As is unfortunately apparent from the daily headlines, the United States, as well as Georgia’s economy, is going through a difficult economic transition that has prompted business closings and job losses. However, these times also present a huge opportunity for our state and progressive policymakers to take charge of both our economic and environmental futures by making renewable resource development such as solar energy a priority.
A key theme of this transition is the decline of traditional industries – think newspaper publishers and automakers. On an equally noteworthy front, the economic incentives and job creation afforded by green industries and the manufacturing that supports them – industries supported by stimulus and in some instances private capital – may be overlooked. Green industries are ripe for job growth and economic development, but the state needs to better harness available resources.
For example, if the right decisions are made, Georgia can become a leader in the rapidly-growing solar power industry. We know solar works well in sunny Georgia – if we can grow pine trees and kudzu better than most, the same applies to making solar energy from the sun. Georgia receives 5.5 peak hours of sun per day – twice as many hours as Germany, the international leader in solar power. By 2020, if we do things correctly, Georgia could be ranked in the top 10 states in solar power jobs and revenue. At average national growth rates, this equates to a $2.8 billion dollar annual industry supporting 15,000 jobs. So, what can state leaders do right now to ensure that we benefit from the growing demand and incentives focused on fostering this industry?
In its most recent session, the Georgia legislature approved a measure that will provide grants for clean energy from federal funds, allowing businesses to install solar panels and pay only 35 percent of the cost out of pocket. In addition, efficiency measures are eligible under the new tax bill for commercial building and more energy efficiency is needed to work with renewable energy. This measure, HB 473, will save Georgia taxpayers money and relieve the uncertainty businesses now face when planning projects financially dependent on the current tax credit. Certainly a positive step, but we need more.
With the right policies in place - from increased caps on solar capacity to greater incentives for business and residential customers - Georgia could continue to foster dynamic companies such as Suniva, a Norcross-based facility that uses technology developed at Georgia Tech to manufacture high-efficiency photo-voltaic (PV) cells. But regretfully, there’s money being left on the table. There is no one in the state manufacturing panels, so Suniva must ship cells offshore instead of fostering vertical integration right here at home. And Suniva isn’t the only growing solar company here; companies like One World Renewable Energy, Radiance Solar, Hannah Solar, SoEnSo, Georgia Solar Electric Power, and many others are well positioned to help grow clean energy along with the economy.
Consider this: if each of Georgia Power’s 2.3 million customers contributed only one dollar per year to support the production of green energy from solar systems, Georgia Power would have enough resources to expand its current solar power capacity nearly 20 times over. The typical response to solar power is “we just can’t afford it.” I would subscribe that continuing to provide only cheap, low-value energy is not the way to tackle global warming or creating a new economy. But if we focus on quality - think Prius verses the standard gas-guzzling engine - we will have the right alignment of economic and environmental goals.
The promise of solar is that it is a completely renewable, home-grown resource that can be made here. The need now is to move rapidly through the learning curve that many states are way ahead of us on (North Carolina has now installed roughly 10 times Georgia’s solar PV capacity; Florida is even further along). The sooner we all work together for our energy independence, a cleaner environment and the promise of new high paying jobs, the sooner we can reap these clear benefits. And, perhaps equally important to our economic development teams and corporate relocation specialists, allow Georgia to compete with more progressive states that are leaving us in the dust when it comes to adopting progressive energy policy. Let our time in the sun begin today!