03/15/2011 12:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Politics Is Killing Clean Energy

I've long argued that energy is not a political issue. It's a consumer issue -- and until we treat it that way in the public arena, we're not going to gain serious traction towards America's clean energy future. A recent fiasco in the nation's capital shows why, if left to politicians, America's clean energy economy simply won't grow the way it needs to.

In Washington, D.C., many community groups have organized aggressively and successfully around solar, including the Mount Pleasant Solar Coop and DCSun. (In fact, I have long admired the efforts of these community groups, whose passion and dedication are the real key to spreading the word and creating a tipping point for clean energy.) Yet these groups still rely heavily on the wherewithal of the D.C. government, which did finally establish a solar incentive program in 2009.

The incentive program was, by all accounts, a huge success. The annual $2 million fund was supposed to last through 2012 and has helped make solar installations affordable for more than 300 people.

Until now, that is. The city, which has been under new management since Mayor Vincent Gray took office in January, has abruptly cut the solar incentive program, diverting its funds to close a budget gap. I understand City Hall politics and the need to balance budgets. But the city broke a promise it had made to taxpayers who bought solar. The message for everyone who's waiting for a rebate check? "Sorry! Maybe some other time."

Unfortunately, a number of those people have already gone forward with their solar installations, expecting a rebate check to lighten the up-front costs -- some to the tune of more than $10,000, taken from their savings or emergency funds. Apparently their mistake was taking the D.C. government at its word!

Aside from being bad business, this unfortunate case shows yet again the devastating effect of fickle politicians on the emerging clean energy marketplace. A recent Washington Post story about the incentive fund's demolition does even more damage, highlighting crushing quotes from unhappy solar customers, like Brian Levy:

"It's hard to make the pitch to anyone now," Levy said. "I had lots of e-mails from friends about it, but now I've had to say, 'Hold everything, I can't recommend doing this anymore.'"

Of course, this is hurting business, too. Joshua Goldberg of Astrum Solar told the Post his company had 50 D.C. rebate program customers in their pipeline - but now, many of them are backing off of their installations, which affects his bottom line and demonstrates how one poor political decision is bringing the D.C.-area solar industry to a grinding halt. "We'd like to move away from grants, which are subject to budgets and legislation year to year," Goldberg said.

D.C.'s incentive program failure proves that politicians just can't be trusted to make clean energy a real priority from one administration to the next. Instead, we need more community organizers, creating buying groups, outreach campaigns and partnerships with local banks and credit unions to create attractive private financing options. And we need to get away from this idea that energy is political, a matter for the government to decide. Energy is bought and used by consumers. Those energy consumers have more power than they realize.

At the end of the day, solar, wind and other renewable energy sources can't be propped up simply by incentive and rebate programs funded at taxpayer expense. Such rebates and incentives become political targets, created one day for political expediency and eliminated the next in pursuit of that same expediency.

Solar can work in the marketplace, and it can stand on its own. As an industry, we do ourselves a disservice by relying on the handouts. Sure, they help goose the system. But if the renewables industry becomes addicted to them, we'll lose the opportunity to make solar a valued commodity for consumers across the country.