Solar energy

While everyone in Washington likes to talk about jobs and pays at least lip service to the environment, there are efforts underway that could actually do good for both. It is encouraging to see what that looks like.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, has joined with a Republican colleague, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, to introduce a bill allowing more solar companies to benefit from a tax credit for solar projects. Probably best seen as leverage, it should provide a welcome boost to a promising industry and the economy of the region.

Bennet and Heller’s bill would allow solar firms to qualify for an existing investment tax credit with projects under construction. Current law requires projects be completed and producing power before the credit can be applied. That simple change could have wide-ranging – and welcome – results.

Tax credits are the kind of government minutia typically eliciting yawns or, worse, visions of pork-barrel cronyism. Too often, they more accurately reflect some group’s political pull than the merits they ostensibly target.

That is not the case here. Solar energy is a healthy alternative to burning fossil fuels. Beyond that, it represents a growing industry, bringing good jobs to Colorado and neighboring states.

As Bennet said, “Investing in alternative energy sources cuts right to the core of whether and how we want to compete in the global and changing economy.”

The bipartisan support for modifying the tax credit extends to the Western Governors’ Association. Its chairman, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and vice chairman, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval – a Democrat and Republican, respectively – wrote to the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee backing the move. They said the investment tax credit “has been tremendously successful in growing clean energy industries in our states and across the United States, creating American jobs.”

They also pointed to the industry’s “compound annual growth rate of 77 percent since 2006,” the more than 119,000 jobs it supports and its 2012 contribution of $11.5 billion to the U.S. economy. Bennet’s office says Colorado has 328 solar companies employing more than 3,600 people.

Critics will of course denounce the expansion of the tax credit as unwarranted meddling in the free market and another example of the government picking winners and losers. But government has always helped emerging technologies. From the Erie Canal to the telegraph, the railroads, hydroelectric power or the roads that enabled Henry Ford to sell his cars, every new advancement has had some form of government backing. (The Erie Canal seems prosaic at this point, but it was a big deal in the 1820s.)

Opponents of solar power dismiss it as faddish and uneconomical. But, as the cost of solar installations continues to drop, the numbers look better all the time. After all, the fundamental fact about solar power is its raw material – sunshine – is free.

With more than 300 sunny days per year, Colorado has a resource unavailable to gloomier climes. It only makes sense to use it. Bennet and Heller’s bill deserves broad support.

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