The Big Payback

During a lesson on solar panel installation given as part of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers course in 1999, Erik Holston became captivated by the potential of solar energy. The union wanted its members to have some familiarity with photovoltaic technology, which is used to convert sunlight into clean energy. But Holston, his interest piqued, wanted more. He studied the burgeoning technology on his own, attending every seminar and workshop he could find. “I traveled everywhere–Rockford, Illinois, places in Wisconsin,” recalls Holston. “I’d take off work to go wherever I could to stay informed of the progress in the field.”

After establishing an electrical contracting business, Holston carved out a niche for himself by adding solar energy to his offerings and, in 2007, established Solar Electric Inc.

Industry studies show that green power companies like Holston’s can expect to generate a lot of their own green in the coming years, says Chris Busch, policy director of the Center for Resource Solutions, a San Francisco-based environmental policy group that offers consumer protection services in markets for environmental commodities.

There was $155 billion spent on everything from research and development of new clean energy technology to new clean energy projects in 2008,” Busch says. “Revenue for clean energy is expected to grow to $325.1 billion in 2018, and that’s just on the demand side for renewable energy technology. We’re not even talking about the money for venture capital investments that goes along with that.”

The solar electrical segment of the green power industry has grown 30% to 50% in the past 10 years, and the current credit crunch isn’t likely to stop future growth, says Mark Burger, principal at Kestrel Development Co., an Oak Park, Illinois-based renewable energy policy and market development firm, and president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, of which Holston is a member. “Because of very strong policy and incentive support from the Obama administration as well as the growth of the policy and incentive support in many states, I think the solar photovoltaic industry will continue to grow,” says Burger.

The $789 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Obama may help lower the cost barrier of renewable energy technology, keeping small green power businesses alive and the long-term outlook of the industry and the economy on track. The stimulus package extended the Production Tax Credit, a provision that gives a business a 1 to 1.5 cent premium for every kilowatt hour that its renewable energy system produces. (This provision does not apply to solar facilities.) In lieu of the Investment Tax Credit, developers can apply for grants that equal 30% of the cost of eligible projects that are started in 2009 or 2010, and the grants are applicable to all renewable energy, including solar. “The signals from the Obama administration are that policies to move the industry forward, both in the energy-specific and broader climate areas, have not been forgotten and that investing in the clean energy economy of the future is still a priority,” says Busch. “Indeed, the recovery package is a down payment on this long-term goal and also shows that spurring clean energy investment is recognized as part of the larger effort to get the economy moving again.”