Environment & Energy Report

States Give Solar Industry Leader Hope Amid Era of Uncertainty

Jan. 29, 2019, 11:10 AM

Uncertainty in trade and energy policy, a hallmark of the Trump administration’s impact on renewable energy industries, is one of the main challenges Abigail Ross Hopper has to navigate as president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The administration has subjected the solar industry to tariffs on solar panels, aluminum, and steel, and companies are learning to adapt.

“We think over the next four years, five years, $7 billion in investment will be lost. That’s a big number. We think about 9,000 jobs will be lost,” Hopper told Bloomberg Environment. “That’s really the story of the tariffs. It has slowed our growth in a way that is completely unnecessary.”

In the shorter term, the industry had to deal with another uncertainty: the partial government shutdown that shuttered the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department. Even though the Energy Department was funded, solar projects on public lands—like other Interior projects—were at a standstill.

“The impact it’s having on energy development is just delays at a point where—pick the form of energy—it’s growing and expanding, and we’re putting these arbitrary delays on them,” Hopper said before the shutdown ended last week. “It’s challenging for businesses to plan in the face of so much uncertainty.”

Actions Personal

For Hopper, navigating Trump administration actions she sees as unnecessary or arbitrary is personal.

Hopper works in her K Street office in Washington beneath a framed logo of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management logo—the agency she directed from 2015 to 2017, before joining SEIA as its CEO at the end of the Obama administration.

BOEM was closed until Jan. 25 as part of the 35-day government shutdown, postponing hearings and slowing progress on offshore wind development while still supporting some offshore oil development in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before taking the helm of BOEM, Hopper directed the Maryland Energy Administration, served as deputy general counsel to the Maryland Public Service Commission, and spent nine years as a lawyer in private practice.

Today, as SEIA chief, Hopper oversees the trade association representing more than 1,000 companies in America’s solar power industry, often striking alliances with other energy trade groups to collectively advocate for clean energy.

“We routinely work with Abby and her staff on a range of important issues, including recent productive efforts on tax policy and grid modernization,” said Greg Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “It’s a good partnership.”

Rush of Investment

Though renewable energy industries, including solar, are having to adjust to a climate of uncertainty in the U.S., it’s happening amid a rush of investment in renewables in the U.S. and beyond.

The U.S. ranked second behind China for clean energy investment in 2018, totaling $64.2 billion, up 12 percent from the previous year as developers rush to finance wind and solar projects before tax credits expire, according to BloombergNEF data.

Congressional districts represented by both parties are seeing those investments, showing that solar power benefits many regions of the country regardless of their political leanings, Hopper said.

“This is not just the blue states on the coast. These are states throughout the country investing in solar because it makes economic sense,” Hopper said. “Disabusing people that it’s a Democrat-only idea has been important.”

SEIA’s 2019 agenda will focus on advocating for “rational” trade policy from the Trump administration, in addition to opening new solar markets and defending existing ones, Hopper said.

The association’s concerns about tariffs are shared among other energy groups, including the Alliance to Save Energy, an energy efficiency advocacy group.

Administration efforts to broaden tariffs “will not advance the goal of changing these harmful practices,” alliance President Jason Hartke told Bloomberg Environment.

Solar Grows Despite Paris Rejection

Beyond tariffs, the Trump administration injected uncertainty into U.S. climate and renewable energy policy when he announced in 2017 his preference for coal and that the U.S. plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. The pact set forth pollution reduction targets that would require widespread development of renewable energy, including wind and solar.

But Hopper said Trump’s rejection of the Paris accord poses no threat to the solar industry.

“I’ve been happily watching as states continue to lead on climate and don’t feel hamstrung by the decision to be in or out of the Paris accord,” Hopper said. “I think international agreement [on addressing climate change] will help the adoption of renewable energy, but stepping out of it isn’t going to hurt it per se.”

Solar power exists at the nexus of rising public acceptance that climate change is real and consumer demand for clean, affordable energy, Hopper said.

“That’s what I mean by stepping away from the Paris accord—renewable energy is still going to grow in this country for that reason,” she said.

Other renewable energy associations share that view.

“The majority of clean energy growth in the U.S. is driven by state governments, the business community, and utilities. The nation will continue its transition to a clean energy future regardless of federal policy and support,” said Adam Wasserman, vice president of the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

States Source of Optimism

Hopper said state enthusiasm for renewables is among her greatest sources of optimism in an era of uncertainty.

Since 2015, several states have adopted ambitious renewable energy targets. Hawaii, California, and New York and have announced goals to get all their electricity from renewables in the coming decades—so has Washington, D.C.

“The fact that renewable energy in general and solar in particular are really in the mainstream” is a source of optimism, Hopper said.

“This is not a little niche industry over here that’s funded by [research and development] efforts,” she said. “This is not something that people who want to save the planet want to put on their homes. It is really in the mainstream.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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