Hearing on incentives devolves into shouting match over energy costs, jobs

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 23, 2012

What was supposed to be an examination of how tax policy affects fledgling technology was overshadowed yesterday by heated showdowns between a pugnacious House Republican and renewable energy advocates over how to measure jobs and electricity costs from their industries.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) dominated the hearing of the House science subpanels on energy and oversight, which at one point had to be interrupted when Harris’ questioning of the head of a solar energy trade association turned into a shouting match.

Harris, who chairs the energy subpanel, was citing Energy Information Administration data he said showed solar’s costs exceeded those of natural gas generation by a factor of four, a figure Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch attempted to dispute, although he was not really given a chance to speak.

“Who is going to pay that difference? My ratepayer and my taxpayer in my district? Who is going to pay that difference for an inefficient delivery of electric generation to my seniors, and my veterans, and my schools?” Harris said, growing visibly agitated. “Because my school system’s gotta pay three times as much for their power, they don’t have as much for books and they don’t have enough for teachers; who is going to pay it?”

Resch attempted to interject that Harris’ information was “not accurate” before the exchange devolved into a full-on shouting match, during which Resch attempted to explain that Harris was comparing wholesale gas generation prices to retail solar prices.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) eventually had to step in to break up the exchange. Broun, who chairs the oversight subpanel and was presiding over the joint hearing, instructed Resch that Harris had the prerogative to use his questioning time as he pleased and should not be interrupted while trying to “get some information.”

That drew a rebuke from Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the oversight subcommittee, who protested that “harassing a witness is not gathering information.”

Harris did not return to questioning Resch once the hearing proceeded, instead turning to a conservative economist on the panel who agreed with his arguments

Earlier in the hearing, Harris unleashed his aggressive style on a representative from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The lab earlier this month released a report estimating that the 1603 grant program, which was established in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to offer cash grants in lieu of tax credits, created up to 75,000 jobs per year (Greenwire, April 9).

Harris questioned those figures because they were based on modeling results rather than a survey of each recipient of the 1603 funds. He pointed repeatedly to a line from a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of the program that found 300 people were still employed by the largest recipient of 1603 funds, compared to an estimate of 770 permanent jobs in the NREL study.

“If I did a model and was 100 percent off, I’d go find a new model,” Harris quipped.

Michael Pacheco, NREL’s vice president for deployment and market transformation, would not disavow the lab’s findings under a barrage of hectoring questions from Harris to which he was given little opportunity to respond.

Pacheco was unable to rebut Harris’ accusation in the split seconds he was given to weigh in, but later in the hearing, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) threw him a lifeline and allowed him to speak freely.

The Wall Street Journal report, Pacheco noted, was based on a survey of companies that received about 40 percent of the 1603 funding, meaning that if you extrapolated their data to all recipients, the number would effectively match NREL’s findings.

“So if you were to extrapolate, sir, that 40 percent up to our earlier estimate of 770, I think you would conclude that our models are actua