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With Climate Change Accelerating, What’s the Role for Solar?

By Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association

I did not wake up early on Sunday to listen to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) release its final report on the current state of climate change, live-streamed from Copenhagen. But judging from the Twitter posts with the #IPCC hashtag, newspaper articles and blogs that have followed, many people around the world did.

Less clear is whether this momentary focus is a sign of a growing global concern about climate change that will lead to effective action, or an insular discussion by advocates, pundits and policy wonks that will have little impact beyond the daily news cycle.


The nonprofit I lead, the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), is a research and education group, not a policy or lobbying organization. We take no position on the issues the IPCC report raises — either about the specific findings related to climate change or the actions it sees as necessary to slow or counter the impact of carbon emissions on the earth’s natural and human systems.

But as I read the report’s Summary for Policy Makers, I found myself making clear connections between its findings and the trends SEPA researches and reports on in its work supporting utility efforts to integrate more solar-powered electricity onto the grid.


“Innovation and investments in environmentally sound infrastructures and technologies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance resilience to climate change.”


SEPA is a co-owner  of Solar Power International (SPI), the largest solar industry trade show in the United States. This year’s event was in Las Vegas, where I recently spent a week, seeing close up the accelerating pace of technical and business innovation already making solar a catalyst for change in the nation’s energy system.

SPI Julia Nahi
Julia Hamm, SEPA president and CEO, at Solar Power International in Las Vegas, discussing the future of solar with Paul Nahi, CEO of Enphase Energy, which manufactures inverters. 

One of the clearest messages emerging from the event is that the solar industry in the United States is intensely focused on reducing costs across its supply chain to make solar power more affordable and competitive with other, traditional fuels. Companies are developing solar cells that convert more of the sun’s light into electricity. They are designing racking systems that make installation faster and software that allows utilities to cut the time it takes to get new projects connected to the grid.


On the technical front, we are seeing advances in forecasting, storage and power management equipment that could eventually make intermittent renewable energy — solar and wind — as reliable, flexible and stable as base-load fossil fuels or nuclear.


“Well-designed systemic and cross-sectoral mitigation strategies are more cost-effective in cutting emissions than a focus on individual technologies and sectors, with efforts in one sector affecting the need for mitigation in others.”


SEPA recently led a fact-finding mission to Germany, aimed at providing utility and solar industry leaders the opportunity to examine firsthand the country’s accelerated transformation of its energy system. While the “Energiewende,” as the Germans call it, is associated with generous incentives that resulted in rapid solar adoption — and the country’s current high electric rates — a key takeaway for our group was that it is, in fact, an integrated, multifaceted initiative with wide public support.


Beyond investments in solar that triggered panel price drops worldwide, Germany is laying the foundation for a fundamental change in how all energy is generated, consumed and managed. Yes, German electric rates are high, but combined with policies on energy efficiency, they have driven down average household power consumption to about one-third of the U.S. average.

Read more about SEPA’s fact-finding mission to Germany here.

The cautionary example of German utilities that still own generating assets also left a strong impression on our group. Specifically, these companies did not invest or actively engage in solar adoption and took huge losses as a result.


SEPA is now working to find innovative ways to adapt the lessons learned in Germany to the different conditions of the U.S. market and the current debates swirling around solar integration, incentives and rate structures. At SPI, we launched a new initiative called The 51st State, inviting all stakeholders in the U.S. energy industry to re-imagine the policies and business models that could provide a cleaner, more resilient energy future as if for a new state in which no rules or regulations exist.


We will be releasing the details on how individuals and groups can submit their ideas and visions later this month on The 51st State website, www.SEPA51.org. The initiative is not specifically aimed at climate change mitigation, but in the wake of the IPCC report, the need for new and bold thinking on how we produce, consume and pay for our energy has gained added depth and urgency.