- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A majority of Americans didn’t just cast a vote for President Obama on Nov. 6.

They also came down firmly on the side of renewable energy and the federal government’s efforts to “level the playing field” with fossil fuels, argues the chairman of the solar power industry’s leading trade group.

“The opposition made it a really big issue. They attacked it from day one and tried to turn that part of the president’s record into a liability. The vote, to some extent, was a referendum on that, and it came down squarely on the side of clean energy,” said Arno Harris, chairman of the Solar Energy Industries Association and CEO of Recurrent Energy, a major player in solar project development in North America. The association represents more than 1,000 solar sector companies and their nearly 120,000 employees.

Public support

“I think Americans understand why clean energy is important and what the role of government is in helping make sure … that the country gets the benefits of it,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times this week, Mr. Harris — a former Silicon Valley executive who described himself as “libertarian with a small ‘l’ ” — predicted that the solar industry in the United States “is going to be a part of our energy future, no matter what” and said the only question is how great a role it will play.

But that industry is still dealing with fallout and public skepticism following the Obama administration’s loan to failed solar company Solyndra, a disastrous investment that cost American taxpayers more than $530 million.

Solyndra overreaction

Mr. Harris defended the underlying Energy Department loan guarantee program that funded Solyndra’s loan, a significant piece of Mr. Obama’s stimulus package.

While critics have painted the program, and the Solyndra deal in particular, as a misuse of taxpayer money to support “green” projects favored by the White House, Mr. Harris believes the Solyndra investment was a necessary risk.

He argued that there’s never a sure thing when dealing with cutting-edge technology, which relies on both government and private investment to take off and thrive.

“Business failure is inevitable whenever you’re trying to launch new technology,” he said. “The opposition [to investment in renewable energy] tried to make it a bigger deal than it was. What it said to me was that anytime you have taxpayer dollars, there’s a much higher level of scrutiny than there is when you’re taking investor dollars. Let’s not forget that Solyndra’s investors lost $1 billion.”

Mr. Harris also believes that the public understands and accepts the failure of Solyndra, viewing it in the larger context of the administration’s decision to help advance an industry central to the nation’s energy future.

“I don’t think the failure of one company, the loss of that money, has translated into an overall indictment of the industry,” he said. “The American people, I think, also understood what happened there. We made a bet [on Solyndra]. It turned out to be the wrong bet.”

Solar sector growth

Despite the negative publicity surrounding the Solyndra bankruptcy, the future appears bright for the solar sector, especially now that Mr. Obama has won a second term.

The number of jobs in the solar industry has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from about 93,000 in 2010 to nearly 120,000 today, according to figures from Mr. Harris and the Solar Foundation. The price of solar power projects has also slid dramatically, putting it in a position to compete with natural gas and other fuels for the near future.

“The industry has gone through tremendous growth … we’ve struggled to find industries that can generate jobs like that,” Mr. Harris said.

The China question

He also decried a potential trade war with China, which heavily subsidizes its solar companies and sells products to American buyers, putting U.S. manufacturers at a disadvantage.

While some within the sector have called for the federal government to impose tariffs on Chinese goods or take other steps, Mr. Harris called such a strategy “a mistake” and said the nation must avoid such a conflict with the Asian power.

“If China retaliates and imposes sanctions on [U.S. goods], we could end up hurting American businesses,” he said. “I don’t think we have a China problem.”