Published October 16, 2008 10:52 AM

Solar power industry a bright light amid economic gloom

Not this week. As part of the Solar Power International conference here, big businesses such as equipment maker Applied Materials Inc. and solar cell manufacturer SunPower Corp. rented out bars and restaurants and shut down the streets to serve up free drinks and food to executives who partied through the night.

"It's amazing, the euphoria in the industry right now," Victoria Hollick, vice president of Conserval Engineering Inc., said as a disc jockey played songs like "Good Times" and "Celebration."

The solar industry has good reason to celebrate right now.

While most sectors of the economy are struggling, many in the solar business say they don't have enough products or employees to meet demand. On Wall Street, solar stocks are a rare bright spot.


The biggest reason solar is shining right now, though, is because the government on Oct. 3 extended federal investment tax credits for renewable energy projects as part of the revamped financial bailout bill.

Solar industry executives say the bill, which lets consumers and businesses take a 30 percent tax credit on investments in solar and other renewable energy projects through 2016, is essential to their industry's survival.

"Two weeks ago, this was going to be a wake," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "Now, it's a wedding."

According to a study commissioned by Resch's group, the tax credit extension could help create 440,000 new solar-industry jobs and unleash $325 billion in private investment in the industry.

Solar company stocks jumped after the tax credit extension passed, but they've been rising for some time, said John Jacobs, executive vice president of the NASDAQ Stock Market.

The 12 solar power company stocks on the NASDAQ are up more than 150 percent from a year ago, he said.

"That's in defiance of every other part of the market," Jacobs said.

At Lithia Springs, Ga.-based Nations Roof, vice president Joe Carbine said he thinks the tax credits will help his company double or triple its solar installations over the next few years.

"It's huge," he said. "What it means is that we can now continue to grow like we should."

That's not to say the solar industry doesn't have some dark clouds on the horizon.

Investment tax credits might not make a difference if the credit freeze and sputtering economy keep businesses and consumers from getting the money to install solar projects.

Meanwhile, there's still no comprehensive national energy policy, and exactly how solar might fit into one depends on who wins next month's presidential election.

Cost and efficiency are still factors, too. Solar power remains much more expensive than oil, coal and gas, and is typically more expensive and less efficient than competing renewable energy sources.

Austin Energy, the municipal power company in Texas's capital, would like to get more of its electricity from solar, said Mark Kapner, the utility's senior strategy engineer.

But at least for now, the cost of solar power is substantially higher than the cost of wind power in Texas, Kapner said.

The investment tax credit is a good catalyst, "but it's just the first step," said Matt Cheney, CEO of investment firm MMA Renewable Ventures.

"There's still lots of work to do" and lots of questions about the solar industry's future, he said.

That hasn't stopped entrepreneurs like Will and Robert Tillery of Orlando, Fla.

The brothers gave up their jobs — Robert as an options trader and Will as a special effects artist — to get into the solar business. They're now trying to build large solar farms that can supply clean energy to utilities, consumers and businesses.

"The numbers in solar look really good right now," Will Tillery said between beers at the solar convention party. "And solar is a business where you can do some good ? while making a good profit at the same time."

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