Solar, wind industries head to Washington

With more than $11 billion in subsidies up for grabs, Congress and state governor's offices are getting lots of attention from lobbyists as the solar and wind energy industries maneuver for the lions' share.

The Solar Energy Industries Association spent $540,000 on lobbying in the second quarter of this year, which is more than it spent on lobbyists in all of 2007.

Solar representatives believe that they can create more jobs than other alternative energy sectors, so they should get a bigger slice of that pie.

"You get the best bang for your buck by investing in residential solar," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "This is about taking the tradesmen who have been let go from the housing industry, and putting them back to work -- the electricians, the plumbers, the roofers," he said.

Meanwhile, the American Wind Energy Association more than tripled lobbying budget, spending $1.83 million in the second quarter.

"We all want to create jobs," said Elizabeth Salerno, director of industry data and analysis at American Wind Energy Association. But with wind, the government is investing in a technology that can have a major impact on the electrical grid right now, Salerno said.

Both are relatively new when it comes to government arm-twisting, however, and industry lobbyists still struggle to be heard over their well-funded counterparts in the petroleum and coal industries.

Chevron Corp. spent $6 million in the second-quarter alone. The oil and gas industry spent $44.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies in the first three months of this year.

Lobbyists for fossil fuels have been a mainstay in the halls of Congress for generations, and they've secured millions in government subsidies as well. But they also justify it by delivering most of the power on the American electrical grid. They offer higher paying jobs as well.

The solar industry's pitch is that they can spread jobs more evenly across the entire country compared with the traditional energy sector, including coal.

"The coal industry only employs a couple hundred thousand people in this country. And they make pretty good salaries," he said. "But wouldn't it be better if we had a few million people, who might not be making as much but are still getting a good livable wage?"

The stimulus package included $118 million for wind energy and $400 million for geothermal companies. Solar also received $117.6 million for research and development, with the goal of making panels cheaper and more efficient.

The stimulus money already doled out pales in comparison to the $11 billion now up for grabs.

Solar companies have already moved quickly to take advantage of government tax credits passed last year. Solar panels are popping up in New Jersey and other states that are hardly known for an abundance of sunlight.

Thousands of black solar modules also are starting to appear at schools in Ohio, the Atlantic City Convention Center and other areas far from the Sun Belt.

Developers also have signed contracts to build massive energy farms around the country that will funnel nearly 7.5 gigawatts of sunshine onto the electrical grid -- about 16 times what's currently available -- in the next few years. That would power the equivalent of about 2.5 million homes.