reauthorize our state’s popular solar program last year. The existing program is badly outdated, a victim of even greater demand for solar than it was built for. Solar demand is tremendous, but without legislative certainty, solar companies can’t grow to meet it.
The industry needs the state to embrace a program update. Given how much has changed in solar (not to mention the world in general) since 2006, the existing program needs some tweaks. Without some reasonable changes to the existing program, the industry will be unable to protect the positive benefits of this program and effectively expand energy choices. Industry leaders say that unless an updated plan is passed quickly, the solar industry will not have a future.
Right now, the Washington State legislature is considering the Solar Jobs Bill (HB 1048 and SB 5499/5939) to solve this.
What are some of the current ‘biggies’ the solar industry would like to see?
The stakes are high. Washington State taxpayers deserve a more cost-effective solar program. Home- and business-owners who want energy independence deserve a program they can trust. And for Washington’s one hundred plus small businesses employing almost 4,000 people in solar, legislative certainty is make-or-break: without the Solar Jobs Bill, most of the existing solar-related companies will close their doors.
At the end of the day the solar industry is working with the legislature on the Solar Jobs Bill to try and create future certainty and more efficiencies for this industry. If it’s successful, the economic future is bright – not only will it save the existing jobs, but likely double them in the next couple of years. Our state will continue to realize the economic and environmental ‘amplifier’ benefits into the billions of dollars along with lowered emissions.
It’s time that we start recognize the importance of this unsung economic hero – and begin to sing its praises before it’s too late.
To learn more, visit SolarStrongWA.org.
Lisa McCrummen is a strategic communications consultant and on the WBCA leadership team.