By Tom Baxter
What the solar power business needs at this point in its development is another Steve Jobs.
Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers, had a unique knack for making the most disruptive technologies seem smooth and cool and inoffensive. Early in its history, Apple introduced the Macintosh as an act of defiance against the Orwellian sameness of IBM. But those hard edges quickly melted into the rounded corners of the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone. Apple products have become the tool of all factions and the emblem of none.
Renewable energy, including solar, has much the same gadgety appeal as the Apple products. But while Apple harpooned the recording industry as we knew it with one shot when it introduced iTunes, the renewables are circling a more dangerous whale: the electrical utilities and their political allies. That has made it immensely more difficult to strike a neutral tone.
The New York Times editorialized over the weekend about the paradoxical position of conservative groups advocating a surtax on excess energy produced and sold back to utilities by people with solar panels on their roofs. If solar panels don’t seem very threatening yet, a few million dollars worth of issue advertising may be on the way to change that perception.
These are clear signs that solar energy has passed the theoretical stage and deserves to be called the solar energy business. The U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that the nation’s solar energy capacity has grown by 418 percent in the past four years and now accounts for 1.13 percent of total energy production in the country — a tiny share, but enough to cause big waves in the utility business.
With the growth in the business has come some fledgling signs of political power. In Kansas, one of 18 states where the American Legislative Exchange Council has introduced legislation to roll back green-energy mandates, a very well-organized and funded effort was turned back this year, in part because wind farming has become a booming business in rural Kansas, and rural legislators voted accordingly.
Even in Georgia, which has been hostile territory, the business is adding solar jobs at the fastest rate in the country and taking its first steps toward gaining real political clout with substantial contributions to friendly Public Service Commissioners.
The surge in solar energy capacity has come in part because of green-energy incentives and mandates, but most precipitously by the plunging costs of producing it. In the 18 months ending last September, according to one report, the price of solar installations fell by 60 percent. That’s the sort of dramatic shift in competitive advantage that brought forth the disruptive energies of the internet explosion.
If these economic trends continue, the fate of the effort to roll back renewables is foreordained. But that doesn’t necessarily foreordain the success of the solar power business. The interests of solar advocates aren’t identical to the interests of solar investors.
The business faces the dual task of turning back a highly politicized challenge from the right in state legislatures and Congress, while expanding and winning the battle of the rooftops in neighborhoods red and blue. While it’s a network of companies, it needs a voice to articulate a message that brands everything from solar cell phone chargers to installations the size of those Georgia Power is planning.
In short, it needs a Steve Jobs, to seize on the advantages which have rather suddenly opened after decades of trial and error, and make the virtues of the business so obvious and universal that it seldom invites political controversy. Even if sometimes, like all businesses, it should.