Energy industry lobbyists and political action committees, long familiar fixtures in the halls of the Capitol, will be joined in the 110th Congress by a new kid on the block -- the political arm of the solar energy industry.
Solar's first PAC registered with the Federal Election Commission in the spring of 2006 and made its first campaign contributions in the most recent election cycle, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association's director of public affairs, Noah Kaye.
"Solar is at a turning point," Kaye told United Press Internation in a telephone interview. "This Congress can play a pivotal role in galvanizing the solar industry in the United States."
The PAC made $10,500 in contributions to the campaigns of 19 House and Senate members, including 10 Democrats and nine Republicans, according to SEIA, and raised a total of $21,000 by the end of 2006.
"Members of Congress did take notice" of the PAC's activities, Kaye said. "They expressed both thanks, as well as appreciation for the fact that solar is commercialized in the United States -- that there is a revenue basis, a manufacturing basis and that the industry employs tens of thousands of Americans," he continued.
The solar PAC has an advisory committee that represents companies with different kinds of solar energy technology, according to Kaye. Not all PACs use advisory committees to make decisions or set goals, but Kaye said the solar PAC advisors will spend time planning their moves for each election cycle.
The creation of the PAC "serves as notice that the (solar energy) industry is maturing as a political constituency and as a power player in Washington," Kaye said.
"It's an important component of an overall strategy -- one leg of a stool," Kaye continued, noting that the association is also ramping up its grassroots efforts and intensifying lobbying efforts.
Energy industry political pressure can be strong: Oil industry lobbying and contributions were instrumental in scoring a filibuster-proof amendment to the 2006 Senate budget resolution to allow for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that "tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy."
The watchdog group said that a collective called the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth, a coalition of more than 1,200 energy producers, transporters and consumers, helped land the Alaskan drilling permit by posting "a Web site, complete with facts and figures about energy supplies, consumption and energy's effect on economic growth" to bolster public and legislative support.
SEIA's goal of extending solar tax credits -- both in scope and in time limit -- certainly seems within reach if the solar industry can pull together a lobby like Big Oil's.
In terms of sheer amounts of money, oil companies dwarf the solar industry when it comes to donation clout. However, most publicly traded solar energy companies recorded strong gains in 2005 and 2006. Financial analyst J. Peter Lynch, a renewable energy stock specialist, told UPI last week that he expects solar stocks to falter during the first half of 2007 and rally during the second half.
Investment banking giant Merrill Lynch also recently announced that it would cover solar stocks -- another indicator the industry is becoming more powerful.
It won't be all smooth sailing for the new PAC, according to Gregory K. Lawrence, a Boston-based partner in the energy practice of the McDermott, Will & Emery law firm: "The solar PAC will contend with more novel regulatory, technical and financial issues than other energy industry PACs," he wrote in an e-mail to UPI.
"For example, the solar PAC will grapple with issues regarding who owns the renewable attributes and carbon offsets represented by consumer-installed solar power but sponsored by utilities, further expansion of renewable portfolios standards on a state-by-state basis, and growing markets for solar power that will attract capital -- capital that is being pulled in many directions in the energy industry right now," Lawrence said.
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