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Renewables Industry Promotes Its Potential

Funds from the $787 billion stimulus package and other federal assistance kept growth in the renewable energy sector strong in 2009, a trend that will probably persist as federal investment continues to pay off over the coming year, industry leaders said in a teleconference Tuesday.

The picture was especially good for the solar industry, which created almost 20,000 new jobs in 2009 while adding 470 megawatts in generating capacity, a record, according to Rhone Resch, the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. The solar industry could create as many as 45,000 new jobs in 2010 if Congress extends several tax incentives and grant programs set to expire at the end of the year, Mr. Resch said.

“I think 2010 is going to be a bigger year than 2009,” he said. “Most analysts expect the solar industry to grow by 100 percent this year.”

Yet while the near-term outlook for renewables is mostly positive, the industry’s long-term prospects will be shaped significantly by energy legislation under consideration by Congress, the executives said. At the top of renewable executives’ wish list was the passage of a national renewable energy standard, which would require all utilities to generate a certain fraction of electricity from sources like wind and solar.

“What is really critical for us is the renewable energy standard,” said Denise Bode, the chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association.

Countries like China have enacted such standards and watched renewable energy production and manufacturing soar as a result, said Ms. Bode. “Give us those hard targets that other countries have,” she said.

Federal tax policy on renewable energy manufacturing and production was also a source of concern. Bob Cleaves, the president and chief executive of the Biomass Power Association, said a key tax credit for the biomass industry lapsed at the end of 2009, putting thousands of jobs in jeopardy.

“Congress let expire our tax credit for existing facilities, putting at risk probably 50 percent of the 15,000 jobs in our community,” Mr. Cleaves said. The biomass industry generates power from organic residue – everything from wood chips to waste matter from sugar production – and its facilities are concentrated in rural areas particularly hard-hit by the recession.

“Virtually all of our facilities are in rural areas that have unemployment rates that far exceed 10 percent,” Mr. Cleaves said.

A tight credit market was also seen as a challenge, with industry executives urging Congress to extend financing assistance for renewable energy projects. “The bottom line is that the big banks aren’t coming in and investing like they did two or three years ago,” Mr. Resch said.

Despite their concerns, executives were hopeful that their success in generating job growth and expanding manufacturing would inspire continued support from Congress and the Obama administration.

“We’re still the bright part of the economy,” Ms. Bode said.