Matalin and Carville Advise the Solar Industry: Learn to Pitch to Republicans

Matalin and Carville Advise the Solar Industry: Learn to Pitch to Republicans
Matalin and Carville Advise the Solar Industry: Learn to Pitch to Republicans

Republicans can be friendly to solar energy -- just don't use the terms "recovery act" or "stimulus package" when lobbying them for government subsidies.

That was the message from Republican political adviser Mary Matalin, who took the stage with her Democratic counterpart and husband, James Carville, at the largest solar conference in the country on Thursday. Solar Power International, taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is set to draw around 27,000 attendees, including makers of solar panels, solar water heaters and other components and equipment, as well as distributors and installers.

"There is a crop of young Republicans who understand the market force of new technologies, particularly solar and other renewable," Matalin said. "You can get something done if you don't call it 'recovery.' Don't say 'stimulus.' Say 'job creating.'"

The Solar Energy Industries Association has been lobbying for an extension of a program that doles out cash to owners of solar electric energy systems, from small installations on the rooftops to large projects meant to supply electricity to utilities. The program was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Barack Obama in February 2009 and is set to sunset at the end of this year. Each grant amounts to 30% of the cost of installing each project, including equipment and labor.

Fall Elections Will Give Fossil Fuel Industries More Leverage

The solar industry is young and relies heavily on government money for support at many levels, from technology development to factory building to power plant construction. Billions of dollars have gone to solar companies thanks to the Recovery Act. For example, Solyndra, which has designed an innovative solar panel lined with tubes that filled with solar cells, has gotten a federal loan of $535 million to build a factory in Fremont, Calif., and BrightSource Energy is getting a federal loan of $1.37 billion to build a massive power plant in the Mojave Desert of California.

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As a result, the midterm election results could have a big impact on the solar business. And solar energy advocates worry that a big win for Republicans could end up shifting Congress toward policies favoring the coal, oil and gas industries. These fossil fuel businesses have lobbied hard against legislation that would benefit renewable energy, such as requiring utilities to buy electricity from sources that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The fear isn't unfounded. Matalin said Republicans -- and many Americans -- still favor boosting domestic oil production as a way to reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil. Companies in the solar industry have to position themselves as producers of clean and cheap energy, but solar won't replace fossil fuel anytime soon.

"Being pro-solar doesn't mean you are anti-something else," Matalins said.

Ask GOP to Support New Technology, Not Cap-and-Trade

Republicans are poised to grab a significant number of legislative seats away from Democrats in the November elections, both on the federal and state levels, polls show. Matalin said Republicans have a good chance of taking control of the House of Representatives, but the prognosis for the Senate races isn't as clear. Carville said Democrats are in trouble.

"There is a hurricane coming, and it's not changing course. It'll be hitting the Democrats," said Carville. "What we don't know is if it's Category 5 and you'll get wiped out ... or a Category 3 and you'll lose some, but most things will stay intact."

"It was a 5 two weeks ago, and today it's a weak 4. Democrats have gone from godawful to just awful," he added.

Matalin said Republicans understand that new technologies need government support because they can't compete with older technologies on price. But she also warned that Republicans aren't going to embrace the idea of carbon emissions cap-and-trade, where operators of power plants, oil refineries and other industrial operations must gradually reduce their carbon emission, or pay for emissions that exceed government-set limits.

Cap-and-trade policies are seen as putting a price on carbon emissions, which could not only reduce emissions over time, but also raise public awareness about the amount of emissions coming from industrial operations. Environmental activists hope both those points would prompt businesses and consumers to choose renewable energy, or lobby their legislators to pass laws promoting renewable energy generation.