Wesley Clark on how to sell solar to a tough crowd

March 19th, 2012

Ucilia Wang
March 19, 2012

Clean energy will drive the next wave of economic growth, and will be the first development mechanism in the U.S. since we won the Cold War, said retired General Wesley Clark during a keynote at solar conference PV America West in San Jose Monday.

But at the same time Clark noted that it’s unrealistic to cast solar energy deployment as a means to achieve energy independence just yet. Instead, Clark stressed the importance of countering climate change. “We are dealing with the severe consequences of climate change, and we’ve got to move away from carbon-based fuels,” said Clark.

Clark touted President Obama’s expansive clean energy strategy, which will invest in a wide swath of cleantech sectors, including natural gas, nuclear, electric cars and, of course, solar. Clark’s speech was essentially a pep talk to an audience that has been feeling under siege ever since Solyndra went bankrupt last fall and kicked start a big political debate over the government role in funding clean energy development.

Clark noted that cable television was a big investment focus in the 1970s, personal computers in the 1980s and Internet in the 1990s. What about the past decade? “Somehow we couldn’t find what else to invest in other than real estate,” said Clark, who sits on energy and climate change advisory board of the Clinton Global Initiative and the board of an ethanol lobbying group called Growth Energy. He also recently joined the board of solar panel maker SoloPower. “We focus on energy – that’s the key,” said Clark.

The demise of a popular federal program that subsidized solar installations until the end of last year and the challenge of trying to get Congress to renew it during an election year have compounded the frustration among solar energy proponents. In 2011, the U.S. solar market more than doubled the amount of solar panels it installed, and the market could grow another 51 percent in 2012, according to a report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. But forecaster say the growth could be even greater if Congress brings back the grant, which covered 30 percent of a project’s cost.

Republicans have been particularly harsh critics even though many of them had lobbied for the same pots of government funds for companies in their home states. But changing their minds is necessary to ensure not just short-term but also long-term support for solar.“We’ve got to reverse the idea that the government is somehow the enemy,” Clark said.

He urged those in the audience to pony up money to strengthen the solar industry’s lobbying effort at the national and local levels. Positioning solar as an energy investment opportunity for everyone will help to diffuse conflict between traditional energy companies and solar energy advocates, he added. Clark also suggested the creation of an X prize to reward solar breakthroughs, such as boosting the efficiency of solar cells to turn sunlight into electricity. Right now most of the cells on the market produce power from using less than a quarter of the sunlight that falls on them.

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