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Who is the best Presidential Candidate on solar power in 2020?

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 12/02/2019 in
Updated 03/02/2020
The top 5 2020 presidential candidates

In the United States, political discourse is full of partisan issues that people argue over. Thankfully, solar power is not one of those issues. Recent polls show as many as 92% of Americans support solar power at current or increased levels of government emphasis, and solar power is the #1 choice when people are asked what kind of electricity generation they’d like to see. In those polls, fossil fuels enjoy much less support.

That’s why it’s a no-brainer that a candidate for president should not only support solar, but show concrete plans for transitioning to clean energy and increasing the adoption of solar, from sea to shining sea.

Below, we’ve put 5 of the top candidates running for president to the test, analyzing their positions in order to determine who might be the best ally to solar, both for the industry, but more importantly for ordinary Americans who want to be a part of the solution by getting solar panels for their own homes.

A note on the candidates we chose

It’s still a couple months before the first Democratic primary of 2020, but it already looks like the field has narrowed to four main candidates, one of whom will likely face President Donald Trump in 2020. Those Democratic candidates (in alphabetical order by last name) are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Our fifth choice, Kamala Harris, dropped out of the race the day before we published this piece.

Update, 2/27/2020: We’ve added a section on Mike Bloomberg ahead of Super Tuesday primaries.
Update, 3/01/2020: Pete Buttigieg has dropped out of the race for President. His section in this article remains because it contains a good joke we made about him.

If other candidates like Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, or Andrew Yang gain ground in the primaries, we’ll cover their plans in an updated version of this article. Once the field has narrowed after the first few primaries, we’ll look at whether any of the candidates have updated their positions or fleshed out their plans.

Below we’ve outlined each of the candidates’ positions, starting with the President. We’ve done our best to be politically unbiased, but we do judge candidates based on what they’ve said or written about their support for solar. If good solar policy is important to you, we hope you’ll use this guide as you consider which candidate deserves your support.

President Donald Trump on Solar Power

President Donald Trump

It’s hard to find an instance where President Trump has done or said something entirely positive about solar power or the solar industry. Before his election in 2016, Trump made claims that solar power “had a 30-year payback” and was “very, very expensive.” Those claims weren’t remotely true at the time, and they’re even less true 4 years later.

When it comes to Trump’s take on solar as President… there kind of isn’t one. The last time the President tweeted using the word “solar” was in 2012, and even then his penultimate tweet was complaining about then-President Obama “wasting our money” on a loan to a solar company.

This lack of public comment on solar is strange, given that the Trump administration has made some very consequential decisions regarding the United States solar industry; most importantly the Section 201 tariffs on imported solar panels. Those tariffs were nominally designed to increase the number of American solar manufacturing jobs, and by some measures, they’ve been effective.

Foreign solar manufacturers including Jinko Solar, LG and Hanwha have built or ramped up U.S. plants since the tariffs were enacted, and U.S.-based companies like First Solar and SunPower have seen their share prices rise as they became more price-competitive.

According to the Solar Foundation’s annual jobs census reports, tariff-related job losses led to the total number of solar jobs in the United States falling between 2016 and 2018. Jobs in solar manufacturing fell as well, so it’s pretty clear that the tariffs both hurt overall solar employment and didn’t do enough to spur manufacturing job growth. More recent research indicates that the tariffs have led to more than 62,000 jobs lost and prevented $19 billion in private-sector investment in solar projects.

Overall, the Trump Administration has harmed the solar industry in the United States, and done nothing for individual homeowners who want to install solar on their homes. If President Trump wants to answer the overwhelming public support for solar, we’d like to see an extension of the federal solar tax credit (currently in congress), a national Renewable Portfolio Standard, and some smart net metering or value-of-solar laws in place to protect the rights of individuals to get credit for the power they generate for themselves and their neighbors.

Absent that kind of leadership at the federal level, we’re looking to the President’s challengers to propose some smart measures to make distributed solar a vital part of a new energy economy.

So let’s look at those folks now…

Former Vice President Joe Biden on Solar Power

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Image Source: Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 2.0

Joe Biden has a relatively long list of things he’s said and done (as part of the Obama Administration) to help expand solar power in the U.S. The trouble is, that’s about all he has.

Biden’s official campaign website’s Climate page has exactly two mentions of the word “solar”; one to tout the Obama-Biden record on reducing solar costs, and another to say that state and local governments that take action on climate under a Biden administration will “have a partner in the White House.”

That’s a notably muted official take on solar power, which Biden has shown some affinity for in the past. In 2015, the Vice President spoke to the audience at the Solar Power International conference to announce $102 million in SunShot grants, which ended up funding many projects within the solar industry. During his speech, VP Biden said “the more Americans who understand the possibilities of solar… just imagine what we can do. Folks, we are on the cusp of something huge here but a lot of folks don’t realize it.”

We’re not sure leaving solar completely out of your campaigns plans for the future of America is any way to help get the word out.

More recently, Biden seemed confused when asked during the CNN climate town hall why he planned to attend a fundraiser put on by Andrew Goldman, the founder of a natural gas company. Despite concerns from members of the climate movement, Biden did attend Mr. Goldman’s fundraiser, and the New York Times was on had to cover the fundraiser and the protests outside it.

Mike Bloomberg on Solar Power

Mike Bloomberg

Image Source: Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 2.0

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, for all his faults, has a pretty decent take on what is needed to rapidly expand solar power through the country. His climate plan (PDF link) calls for several concrete actions that, if successful, will undoubtedly lead to a supercharged version of the solar marketplace in the USA. They include:

  • Extending federal tax incentives for wind, solar
  • New tax incentives for energy storage
  • Working with congress to develop a national 100% clean energy standard, aiming for at least 80% by 2028
  • Appointing commissioners to FERC who will establish fair market rules and encourage investments in clean energy transmission and distribution
  • Providing technical assistance to state and local governments to expedite clean energy siting, including local solar permitting

We’d prefer to see grants or rebates rather than tax incentives, because tax incentives favor those with incomes large enough to pay lots of taxes, which leaves out seniors and many middle income families. Interestingly, Bloomberg is the only candidate who specifically mentions FERC commissioners as a problem for widespread solar adoption. We’d argue that he’s right on the money there. On the flip side, Mayor Bloomberg does not mention support for solar net metering, which we’d argue is key to getting homeowners going solar by protecting the economic benefits for ordinary people.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg on Solar Power

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Image Source: Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 2.0

“Mayor Pete” as he’s known, offers relatively nebulous but friendly plans to support solar if he becomes president. But up until now in his public life, he’s been a bit wishy-washy when it comes to advancing solar technology.

Specifically, Buttigieg is very good at paying lip service without sounding too forceful. As South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor, he very respectfully said the following:

Mayor Pete Buttigieg from the shoulders up
“As Indiana Michigan Power finalizes its timeline to stop burning coal, we request plans for the future include a meaningful commitment to energy efficiency, energy storage, and renewable energy. Done thoughtfully, this shift can create quality local jobs, protect residents from high energy bills, transform abandoned land, curb dangerous carbon emissions, and improve air and water quality.” Source: Sierra Club

Not exactly the inspiring speech of a champion of environmental justice, Pete. We used a background color that fit the strength of that statement: “dark khaki.”

Other notable examples of Mayor Buttigieg’s relatively tepid position-taking are evident from his campaign’s climate page, where the campaign says they “aspire to make our society a net-zero emissions one no later than 2050,” without providing much in the way of a concrete plan, save for “tapping into the patriotism of every American.”

What we like about Mayor Pete’s plan

Here’s the good news. The Buttigieg campaign presents more concrete initiatives in its full climate plan white paper. Within the paper, Buttigieg proposes a “a bold and achievable Green New Deal,” with specific goals to double clean energy generation by 2025, shift the transportation and electricity systems of the country to net zero emissions by 2040, and achieve net zero emissions from industry by 2050.

These goals are outlined in the paper, but specific ways of getting there are not as fleshed-out as we’d like. What we do like is Buttigieg’s idea of a nationwide Clean Energy Bank that would offer low-interest loans, grants, and other funding for home solar and energy efficiency projects.

If everyone knew they could get a cheap loan for solar panels AND a tax credit, which would lead to saving thousands over the next few decades, it would spur solar adoption. Increase adoption reduces the cost of solar panels for homes and allows more people to save more money… national support for solar is basically a win-win-win.

Senator Bernie Sanders on Solar Power

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Image Source: Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 2.0

Elizabeth Warren’s 2019 slogan is “I’ve got a plan for that”, but it’s Bernie Sanders who comes in with the most comprehensive plan to tackle climate change and transform our energy system. Bernie’s Green New Deal plan offers dozens of specific initiatives to expand research and development, create jobs, spur adoption of electric vehicles, and more. And he promises to pay for it in 15 years, with a projected initial savings of $2.9 trillion over 10 years as the first benchmark for success.

Perhaps the central approach Senator Sanders proposes to solve climate change is a massive expansion of federal Power Marketing Administrations, also known as PMAs. These groups have traditionally overseen the wholesale energy markets and been involved in energy transmission and distribution, but mostly do not own energy generating resources. The Sanders plan calls for the creation of a new PMA (for a total of 5), and expanding the role of PMAs to “build new solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources.”

While we applaud Senator Sanders’s bold vision and his focus on massive adoption of renewable energy, we’re concerned that there is no explicit mention of the current federal solar tax credit, net metering, distributed energy, or anything else related to individual homeowners.

Instead, it’s pretty clear that Sanders prefers something more like a centrally-planned national energy grid. In fact, he plans to pay for his plan partly from revenues generated by the new, federally-owned renewable facilities and through taxes on fossil fuel companies, and the incomes of the 20 million people he’d hire under his programs.

What we like about Bernie’s plan

On the other hand, Sanders does include funding for energy efficiency and grants for electric vehicles and energy storage as part of remaking both transportation and energy. Moreover, his plan includes mention of “$2.18 trillion for sliding-scale grants for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to invest in weatherizing and retrofitting their homes and businesses.” Included within that plan may be funding for home solar installations, but we’d prefer a more overt mention.

The plan also earmarks “$964 billion for sliding-scale grants for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses to invest in cheaper electricity.” That sounds an awful lot like solar for the homes of low- and middle-income Americans, with the word “grants” indicating that money would likely come as direct reductions in up-front cost of installing solar.

While we’ve got concerns about the centralization evident in the Sanders plan to build new utility-scale renewables under expanded federal PMA authority, we’d be over the moon to see a nationwide program to subsidize the cost of solar for people who are currently left out of the process.

While we’d like to see Bernie include an ITC extension and discuss the benefits of distributed solar as an unalloyed good for grid stability and the economy writ large, this is a good start.

Senator Elizabeth Warren on Solar Power

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

Image Source: Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 2.0

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is running a campaign with a “can-do” attitude so fierce it’s been parodied to great comedic effect by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. Whatever the issue facing modern Americans, she famously “has a plan for that,” but as we alluded to earlier, her Green New Deal/Climate proposal isn’t quite as fleshed out as the Bernie Sanders plan.

Still, Warren hasn’t left us all guessing what she might do to replace oil and gas with solar and wind:

Her 100% Clean Energy plan calls for 100% zero-carbon pollution for new commercial and residential buildings, by 2028, 100% zero emissions for all new light-duty passenger vehicles, medium-duty trucks, and all buses by 2030, and 100% renewable and zero-emission energy in electricity generation by 2035, with an interim target of 100% carbon-neutral power by 2030.

Even without much in the way of specifics other than “a federal investment of $3 trillion (that) will leverage additional trillions in private investment and create millions of jobs,” and setting “high standards for utilities nationwide,” that’s the most ambitious energy plan of any of the candidates.

What we like about Senator Warren’s plan

We like that Senator Warren has committed to extending tax credits and preserving net metering. We also like that she plans to work to implement on-bill solutions to help low-income homeowners increase their energy efficiency and go solar. We’d just like to see some more specifics and economic analysis of whether he plans are feasible given her current estimates of the costs. Specifically, the Warren plan promises “trillions in private investment” will follow her administration’s programs, and we wonder whether and how that will prove true.

Last modified: March 2, 2020

2 thoughts on “Who is the best Presidential Candidate on solar power in 2020?

  1. Avatar for Solidus Techno Power Solidus Techno Power says:

    Thanks for giving us the correct perspective through your article, its really helpful and means to me. I wish to read more articles related to this.

  2. Avatar for Debra Stein Debra Stein says:

    sounds like you are promoting several democrat candidates!!! NO ThANKS!

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