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Clean Energy Marches On, Despite Policy Setback, Says EPA Head

April 28, 2016, 12:36 AM UTC
Photo courtesy of Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher

The shift to cleaner energy in the U.S. is still going strong despite a decision by regulators to delay a controversial plan to curb power plant emissions.

That was the reassuring message of Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who said on Wednesday that technological innovation is leading a dramatic change in how electricity is generated. The fact that coal burning plants are temporarily getting a reprieve from the Clean Power Plan, which was put on hold by the Supreme Court earlier this year amid legal challenges, has done little to stop the march toward cleaner energy like solar and wind, she told a room full of solar tech employees in Silicon Valley.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at the headquarters of solar company NEXTracker. Photo courtesy of Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher
Photo courtesy of Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher

“All of the work we are doing in D.C. is following your successes,” McCarthy emphasized during a tour of the solar companies NEXTracker and Solaria, based in Fremont, Calif. She said the companies represent the “best and brightest in terms of how to deliver really efficient solar energy.”

NEXTracker, founded three years ago, was spun out of neighboring solar firm Solaria. NEXTracker makes hardware that automatically tilts solar panels throughout the day to face the sun to increase the amount of power that panels generate. Solaria makes solar panel technology including solar cells that can be integrated into windows and buildings.

For more on NEXTracker and solar tech watch our video.

NEXTracker is one of the rare cleantech startups that was acquired by a big company for a high price. Last year, electronics giant Flextronics (FLEX) agreed to acquire the company in a deal worth up to $330 million. The acquisition is supposed to help NEXTracker sell its trackers in developing regions like China, India, and Brazil.

On Wednesday, McCarthy toured the labs and pilot plants at NEXTracker and Solaria, and gave brief remarks to the companies’ employees. During her speech she said, “You guys are showing us a path forward, and we’re running like crazy to keep up with you.”

McCarthy also took the opportunity to announce that the EPA now has new draft rules for how the part of the Clean Power Plan focused on low income communities, called the “Clean Energy Incentive Program,” would be implemented. The program would give utilities extra credit for lowering greenhouse gas emissions in low income communities.

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The EPA’s new rules show how the organization is slowly working out all of the kinks and logistics of its Clean Power Plan so that it will be ready if and when it’s approved by the Supreme Court. “We are going to be fully prepared, and we are going to have all of the implementation ready to go when we win in the courts and we move forward,” McCarthy said. In terms of the court’s decision to delay the Clean Power Plan, which shocked and dismayed clean energy advocates, she told the audience not to worry about it and assured them that “we will win on the merits.”

NEXTracker CEO Dan Shugar shows off the company's testing lab to EPA head Gina McCarthy.
NEXTracker CEO Dan Shugar shows off the company’s testing lab to EPA head Gina McCarthy.
Photo courtesy of Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher

McCarthy also said that even if the Clean Power Plan didn’t exist, energy production would still transition to more clean energy. “It’s not all about the Clean Power Plan driving the decisions, it’s all about the Clean Power Plan recognizing there’s an energy transition and we’re following it,” she said.

In the end, the Clean Power Plan’s fate could depend heavily on who gets elected the next U.S. president. That person will likely choose the next Supreme Court justice and help determine the court’s overall ideological leaning.