Early on Saturday, February 19th, 2011, the House passed its version of this year’s budget, which was highlighted by $61 billion in cuts from federal programs. The bill will now move to the Senate where there will likely be amendments and eventual compromise before President Obama signs the bill. Nevertheless, it is an interesting time to examine what this budget and drive to reduce the federal deficit means for solar financing and the solar industry in general.
President Obama has made it clear that, although his priority is to trim the federal deficit, he is not willing to sacrifice funding for clean energy research and development. For the 2012 fiscal year, Obama unveiled a $29.5 billion budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE), which includes $3.2 billion for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)– a 44% increase over the current appropriation. This request includes an 88% increase in funding for the solar EERE program specifically.
The budget passed by the House, however, is more aggressive in its attempts to reduce the federal deficit and would cut billions of dollars from federal energy and environmental programs. In particular, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which invests in early stage and risky projects, would be hit hard. Similarly, the EERE would lose 35% of its budget relative to last year, a stark contrast to the White House’s plans. The budget would also cut funding for several DOE loan guarantee programs.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has characterized these cuts as “disastrous”. Currently, solar developers use the DOE loan guarantee programs to help finance solar projects at low interest rates, and these cuts could halt solar projects around the country. However, the chances of the House budget passing into law in its current form are very slim. Senate Democrats and President Obama will likely push back against dramatic reductions in the DOE loan guarantee program.
Despite the fact that House Republicans are currently proposing cuts to clean energy funding, it is important to highlight that a GOP Congress has historically supported solar. The first tax credits for solar were passed in a 2005 Energy Bill by a Republican Congress and later extended by President George W. Bush.
Both parties see the job growth opportunities in the solar industry. Solar employers expect jobs to increase by 26 percent over the next year, and lawmakers from both parties share concerns over the current U.S. unemployment rate.
It is important to note that no matter what happens with the Federal Budget, there will be states that maintain policies promoting solar deployment and allowing for job growth in the renewable energy industry. For example, more and more states are adopting a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that contains a solar carve-out requiring utilities to procure a certain percentage of their electricity from a solar source. These solar carve-outs create markets for Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs. An SREC is a tradable credit that represents all the clean energy benefits of electricity generated from a solar electric system. SRECs are a market-based mechanism that do not rely of state or federal funding, so SRECs will help system owners finance their solar energy systems regardless of federal cuts to clean energy programs.
The House resolution on the budget, although likely not to pass in its current form, would certainly be detrimental to the health of the solar industry, particularly the reductions in the DOE loan guarantee program. We hope lawmakers will recognize the job growth and economic opportunity that the solar sector represents, instead of seeing it as a way to trim government spending.