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WASHINGTON — Like many proponents of solar, Paul Israel applauded when President Obama touted the renewable energy source in his State of the Union speech last week.
“To know the president is still behind solar and gave it a shout-out in the State of the Union is fantastic for us,” said Israel, founder of Sunlight Solar Energy in Bend and president of the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association.
The United States is becoming a leader in solar energy, President Obama said during his address.
“Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced,” he said.
Oregon now ranks 11th in the nation with 2,900 solar jobs, according to the Solar Foundation. It ranks 15th in both total solar capacity and the number of homes powered by solar, with 6,775. But industry officials say there’s plenty of room for improvement across the country but especially in Oregon.
Over the past five years, about five megawatts of solar power have been installed in Central Oregon, Israel said. By way of comparison, Portland General Electric’s coal-fired plant in Boardman produces 550 megawatts, while the Mirror Pond Dam generates about 1 megawatt.
“Central Oregonians, in their homes, have created a small power plant of clean energy,” Israel said.
Solar has boomed across the country, which now generates three times as much energy from solar as it did in 2010, and 10 times more than it did in 2007, according to a recent report by the Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that solar will continue its expansion by growing by 79 percent in 2013, followed by a 49 percent increase in 2014.
Oregon’s solar capacity reached 69 megawatts in 2012, an increase of 39 percent, but it still lags behind states like Maryland, North Carolina and New Jersey.
Even with all these increases, solar power still only accounts for less than 1 percent of electricity generated in the U.S.
“Germany still puts in more solar per year than we do,” said Glenn Harris, CEO of Suncentric, who consults with several companies in the solar industry.
Part of the problem in the United States is that utilities aren’t always required to buy back any excess electricity a residence or a business might generate, he said. While falling prices for solar modules may make it possible for customers to “zero out” their electricity bills, utility companies don’t have a financial interest in helping them, because it costs them another customer, he said.
“I have never thought of Oregon as a particularly vibrant solar market,” Harris said. “The utilities in Oregon, they aren’t really mandated to do a whole lot of solar.”
While a law enacted in 2007 requires the state’s three biggest utilities to generate 25 percent of their electricity using renewable sources by 2025, the prevalence of hydro and wind power means that Oregon’s energy producers do not rely as heavily on solar, he said.
“From an economics point of view, (America doesn’t) have the policies in place to drive the economics,” Harris said.
However, as an industry, it will likely continue to boom, he said. While much of the solar panel manufacturing sector has gone overseas to China, much of that is automated, leaving much of the job growth for installation.
“We’re not likely to be a big manufacturing center for most parts of what goes into solar, but we’re going to own installation,” he said.
Out of 110 million homes in America, only 400,000 have solar panels installed, leaving lots of potential for industry growth, he said.
Installation requires local workers — roofers, electricians — with local knowledge, said Sunlight Solar Energy’s Israel. Unlike California, where tile roofs are common, Central Oregon features a lot of ranch-style homes with asphalt shingles, which are well-suited for solar, he said.
“A solar company is a construction company,” he said. “We have a lot of labor that we need to put a system on a house.”
Oregon used to be a top-10 state for solar until the business energy tax credit expired three years ago, Israel said.
Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association is gearing up, he said, to push for solar-friendly policies during the 2015 legislative session.
Charlie Fisher, a field organizer with Environment Oregon who specializes in solar energy, also said state legislators need to be convinced to make solar energy a priority.
“All across the country you’re seeing an enormous increase in solar installation,” he said. “What matters here is that we need to pass the policies that make solar easier and more affordable.”
If the government puts the proper incentives in place, the solar sector could take off in Oregon, Harris said.
“Central Oregon is a great place to do solar,” he said. “Oregon could become a solar hotspot. The mentality of the people living in Oregon is perfect.”