SEIA’s inaugural Federal & State Policy Summit highlights solar potential in new split congress

SEIA’s CEO and president Abigail Ross Hopper speaks with U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

SEIA’s Federal & State Policy Summit was an in-depth look at the state of solar affairs across the country, featuring a wide variety of experts from senators to state energy leaders to trade lawyers. Here are some points that stuck with me.

There’s reason to have hope for climate action and increased solar penetration with the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

SEIA’s CEO and president Abigail Ross Hopper kicked off the summit with a bold proclamation: it’s not unreasonable to think that in our lifetimes, solar will have the market share that coal has now.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island echoed Hopper’s optimism for the future of solar and clean energy, given the results of the 2018 midterm election.

“The turnout and activity of young and pro-climate voters and the energy of the environmental movement in the last election will combine to make it really, really difficult for the House of Representatives under Democratic leadership NOT to do a fairly serious climate bill,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse said fossil fuel companies have worked hard to create the false narrative that climate change is a partisan issue, so much so that Republicans won’t go near it.

“I used to tease my beloved John McCain about [supporting climate change legislation], and he once rather crossly said to me, ‘Sheldon, I’m willing to undertake dangerous missions, but I don’t like suicide missions,'” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse said if he were Nancy Pelosi, he would call in the 70 or so companies that supported America joining the Paris climate agreement and tell them the time is now to put forth a climate bill. If the corporate sector shows that it’s serious about climate change, he thinks a very significant carbon price can be initiated.

Tariffs aren’t the best way to incentivize manufacturing.

All but one speaker on a panel of trade lawyers said the Trump administration’s actions on trade are not business as usual. During the past two years, these lawyers have been incredibly busy helping their client companies deal with the impacts of the trade war.

“This is like a catastrophic event,” said Jennifer McCadney, special counsel for Kelley Drye & Warren LLP. “Like there’s been a flood and we don’t know when the water’s going to roll out.”

John Smirnow, VP of market strategy at SEIA, said the heart of the Trump administration’s trade war is about trying to use tariffs to incentivize manufacturing. But the solar industry has seen there are downsides to that–there are a few new manufacturing plants, but there’s broader damage, Smirnow said.

Amy Hariani, VP and legal policy counsel of the US-India Business Council, said other countries like India are seeing the trade war as an opening for them, allowing them to pick up some of the global supply chain and create policies for companies looking for alternatives to China.

“In some ways, you see some of our allies hiding behind some of the big actions of the U.S. and quietly supporting them,” Hariani said.

She said the real question is: how is the administration going to balance the need for allies with the desire to ensure trade deficits are leveled with our Top 10 or 20 trading partners?

Ambassador Sue Esserman, partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and former deputy U.S. trade representative, said the agreement between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit to have a temporary trade cease-fire was probably the best outcome she could’ve hoped for under these circumstances, even though 90 days probably won’t be enough time to come up with a comprehensive path forward.

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