Solar panels Almost anything that happens in our nation’s capital can be explained by a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Usually, that’s a bad thing. In the case of the Solar Technology Roadmap Act which the U.S. House of Representatives passed last week, however, invoking Alice is all for the good.

Lost in a land where nothing is what it seems, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which way she ought to go. He answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

The bill’s author, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) calls it a Roadmap for a reason: HR 3585’s greatest strength is that it knows exactly where it wants to go.

“Ultimately,” Giffords told the Solar Economic Forum last month, “the reason I get so excited about solar power is that it offers a viable solution — at least in part — to all of these major challenges: Economic competitiveness [jobs], energy independence [national security], and climate protection.”

Because the Roadmap doesn’t depend exclusively on “green votes” it passed in the House by a convincing margin of 310 to 106, with the backing of IBM, Intel and even the (beleaguered) U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

With the destination locked in, HR 3585 lays out a route for getting there.

•    Give solar power an institutional legitimacy and a stable presence inside the government.

The United States has never had a serious and sustained policy for sustainable energy. As a reaction to the oil price shock of the 1970s, the Carter administration created the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), led by Denis Hayes, the main organizer of the first Earth Day. SERI’s budget in 1981 was an astonishing $1.4 billion. The investment paid off handsomely. The U.S. led the world in solar technology.

After Ronald Reagan was elected president, SERI’s funding was slashed, with predictable results. America not only lost the lead — we quit the race. Japan and Germany bought up the technology and hired researchers cut loose by Reaganomics. Solar power flourished in those countries while it withered here. Says Hayes, “We lost an entire generation of researchers.”

Watching the floor debate on the Roadmap must have been excruciating for those who know SERI’s history. GOP opponents like California’s Tom McClintock, bemoaned a history of “squandering” taxpayer money on solar R&D that always failed to deliver — without mentioning his party’s role in decimating funding for renewable energy at a critical moment.

Giffords’ plan was modeled after the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, an industry plan with a successful 20-year track record. HR 3585 creates an 11-member committee, drawn from government labs, industry, and academia. The committee will draw up a Roadmap for solar research, development, and demonstration projects (RDD) with goals for the short-term (2 years), mid-term (7 years) and long-term (15 years).

•    Fund solar power research, development and demonstration projects adequately and predictably.

The Roadmap authorizes $350 million for solar RDD beginning in October 2010. That amount rises incrementally over the next five years to reach $550 million.

Is that sufficient? Thirty-four Nobel Prize winning scientists don’t seem to think so. The group sent President Obama a letter in July citing the President’s own request for $15 billion annually for a decade to fund clean energy RDD. They urged the president to push Congress for that funding level in the Senate climate bill.

Roadmap supporters are quick to point out that the $15 billion was for all clean energy, not just solar. And, they add, the money authorized by HR 3595 exceeds federal spending on solar RDD in any year since SERI’s heyday nearly 30 years ago. Finally, the Roadmap isn’t the only funding mechanism for renewable energy. Yesterday, for example, President Obama announced $3.4 billion in grants to upgrade the nation’s electrical grid, a tremendous boon to the solar industry.

While Giffords’ office doesn’t seek or expect funding from any sources other than those spelled out in the bill, I suspect that even they think of the Roadmap as a good start — necessary but insufficient to achieve all of the bill’s goals.

For now, the road Giffords’ bill must travel before it becomes law passes through what could be treacherous terrain: the Senate.

The morning after her bill passed the House, I asked Giffords how she felt about the Roadmap’s chances in the upper house. She was, unremarkably, “cautiously optimistic.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” she said. “But I’m hoping it will land on the president’s desk by the end of this year.”

But there’s little chance of that happening, given the other pressing issues before the Senate and the dwindling days in this session. It’s more likely to be taken up next session when it stands a good chance of passing.

There is, however, a tantalizing scenario in which the Roadmap could become law this year — as an amendment to the climate bill now being debated in the Senate. Given the broad bipartisan support for the Giffords’ Roadmap in the House, the bill could actually attract a vote or two for the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.

The chance that funding for solar power could actually be an enticement for Senators who emphasize national security and a pro-business agenda shows just how far the industry has traveled and how well Giffords has framed the debate.