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Solar tax credit renewals get green light from Senate

As the Senate finally agrees to a deal, the solar energy industry can finally breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate--and for good reason: This is a big deal.

Hopes for renewable energy may not be a pipe dream after all.

After nearly a year of squabbling, the U.S. Senate voted Tuesday to extend solar tax credits for the next eight years and also remove the $2,000 cap on residential projects.


What with all the political bickering, I was betting this wouldn't ever get done before the November elections. But the hired help in Washington provided a pleasant surprise for a change. The bill, which includes an allowance for utilities to make use of the commercial credit, now goes to the House of Representatives for approval before everyone clears out of town next week. The current tax credit was set to expire at year's end.

Doubtless there will be some ready to dun the agreement as yet another handout to an interest group. On the surface, that's true. But after the government's recent series of bailouts including--drum roll, please--Bear Stearns, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, AIG, and the $700 billion or so the Treasury Department wants to buy illiquid mortgage-linked securities--this one should mollify the critics, according to Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar.

"I don't think anybody is going to look at $17 billion over 10 years going to renewable energy as a handout when you put it in the perspective of $1 trillion going to failed banks in a one-year period," said Cinnamon. He added that while he did hear the handout argument a couple of years ago, he's not encountering that line of argument, what with crude oil prices hovering north of $100 a barrel.

Cinnamon and other solar industry executives have argued that the industry is still too young and too fragile to be weaned off the investment tax credit (ITC) just yet. Solar energy lobbyists released a study by Navigant Consulting claiming that 440,000 permanent jobs and $232 billion in investment would be supported by 2016 with an eight-year extension of the ITC.

However, that argument wasn't persuading enough Senators to pledge their support to the investment tax extension. In fact, when Congress passed the 2007 energy bill, the solar industry got shut out. The ongoing debate had a lot to do with accounting. While Democrats wanted to pay for them by taking away tax credits from the oil industry, the Republicans held firm.

A couple of recent developments helped break the logjam. One was the willingness of congressional Democrats to go along with an offshore-drilling proposal. The other was a statement from the White House that it would not oppose extending the tax credits.

"The great thing about this bill is that it's going to allow people throughout the country to benefit," said Cinnamon. "It will be as much for people in Peoria as it will be for people living in Pleasanton."