Hillary Clinton Has a Plan to Cover America in Solar Panels

The Democratic presidential candidate wants the U.S. to obtain a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2027.

(Photo: Karim Sahib/Getty Images)

Jul 29, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Forget about a chicken in every pot: Hillary Clinton wants to put a solar panel on every roof.

Half a billion of them.

The Democratic presidential front-runner this week unveiled her green power plan, calling for a 700 percent increase in installed solar capacity in the United States to about 140 gigawatts. The big goal: Generate a third of the nation’s electricity from non-hydro-renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2027, up from 7 percent today.

“It’s hard to believe there are people running for president who refuse to accept the settled science of climate change,” Clinton said in a video unveiling her “vision for renewable power.” “On day one as president, I will set two ambitious national goals that will test our capacities. First, I will ensure we hit a target of having more than a half-billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of my first term. We’ll set a 10-year goal of generating enough renewable energy to power every single home in America.”

Unlike in the 2012 presidential race, when the environment was barely mentioned by any candidate, climate change is likely to be front and center in 2016 campaigns.

The Clinton plan ramps up the huge increase in renewable energy installed during the Obama administration.

But is such a green vision doable or just blue-sky dreaming?

“Overall, this should be considered a serious policy proposal that is, with the right supporting policies, achievable,” Scott Clausen, a policy and research associate at the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in an email. “The timetable is certainly aggressive, and of course there is always an element of political posturing in the context of presidential campaigns, but Clinton’s proposal is feasible and should be taken seriously.”

The green energy boom of the last eight years was triggered by billions of dollars in subsidies and tax incentives. Much of that money has now been spent, however, and a 30 percent tax break for solar projects is set to fall to 10 percent by the end of 2016.

“Failure to extend this policy would have serious deleterious effects on the solar market,” Clausen said.

The Republican-controlled Congress, however, has shown little inclination to support such solar subsidies.

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Another obstacle to Clinton’s goals, Clausen said, is backlash from utilities that fear that solar is putting them in a “death spiral” as more of their customers generate their own electricity. Some companies are trying to impose monthly fees on customers who go solar or are opposing net metering, which allows solar-powered households and businesses to sell surplus electricity back to utilities at retail rates.

“Net metering has been a key driver in the expansion of rooftop solar, and scaling it back or eliminating it would negatively impact the market,” Clausen said.

“Without such policy changes, these important policy supports, the growth in solar installations is likely to stall, making it almost impossible to achieve the plan’s goals,” he said, adding that his group forecasts a 50 percent drop in solar installations if the tax credits are not extended.

Electricity production generates more than one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with coal-fired power plants accounting for most of the carbon pollution.

Renewable energy is not only key to cutting those emissions but also generates jobs.

“The industry has witnessed a booming clean energy/green job market,” Farah Saeed, principal consultant for energy and power systems at Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm, said in an email. “In 2014, the industry produced 47,000 new clean energy and clean transportation jobs.”

Saeed believes that Clinton’s plan is feasible, given the major decline in the cost of solar panels in recent years. “I think we are close to a position where this might be market driven,” she said. “While government incentives have and continue to play a strong role, I think consumers will be more forthcoming.”

Nick Culver, a former solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said that Clinton’s plan is a far cry from some of the Republican candidates’ energy proposals.

It is “a pretty stark contrast to Jeb Bush’s platform—he calls for elimination of renewable and fossil fuel subsidies,” Culver said in an email. “This approach, even if getting rid of all fossil fuel subsidies were possible, would be very unlikely to get you such massive solar growth.”

“However, I also want to point out that Hillary’s campaign fact sheet lists only the solar ‘goal,’ he added. “There’s no real policy strategy for getting there. So basically, they picked a round number, but a bunch of nerds still need to figure out how to make that happen.”

Clinton has so far said little about curbing other fossil-fuel uses, refusing to take a position, for instance, on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“Clinton’s climate plan is remarkable for what it doesn’t say, yet,” RL Miller, founder of the Climate Hawks Vote super PAC, said in a statement. “No effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground, no price on carbon; no word on Keystone XL, Arctic oil, or other carbon bombs; no word on fracking; no call for adaptation.”