The solar energy revolution in America will be one of the most enduring and positive legacies of President Obama’s two terms in office. Since 2009, total U.S. solar deployment has grown tenfold, making it one of the fastest-growing sources of new electricity generation. Over 1 million households across the country have now gone solar thanks to costs that have fallen by more than 50%, representing billions of dollars in lifetime savings on utility bills. And the solar workforce has more than doubled to employ well over 200,000 Americans — including one in every 80 new jobs since the Great Recession.
As President Obama passes the baton to President-Elect Trump, it’s a perfect time to look back on the policies that underpinned this incredible story and be reminded that in many cases they began, or at least were continued, under Republican presidents. After all, renewable energy, and the technological innovation and economic independence it represents, is as American as apple pie — and just as bipartisan.
So let’s consider four big ways that President Obama built on this bipartisan tradition to catalyze a truly world-changing revolution in the way we get our energy — and think about the ways in which the next president can continue this legacy.
Renewable Energy Tax Credits
Probably the most familiar and directly impactful policy for homeowners going solar over the past eight years has been the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit, which allows an income tax credit of up to 30% of the cost of home solar installations. While this and other renewable energy tax credits have been central to the success of renewables during Obama’s presidency, the solar tax credit was actually originally created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and then extended through the end of 2016 by the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 — both among the biggest pieces of energy legislation passed under George W. Bush.
If further proof of the bipartisan credentials of these tax credits was needed, in late 2015 Congress voted to extend the tax credits for solar through 2022, although they will begin declining in 2020. It would be a huge win in any context, but the ability of renewables to get this kind of across-the-aisle support in the midst of one of the most acrimonious, gridlocked Congresses in recent memory is a true testament to the role renewables have played in creating investment and jobs in red and blue states alike.
Utility-Scale Loan Guarantees
Another notable program developed during the Bush administration that only came to fruition during the Obama era is the Loan Guarantee Program (LGP), and particularly the Title XVII program for innovative clean energy projects. This represented a new model for government support for clean energy, with the Department of Energy (DOE) guaranteeing loans for a limited number of commercial scale deployments of new technologies so that follow-on investments could be made on a purely private-sector basis once their viability was proven. Like the solar tax credits, the LGP was created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but it had been largely unused due to unnecessarily restrictive rules.
That all changed with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 — commonly known as the stimulus bill, aimed at restarting the U.S. economy after the Great Recession. ARRA included new funding for the LGP — and, more importantly, new rules that made it easier for large-scale renewable energy projects to apply. The impact was literally massive: from 2009 to 2011, DOE guaranteed the first five large-scale, 100+ MW solar photovoltaic farms ever built in the U.S., totaling 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity spread over five locations in the southwestern U.S. The success of these projects encouraged the subsequent development of 45 more utility-scale solar farms nationwide, adding another 9.5 GW of solar capacity — and these were based solely on private sector financing.
While the impacts of the LGP were focused on these large-scale solar projects, the manufacturing economies of scale they encouraged helped to bring down the costs of solar panels for everybody. Just as importantly, their track record has helped to build the case that renewables are a bankable, profitable investment — a thesis that has now been proven at every scale of deployment.
Perhaps the signature solar program created by the Obama administration is the SunShot Initiative, a multi-pronged effort at DOE to make solar cost-competitive with fossil fuels at every scale by 2020. To this end, SunShot has funded over 300 projects in cooperation with industry stakeholders to reduce costs throughout the value chain, including photovoltaic manufacturing, systems integration, soft costs, and business model development. Just five years into the program, DOE announced that SunShot is more than 70% of the way towards its 2020 goals — and this success encouraged it to set even more ambitious goals for 2030 in November.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that SunShot’s early investments included a $2 million grant for a new, Oakland-based startup called Mosaic in 2011, which aimed to create a new model of crowdfunding community-scale solar projects. While our business model has subsequently evolved to its current focus on helping individuals own their own piece of the clean energy economy, the early-stage funding provided by DOE was critical to our early success. And like many other SunShot success stories, this early government-led support has generated many multiples more private sector investment: we’re now on track to finance $1 billion in home solar installations!
While SunShot was a creation of the Obama administration, this is another example of the bipartisan DNA of the solar boom. The Department of Energy has been funding a wide range of research into solar power for over 35 years, spanning both Democrat and Republican leadership. While the agency’s solar research budget has waxed during some presidencies and waned during others, the fact that it has been continued by both parties is further proof that leadership in this critical 21st century technology is an edge that America simply can’t afford to lose.
The Paris Agreement
Finally, President Obama also provided the international leadership and spirit of cooperation required to enact the Paris Agreement on climate change — the first ever international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and transition to clean energy, with binding targets for every member country. Many doubted that these climate negotiations would ever come to fruition until President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping came together in November 2014 to announce a groundbreaking bilateral agreement to limit greenhouse gases. This precedent for collaboration between the world’s two largest emitters was the key to getting the rest of the world on board, and the agreement was adopted in December 2015 and formally entered into force this past November.
While in some ways the Paris Agreement represents a crucial difference between Obama’s commitment on climate change and George W. Bush’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, it also harkens back to U.S. leadership on international environmental agreements under another Republican president — Ronald Reagan. In the late 1980s, the Reagan administration worked alongside countries around the world to create the Montreal Protocol, which sought to shrink the hole in the ozone layer by eliminating the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigerants, air conditioners, and other products. The treaty is regarded as highly successful, having been used to phase out the use of nearly 100 ozone-depleting gases and putting the world on track to heal the hole in the ozone layer by the mid-21st century.
In fact, the Montreal Protocol has been so successful that the Obama administration worked with other member countries in October 2016 to add new provisions to tackle hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of gases that have been used to replace CFCs but has the nasty side effect of being a powerful greenhouse gas. The history of the Montreal Protocol shows how commitments to international environmental leadership is a thread that can connect U.S. administrations from both parties across decades — and the transition to a carbon-free energy future will similarly be bigger than any single president and longer than any one presidency.
Continuing the Bipartisan Solar Boom
At the end of the day, even if Americans are divided in their opinions over the incoming President-Elect Trump — just as Americans were often divided in our opinions over President Obama — the popularity of solar is universal, as close to a bipartisan truth as anything in our politics. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 89% of Americans support expanding the use of solar power — more than any other source of energy polled! This support includes 97% of the most liberal Democrats and 83% of even the most conservative Republicans.
So all Americans — or, at least, 89% of Americans — should thank President Obama for his bold leadership and vision in presiding over a clean energy revolution that he correctly called “irreversible” in his recent article in Science magazine. And for an incoming president that has put a premium on creating jobs and making good deals, continuing this trend of bipartisan support for clean, low-cost, job-creating solar energy should make all the sense in the world.