Let’s stop using solar as a political whipping post: both candidates supported a solar company that got money from the government then failed

What made Ted Williams, the great  Boston Red Sox baseball slugger, so great a  hitter was reportedly that he could keep his focus on the pitched ball as it sailed towards the plate. I wish we could say the same for our political leaders as the citizens of this nation are calling for a cleaner more secure environment offered by renewable energy. The Republican take the example of government funding of Solyndra as an example of why we are not ready for solar, while the Democrats retaliate with then Governor Romney’s supporting $2.5 million for Evergreen Solar that has since relocated to China.  Both parties have lost sight of home base.

What about what we the citizens of this country want?  Can’t we all agree that our vision should be on renewable energy as a base for industrial growth and jobs?  We are told by the economists that the world-wide supply of solar PV panels exceeds demand and that the road ahead for solar is going to be bumpy.  Well, there are two parts to the equation: supply and demand. To balance the equation we need to raise the demand for solar.

How do we increase the sales of solar systems when the average citizen cannot afford the upfront cost?  That thought has been my constant companion for some time.  I believe that there is an answer and the answer is based on the successful financing world war II through the contributions of everyday citizens.

So when I read the Sunhot announcement that they were willing to listen to anyone that had an idea of how to reach the $1 per watt goal, I gave it my best shot.  Here is my submission:

The idea is very simple: give the public the same economic growth opportunities offered to banks and investors.  Use the microbank concept.  Promote community solar by changing the IRS tax regulations to give the solar the same economic benefits as the real estate investment tax credit.  Profits will go directly to the investors who will be the public.  Under a social based for-profit corporation model, shares in the corporation that will used to  purchase, install and maintain of the  community  solar systems. Expand on the example of the micro-banks by reducing the buy-in cost.   Income from the investment without other government, utility based subsidies, will be paid as dividends once a year along with the identification of how their investment is creating wealth.  Treat the income from the investment as tax-free for the majority of the public that cannot afford to finance the up-front cost. 

Sell savings stamps for those who could not afford the price of a share but can buy stamps at the price of a soft-drink.  Once the stamp book is filled, the owner can exchange it for a share.  The idea worked during the second world war and energy security is a national goal.   The public wants solar and by extending the financial opportunities to all of us, we can increase the wide-spread demand through affordability with affordability becoming  the mechanism for reducing the cost.  There are no barriers to cost reduction through the route of increased demand in reaching a dollar a watt installed.    

Some may argue that the proliferation of solar in our grid infrastructure will degrade the power quality of delivered power.  By locating the community solar in areas that have the capacity to accept solar we can postone the need for energy storage for the near term.  If we need dispatchable electric power power to supplement the solar use distributed natural gas generation, it will be during periods of low light levels.  Low light levels reduce NOx and SOx resulting in  an improvement in air quality.

Using the same economic principle that increased product demand will reduce cost, the price of energy storage should also become more affordable in the not-to-distant future.  

Our 501c3 corporation is located  to the nearby resources of the University of Tennesse, ORNL, TVA and EPRI.  This is the ideal testing ground for the concept.  The cost of adopting such a program are minimal and should be politically neutral.

Figuring that at least I did something to get the idea out there, I dismissed the thought and went onto other tasks.

To my utter surprise I received the following reply:

Dear Mr. Levy:

Congratulations! The SunShot team finance experts have reviewed your proposal, and invite you to present at the SunShot Grand Challenge Summit and Technology Forum.  The Summit will be held next week, June 13-14, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Denver Colorado.  Please let us know as soon as possible if you will be able to attend. Of course, it is preferable that you present your idea, but if you absolutely are unable to do so we can arrange for someone from SunShot to present on your behalf.  

Your presentation will be in front of an audience and panel of judges. It should be limited to 3-5 minutes and 4 PowerPoint slides.  

Approximately 650 people have registered to participate in the Summit. Our “expert” panel will include:

  • David Arfin, CEO, First Energy Finance
  • David Danielson, Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
  • David Graham, Founding Partner, Greenstart
  • Nat Kreamer, CEO, Clean Power Finance

Additionally, we expect at least 200 members of the solar and funding communities to be in the audience during your “pitch.”

Again, thank you for submitting your proposal.  We hope you will be able to join us in Denver.

– The SunShot Team

Having less than a week to prepare the four page proposition I needed help.  I sent requests for help with the presentation and the delivery of the presentation by remembering the outstanding presentation of Professor Rupy Sawhney <sawhney@utk.edu> given at the recent TVA sponsored Solar Solutions Conference.  Professor Rupy Sawhney is the associate head of the Department of Industrial and Information Engineering at the University of Tennessee.  I contacted Professor Sawhney and he responded that he was out of the country but to contact his associates.  I did as he suggested and held a meeting with two of his team and explained the concept and the short fuse to complete the presentation.  Before meeting with them I did some research on how this country financed world war II.  One of the most striking facts that came out of my googling was that savings stamps and E bond sales offered the public raised $33 billion dollars over the duration of the world war II. The citizens of the U.S. bought a total of $12,380 million worth of E bonds  during 1944 when the average family income was about $50 per week.

The nation had a goal that all agreed was to win.  What is our national goal today?  Could we all agree it is again  national security?  If so, do we listen to one of this country’s outstanding military leaders, Wesley K. Clark, the retired Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander?  He recently published an article in which he said,

“while all eyes are on the economy, let’s not forget that those same clean energy investments are mission critical to another top national priority: to strengthen American energy security.”

I have emailed the Sunshot person who sent me the acceptance notice that I need information on those signed up to attend the Denver meeting next week from the Knoxville area so that I can ask one of them to present the concept.  I have a followup meeting on Monday with Professor Sawhney’s team.

I have emailed the Sunshot person who sent me the acceptance notice that I need information on those signed up to attend the Denver meeting next week from the Knoxville area so that I can ask one of them to present the concept.  I have a followup meeting on Monday with Professor Sawhney’s team.

Friday evening I received an email stating that the 4 slides had to be sent to the DoE contractor no later than 5 pm Monday.  The presentations are to be given next Thursday and there are no rooms available but if you wanted to attend, you would be put on a waiting list.  Also, no compensation, no prize just the benefit of the exchange of information.  I suggested that the presentation could be Skyped so avoid the last minute maneuvering, and await their reply.

What ever happens to this effort will be reported in a follow-on blog.

Stephen Levy