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Robert M. La Follette
School of Public Affairs
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Madison, WI 53706

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Students win policy challenge with ideas on solar energy incentives

Two La Follette School students won the U.S. Department of Energy portion of the Startup America Policy Challenge with their proposal about how to make solar energy more affordable.

Sam Harms

Sam Shannon

Sam Harms and Sam Shannon were in Washington, D.C., on May 21 as part of the Startup America Policy Challenge announced by the White House in December 2011. The two second-year students talked with Richard Kauffman, senior advisor to the secretary of energy, and presented their ideas to a panel of industry and government leaders in energy, education and health policy.

“Under our proposal, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would establish a framework to encourage electric utilities to lease solar photovoltaic modules to businesses and homeowners,” Harms says. “Customers would pay a monthly fee to use the electricity produced, which would make renewable power more affordable. Utilities would be able to put any excess onto the grid and apply all generated electricity toward state requirements to use renewable energy.”

The two students based the policy proposal on an idea Shannon had prior to enrolling in the La Follette School’s master of public affairs degree program. “I considered starting a company that would acquire, distribute and install solar modules for residential and commercial users,” says Shannon, who worked for health-care software company Epic in Madison for three years after graduating in 2007 from Southwestern University in Texas in philosophy and Spanish.

Shannon then came to La Follette, where he and Harms took the course Introduction to Energy Analysis from professor Greg Nemet in fall 2011. “We both learned a lot in Energy Analysis,” says Harms, who is pursuing a certificate in energy analysis and policy along with an MPA.

Then in the spring, Shannon had an epiphany. “Why not cut out the middle man and have utilities directly lease solar systems to their customers?” he asked himself and Harms.

They shaped their ideas with Nemet’s help. “He played a pretty big role in helping us develop our proposal after the initial ‘challenge’ went out by making himself available to consult on our rounds of proposals,” Harms says. “He really helped us refine and sharpen our idea and we probably wouldn't be here without him.”

Solar electricity modules are prohibitively expensive to purchase for most property owners, the students note. “If America wants to transition to cleaner sources of energy for electricity to counter local air pollution and greenhouse gases associated with fossil fuels, the federal government must promote the adoption of emerging technologies,” says Shannon, who is also working on a certificate in energy analysis and policy. “Under our proposal the DOE and FERC would work to reduce the soft costs (installation, permitting, etc.) of adopting small-scale solar technology.”

School responds to Startup America Policy Challenge, January 23, 2012, La Follette School News

A version of this article appears in the fall 2012 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.

— posted May 22, 2012; updated August 21, 2012