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Making New York Shine

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When the history books are written about the long road to marriage equality, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will undoubtedly receive special recognition. And he will have earned the accolades. Indeed, by utilizing the full measure of his political and persuasive abilities -- and at no small risk to the prospects of his fledgling administration -- Cuomo was able to not only pass landmark legislation recognizing the right of same-sex couples to wed, he also fundamentally altered the national conversation around the issue. Cuomo can legitimately take a large dose of credit for speeding up the nation's acceptance and understanding of same-sex marriage as a basic human right.

It's rare that an elected official, especially on the state level, gets the opportunity to change the nation's perception and understanding of a major issue. But just one year after his impressive shepherding of marriage equality into law, Cuomo has the chance to alter the trajectory of renewable energy in the U.S. in a profound way. Between now and June 21, when the current legislative session ends, policymakers will be debating the New York Solar Jobs Act, which would lay the groundwork for the addition of 3,000 megawatts of solar in the Empire State by 2021. To put that number in context, the entire U.S. solar market in 2011 was around 2,000 megawatts. Put even more simply, it would result in enough energy to power nearly 500,000 homes; it's a big deal. But as important as it is to establish large markets (more about that in a moment), a major commitment to this under utilized clean energy source by Cuomo and the legislature would go a long way towards changing America's broken conversation around solar.

For too long now the debate over the viability of solar as part of the country's future energy mix has been sidetracked by misperceptions and sideshows. The most recent example, obviously, has been the circus around Solyndra, the failed panel manufacturer whose support by the Obama administration has become a major issue in the presidential campaign. Even though Mitt Romney's hypocritical attempt to use Solyndra as an indictment of the president's clean energy policies has been thoroughly discredited, the political frenzy created contributes to a more damaging and increasingly outdated perception: that solar is impossibly expensive and not worthy of policy support. The real solar story couldn't be more different. Thanks to the emergence of a large-scale, increasingly sophisticated and brutally competitive global industry, prices for solar panels have been consistently plummeting, falling over 50% in 2011 alone. Paired with smart public policy that boosts the demand for solar globally -- support, by the way, which a recent University of Tennessee report demonstrates has long been standard in the energy industry -- solar has rapidly been getting bigger, better and cheaper.

But policy support remains essential for solar to reach the increasingly attainable goal of becoming price competitive with fossil fuels. And for both symbolic and tangible reasons, Gov. Cuomo's endorsement of major solar legislation this session would be a game changer. On a practical level, legislation to ensure 3,000 megawatts of new solar would make New York the centerpiece of a burgeoning eastern U.S. market that also includes New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts. As the editor of the American edition of Photon magazine, a publication that covers the global solar industry, I have seen what elements are absolutely essential in crafting effective and fiscally sound solar policy. In a nutshell, at least three ingredients are required: scale, long-term certainty and a relentless focus on driving down the level of incentives available to support solar installations over time. With a target of 3,000 megawatts and a time horizon through 2021, the New York Solar Jobs Act has two of three boxes on the checklist already ticked off, as well as an important measure to cap the cost to utility ratepayers. The third piece will be up to utilities, policymakers and regulators, who will need to design and implement programs that hold the solar industry as a whole accountable for its promises to drive down costs year after year.

The benefits of the passage of the New York Solar Jobs Act would be widespread and substantial. One of the biggest would come from what's known as "wholesale price suppression." In our increasingly hot summers, utilities (and eventually their customers) in New York often have to pay exorbitant amounts to obtain all the wholesale electricity required to keep all those air conditioners humming during the hottest parts of the day. Installing a substantial amount of solar systems, which just so happen to be churning out electricity when it's most needed, would be a big step towards trimming those huge bills. The economic development -- especially in the form of construction jobs for those actually installing solar panels -- would also be impressive.

Clearly, Gov. Cuomo already understands many of these benefits. Earlier this year he unveiled and quickly implemented the New York Sun Initiative, which dramatically expands funding for solar installations in the state and begins to streamline the red tape that unnecessarily adds to the cost of solar. This is a great first step. By quadrupling the amount of the state's small market for customer-sited solar by 2013, the New York Sun Initiative begins to address the need for scale. But what is missing, at least for now, is a long-term plan, given that the initiative only extends out a few years. By implementing either the New York Solar Jobs Act or some other policy that extends out ten years, the Cuomo administration and the legislature will provide much needed certainty. Indeed, when I speak to solar companies about how they decide where to invest and hire workers, factor number one is a favorable policy environment that allows them to plan for the long-term.

As important as the details of the policy are, so too is the message its passage would send. You'll notice that I have not mentioned California, which has the largest solar market in the country, in this post. For all its success in promoting solar and creating jobs, California is just too easy for other states to disregard as an exception -- it's sunny, the politics are liberal, etc. But if the fiscally responsible governor of New York set out an ambitious solar agenda, that would inject a much needed rationality into the nation's view of the costs, benefits and potential of solar. In the long and vital struggle to transition our society to clean, renewable energy, it would be an important turning point.

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