Solar’s bête noire — so far — not so scary

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 18, 2017

When President Trump appointed Daniel Simmons to help oversee energy efficiency and renewables at the Department of Energy, clean power boosters groaned.

Labeling Simmons a “Koch cadet” and highlighting his criticism of renewable energy, his detractors questioned whether the self-described free-market evangelist would dismantle DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as his former employer, the Institute for Energy Research (IER), had once suggested.

IER, Simmons’ critics added, wanted to scrap the wind production tax credit and exit the Paris climate accord.

But so far, Simmons has been more of a wild card, touring Mojave Desert solar projects he once criticized, talking to energy experts about solar panels and grid technology and, some say, enjoying his job.

Consider that Simmons this week applauded the Obama-era DOE’s SunShot Initiative, which has successfully reduced the cost of solar panels (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

Charlie Gay, who leads SunShot, said he toured the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave with Simmons on Sunday before making the rounds at a solar-energy conference in Las Vegas. His goal was to give Simmons a firsthand look at renewable energy in action.

“If you can see the people who operate it, it’s no longer abstract,” Gay said. “He was actually keenly interested in what we’re doing.”

While it’s too soon to tell if the 43-year-old Simmons might become their ally, solar advocates say he’s given them some reason for optimism.

Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said he appreciated Simmons’ attendance at the Las Vegas conference that showcased the $23 billion solar industry.

“We are heartened by the conversations we continue to have with this administration,” he said.

Simmons seems to be paving a path for federal research on solar technologies as part of SunShot’s 2030 vision that dovetails with Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s focus on grid reliability and affordable energy.

In an email to E&E News, Simmons stood behind his past assertions that wind and solar are “more expensive and will increase the price of electricity.” But he told PV Magazine this week that he acknowledged that unforeseen market shifts may have thrown his past views for a loop.

“The reductions in solar costs — I did not foresee them, I also did not foresee the reductions in the cost of natural gas,” Simmons told the magazine. “I did not foresee that we would have the price of oil around $50 a barrel or wherever it is today. I admit that I didn’t see the cost of solar and wind decreasing as fast as it has.”

Outside of the federal government, the battle lines between free-market groups and the solar industry remain starkly drawn.

Think tanks like IER and the Heritage Foundation continue to oppose federal subsidies of any kind and have targeted SunShot and other programs.

“I’d like to see the [SunShot] initiative go away, but that’s a conversation that takes place between Congress and the administration,” said Tom Pyle, IER’s president and Simmons’ former boss.

Jack Spencer, vice president for the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, echoed that sentiment.

“If everyone thinks solar is so promising, I wish they’d use their money and leave mine out of it,” he said.

But Kevin Steinberger, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program, said SunShot is one of many remarkable examples of how DOE can work with industry to help facilitate the growth of clean energy, calling the program a “big success story.”

And while it’s encouraging that Simmons is touting the program’s success, Steinberger said the Trump administration needs to show that enthusiasm in its budget proposals.

Trump’s budget proposal would slash funding for the Solar Energy Technologies Office, whose main project is SunShot, from $207 million to $69 million. In committee, the House has pushed that to $90 million (Energywire, July 14).

“It was encouraging to see the department brag about this program, and they have a lot to brag about,” Steinberger said. “But the administration can then put its money where its mouth is and maintain previous funding levels and keep funding in these success stories.”

Reporter Christa Marshall contributed.