Comments from Attendees at Solar Solutions Conference, Memphis TN
The new facilities suggest solar energy’s potential, but consumer demand must increase before solar energy companies can begin to add many jobs, said Rupy Sawhney, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
His report at the Solar Solutions Conference showed that the capacity of Tennessee companies to provide solar energy products is 10 times the current demand.
“The supply chain seems not to be the issue,” Sawhney said.
The professor’s report said that for demand to increase, consumers must be better educated on the benefits of solar energy, government incentives must increase and installation costs must drop.
In the last five months, the average cost of 24 installation projects co-funded by the Tennessee Solar Institute was $5.30 per watt. The Department of Energy’s goal is to reduce the installation cost to $1 to $1.50 per watt by 2020. That reduction could spur consumer interest in solar energy.
Industry members see another obstacle in a bill being considered in the Legislature to increase the appraised value of solar property for tax purposes from .5 percent to 33 percent of the original cost.
The resulting tax increase would deter consumers and companies alike from installing solar energy farms on properties they own, some say.
For Dean Solon, president and CEO of Portland, Tenn.-based Shoals Technologies Group, one big problem is that the U.S. lacks a clear solar energy policy. He said consumers won’t add solar energy because there is no guarantee that local utilities will buy the electricity from them at a high enough price to make the investment worthwhile.
“Do you want to spend $20,000 putting a photovoltaic system on your house when you don’t know if the local utility is going to pay you for the power?” Solon said.
Perhaps the biggest hindrance is continuing fallout from the controversy over Solyndra, which went bankrupt in September after getting more than $500 million in federal loans. It was the first alternative energy company to receive a loan guarantee under a stimulus program from the Obama administration.
Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama for his ties to the California-based solar company.
Solon said the hubbub over Solyndra raised doubts about the viability of solar companies and the number of new installations dropped significantly.
“Solar is like a political ping pong ball — you have the conservatives on one side and the liberals on the other,” Solon said. “And the industry is suffering over that stupidity.”