Franz Litz – Shining Some Sunlight on Solyndra

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If you followed any of the mainstream media reports about Solyndra—the California solar manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy two years after being awarded a $500 million federal loan guarantee—chances are you’ve only heard part of the story. 

Solyndra developed and manufactured solar cylinders to capture sunlight and convert it to electricity.  Unlike traditional solar panels that capture direct sunlight only on the top surface of a flat panel, Solyndra’s solar cylinders use non-silicone thin-film technology wrapped around a tube.  This enables capture of sunlight across a 360-degree cylindrical surface. 

Not only does this tubular shape increase the amount of sunlight captured at a given moment in time, but it allows for more consistent capture during the day as the sun moves across the sky. Until recently it was much cheaper to produce and install these cylindrical thin-film modules than traditional silicone-based panels, making the technology highly promising.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Just ask the Bush Administration officials who pushed through Solyndra’s loan guarantee application and tried to get it approved in January 2009 shortly before Obama’s inauguration.  Ask the private investors—both Republican and Democrat—who put hundreds of millions into Solyndra while also donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates. 

Republicans now claim that Solyndra is evidence that government is a bad job creator.  Some say government shouldn’t be in the business of guaranteeing loans for clean tech companies. Government shouldn’t be picking winners in the intense competition among solar manufacturers. Too bad for them the Solyndra loan guarantee was made under a program created in 2005 by a Republican President and a Republican Congress, with Democratic support.

So we have a Solyndra loan guarantee initially promoted by the Bush Administration but ultimately made by the Obama Administration under a loan guarantee program created by Republicans with bi-partisan support. Some scandal.

The irony in all of this bluster is that congressional Republicans, and some moderate Democratic senators from coal-dependent states, prevented the last Congress from passing genuine comprehensive climate change and energy legislation. That legislation may have eliminated the need for government to pick winners out of many vying for government subsidies.

In the absence of a real bi-partisan comprehensive energy policy, we are left with the approach Bush started and Obama has continued. If we are going to support the burgeoning clean energy industry in the United States, we are going to have to take some risks.  The alternative is that we sit back and let China grow its renewable energy industries with hefty subsidies, and create the jobs that come with them.  We’ll end up buying our energy infrastructure from China.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said it best in his testimony last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee:  “When it comes to the clean energy race, America faces a simple choice: compete or accept defeat.”

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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