The defeat in the California legislature of the bipartisan Million Solar Roofs bill earlier this month was a big blow, but the initiative — and the broader spirit behind it — are carrying on, says David Hochschild, director of policy at Vote Solar Initiative, a nonprofit working to bring solar energy into the mainstream. Here, Hochschild shares his take in an op-ed written for Grist:

Late on the night of Thursday, Sept. 8, California’s Million Solar Roofs bill died when the California legislature ended the 2005 session. Originally proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger with bipartisan support in 2004, the $2.5 billion bill would have created ten years of incentives to help Californians install up to one million rooftop solar energy systems on homes and businesses.

The autopsy report is not long. The blame falls squarely on the rising political tensions between the governor and the legislature and on the inability of various labor interests and advocates for this bill to reach a fair consensus that would help reduce the cost of solar energy.

Nevertheless, solar advocates have good reason for optimism. The California Public Utilities Commission, which created the nation’s largest solar incentive program in 2001, is moving to establish the Million Solar Roofs program on its own. Under California law, the CPUC has wide authority to enact the key provisions contained in the failed Million Solar Roofs bill, the most important of which is the funding. A final ruling by the CPUC to increase and expand California’s current solar rebate program for ten years, now funded at $125 million a year, is expected in the next three months.

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CPUC President Michael Peevey, a strong solar supporter, has been leading this effort. If he is successful, the majority of Californians will be grateful. According to a recent Field Poll, 77% of Californians want the Million Solar Roofs program implemented.

In the din of America’s sensationalist political culture, it can be easy to lose sight of why state leadership on renewable energy matters so much. This summer, just six months after the Kyoto global warming treaty took effect with the support of 141 nations, President Bush signed into law a 1,700-page federal energy bill chock-full of subsidies for coal and oil. That America has rejected the only international protocol intended to fight global warming and instead adopted an energy policy that accelerates, rather than alleviates, the problem is unacceptable.

But by failing to lead in the development of the clean-energy technologies of tomorrow like solar power, the U.S. is also sacrificing an enormous economic leadership opportunity to countries like Japan. The world’s solar industry today is undergoing changes that are similar to what happened in television manufacturing over the last few decades. Once dominated by American companies like RCA and GE, television manufacturing was transformed after Japan moved aggressively to establish itself as the industry leader. The company names on most television sets in American households today tell the rest of the story.

Today, Japan, among other nations, is having enormous success doing the same thing with solar energy, another technology born in the United States. In 1994, the Japanese government established a solar program similar to the model California is now considering, with rebates given to customers who install rooftop solar energy systems. In just ten years, Japanese solar companies like Sharp, Kyocera, Mitsubishi, and Sanyo emerged as the titans of the world’s solar industry and the average cost of a Japanese residential solar energy system declined by 72%.

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That America’s economic counterparts are bringing solar into the mainstream is good news from an environmental perspective. Largely as a result of pro-solar policies implemented in Japan and Germany, the world’s solar industry grew by 62% last year, surpassing wind energy to become the fastest-growing source of energy in the world.

This is encouraging news. But without the meaningful participation of the United States, it is unlikely to be enough to make a dent in climate change. The leading contributor of the CO2 emissions that cause global warming is pollution from power plants. And the cost of solar has to come down another order of magnitude to make an impact on this problem. The most important factor determining which nation will lead the solar revolution in the decade ahead is not annual sunlight but pro-solar policies. Both Japan and Germany, which together represent 69% of the world’s solar market, receive only about two-thirds of the annual sunlight of the United States. Meanwhile, America, and California in particular, is the Saudi Arabia of sunlight but without the right policies to encourage us to take full advantage of this clean resource.

For the next few years, it seems likely that renewable energy will remain a national priority without national leadership. That makes the pioneering efforts of state governments all the more important. If California does succeed in implementing the Million Solar Roofs program this fall, it will be national victory that can help America become the political and economic incubator that brings solar energy into the mainstream. But whether or not California gets the job done, the responsibility to keep fighting for it falls to us all.

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