(Almost) Everyone Loves Solar

Americans want more power from the sun, but GOP politicians don’t. What’s an industry to do?

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Illustration by James Yang for TIME

You probably like solar energy. I know this because I recently got a press release from the solar lobby, “Poll Reveals Strong Support for Solar Energy Across Political Spectrum.” It turns out that 92% of likely voters, including 84% of Republicans, want more sun-powered electricity. In America, solar is motherhood and apple pie.

Of course, in Washington, even motherhood is a partisan issue, some super PAC is probably rebranding apple pie as a socialist dessert, and solar power is now a political football too. Thanks largely to President Obama’s stimulus bill, solar has become the U.S.’s fastest-growing industry, expanding more than tenfold in four years and adding more than 100,000 jobs. Prices have plunged nearly 50% since Obama took office.

(MORE: Why Climate Change Has Become the Missing Issue in the Presidential Campaign)

But many Beltway Republicans who had embraced green energy and green jobs turned against them after they became associated with the Obama agenda. Electric vehicles, which once enjoyed bipartisan support, became Obamamobiles, and Senator John McCain’s cap-and-trade plan became an assault on free enterprise. And the GOP’s solar talking points now begin and end with a bankrupt, stimulus-funded manufacturer called Solyndra, even though the stimulus also helped finance a half-dozen of the world’s largest solar plants and a nationwide effort to install solar panels on commercial rooftops.

Solyndra bashing doesn’t seem to be working: 78% of voters support government incentives for solar. Which brings me to another recent solar-lobby press release, “Statement on Romney Campaign Energy Policy.” Mitt Romney was once a green-friendly governor of Massachusetts, but his current drill-baby-drill policy could have been written by fossil-fuel interests. You would never guess that from the Solar Energy Industries Association statement, which bends over backward to emphasize areas of agreement: “America’s solar industry shares Governor Romney’s desire to achieve energy independence … We also applaud Governor Romney’s recognition that the federal government can help ensure access to diverse, reliable sources of energy … We also support Governor Romney’s desire to cut red tape.”

Special interests are always leery of antagonizing potential Presidents, and it’s possible that a popular industry like solar could persuade a President Romney to listen to the 92%. But this went beyond catching flies with honey. Take the soothing language about red tape. Romney has pledged to slash regulatory barriers to energy development on federal land, which could accelerate solar projects as well as oil and gas exploration. But given that Romney has called solar power “imaginary” while rhapsodizing about the coming petroleum boom and raking in petroleum cash, that probably wouldn’t be his main goal — especially since the Obama Administration has already slashed red tape for solar projects on federal land. In fact, the Administration has approved the first 17 solar projects ever built on federal land, which will produce enough renewable electricity to power 1.8 million homes. Its fast-tracking of solar development could power another 7 million homes.

The U.S. still has a fossil-fuel economy, with fossil-fuel infrastructure and rules that don’t penalize fossil fuels for broiling the planet. It’s understandable that clean-energy interests want to hedge their bets. If they’re nice to Romney, maybe he’ll be nice to them.

But Obama is already being nice to them. And when interest groups are studiously evenhanded, they signal to their friends that there’s no political upside to helping them and to their enemies that there’s no downside to screwing them. Environmental interests have a reputation for being shrill, but they’re often quite docile, going along with retrograde farm bills in exchange for conservation crumbs and supporting status-quo highway bills for a few bike paths. Solar and other green technologies need more than a few bones thrown their way. They need public policy that levels a playing field traditionally slanted toward fossil-fuel incumbents.

Maybe the best strategy for Team Clean Energy is to play nice and hope Republicans will play nice in return. But that’s not how Team Dirty Energy plays.

MORE: The New Oil and Gas Boom