The solar industry suffered a similarly dramatic bust in the early 1980s, when Congress, looking to cut spending, eliminated the solar tax credits and effectively cut the industry in half.
Today, ironically, there is overwhelming bipartisan support for the incentives—even Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a conservative Republican and vocal global warming skeptic, is a strong proponent. Few consider the tax credits' estimated price tag of about $8.2 billion a significant drain on the federal budget, especially in light of the measurably larger incentives awarded to oil and coal. In fact, a recent study by General Electric found that the tax credits more than pay for themselves, because they create jobs and profits, resulting in 2007 in a net gain of $250 million for the federal treasury. Also, the American public is behind them: About 94 percent of Americans support government development of solar energy.
It is tempting to think that all this goodwill would have presaged easy passage. But Congress, despite its pledges of support, has lately ground into something of a stalemate, and on multiple occasions in the past few months it has defeated or blocked bills that would have salvaged the credits.
At the moment, the main obstacle to progress seems to be a philosophical one. House Democrats, led by the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a group of fiscally minded moderates, have insisted that the cost of the credits be offset by savings elsewhere. Their solution, which would raise taxes on offshore companies, has rankled Senate Republicans, who insist that no offsets are needed in the first place. And so a parliamentary standoff has unfolded. Twice the Senate attempted to attach an amendment to the now recently passed housing relief bill that would have renewed the credits; twice it was stripped out by the House. Meanwhile, a House bill with similar aims was defeated last week by a Senate Republican filibuster.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters on Monday, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate energy committee, said that passing the tax credits this week is one of the Senate's top priorities before it adjourns for its August recess.
It remains uncertain how he and his Democratic colleagues intend to reconcile the squabbling over offshore drilling and oil speculation that has tied up most energy legislation this summer.
Industry observers remain optimistic that the credits will get renewed, but they somberly note that each day Congress waits, the greater the financial loss becomes. They add that if Congress were really serious about supporting renewable energy, it would make the credits permanent, just like its support for fossil fuels, which they argue would spur green-collar jobs across the rust belt. But they'll take what they can get, preferably sooner than later.