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Official: Solar energy has a long way to go for U.S. to catch up

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PHOENIX – The U.S. market for solar energy has grown substantially but still has a long way to go, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said Tuesday.

Jon Wellinghoff noted that Germany produces more solar power in a month than the United States does in a year. And Arizona, a natural place for solar development, ranks behind both California and New Jersey in production.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t develop it the way that we should,” Wellinghoff told the Arizona Solar Summit, which attracted industry leaders and policy makers to the Arizona Biltmore.

He said the federal government and emerging technologies will play key roles in helping solar compete against coal, oil and gas for customers.

Once it becomes a more equal player in the market, solar power can be integrated into the U.S. electric grid – an essential step for utilities to start taking solar seriously, Wellinghoff said.

He pointed to efforts to bring the price of solar energy down, such as silicon cell research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We have a tremendous opportunity here in the distributed area to move ahead,” he said.

Wellinghoff also praised innovation in such projects as Arizona Public Service’s federally funded solar neighborhood in Flagstaff, as well as efforts from the U.S. Army to reach net zero power use at base housing.

Meanwhile, he said, the U.S. market for solar energy grew 67 percent from 2009 to 2010.

“The growth is unparalleled in any other energy resource that I’ve had an experience with over the last 35 years that I’ve been involved in the energy field,” Wellinghoff said.

Consumers have generally supported solar development, but Wellinghoff said there are some concerning signs of waning public interest.

A recent Pew Research Center study asked 1,503 people what was more important to them: developing renewable energy or expanding traditional energy sources, like oil and gas. In March 2011, 63 percent responded in favor of renewables. That number dropped to 52 percent in March 2012.

“To do the kinds of things I’m talking about, we’re going to need public support,” Wellinghoff said.

In a panel after Wellinghoff’s address, Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, said it’s important for solar development companies to look, walk and talk like conventional energy companies in order to raise public and industry awareness.

“The more we make solar energy look mainstream, the more mainstream it becomes,” he said.