Commentary: Wisconsin can still lead on renewable energy

Tom Eggert is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

Tom Eggert is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

By Tom Eggert

Wisconsin has been a leader in the growing solar industry, where more than 1,800 people are employed throughout the state. In fact, until recently, we ranked fifth in the nation for solar industry jobs created per capita. But partly because of the bankruptcy of Helios, a solar panel manufacturer in Milwaukee, the state fell to 24th place in terms of solar industry jobs created per capita.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state that could be doing better. A recently-released annual report tracking global investment in clean energy found that clean energy investments fell worldwide in 2013.

The Pew Charitable Trusts report, Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race? found that clean energy investment in China (the world’s leader in clean energy investment) declined 6 percent, falling to $54.2 billion while investment in the US (in second place) declined 11 percent, to $36.7 billion.

The decline in clean energy investment is not all bad news, however. Since the cost of renewable energy is sharply declining, countries get more for each dollar invested in clean energy technologies. The clearest example of this can be found in the solar industry.

Though world-wide investment in solar technologies fell by 23 percent in 2013, to $97.6 billion, solar generating capacity skyrocketed. Last year 40 gigawatts (GW) of solar generating capacity was installed across the globe. By comparison, less than 40 GW of solar capacity was installed in all of the years between 2001 and 2011. Today, total worldwide solar capacity is at 144 GW. In the United States alone, the cost to install solar technology has dropped 60 percent since 2011.

In short, declining clean energy costs have allowed countries to realize significant savings while diversifying their energy generation.

Pew’s report shows that government regulations and policies can quickly and powerfully affect an area’s clean energy economy. For example, clean energy investment in Japan increased by 80 percent last year, to $28.6 billion, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Japan overtook Germany in clean energy investment after Germany significantly scaled back its small-scale feed-in-tariff financing. Investment in Germany tumbled 55 percent after this restructuring took affect.

The hundreds of people employed in Wisconsin’s solar industry, and the thousands of people still looking for jobs in Wisconsin, have much to gain from policies designed to grow the clean energy sector. Where policy is stable and supportive, investment follows. Indeed, the state’s decline in the solar industry is the result of inattention to the industry and policies that are less supportive of the industry than those implemented by our neighboring states.

Pew’s report clearly demonstrates that federal and state government both have roles to play in developing stable and supportive policies and tax structures. The United States has the capacity to lead in clean energy investment, and the benefits would accrue to all citizens. That’s important to us as a country, and to states like Wisconsin.

Tom Eggert is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

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