With the high-profile collapse of solar manufacturer Solyndra, the demise of the U.S. solar industry is nearly complete.
Let’s face it, the largely justified but calculated partisan attacks on the Obama administration’s funding of the California solar startup, along with the domestic industry’s persistent inability to compete with heavily subsidized Chinese manufacturers, likely kills the chances of nurturing a domestic solar industry.
It didn’t have to turn out this way.
Nevertheless, U.S. companies involved in producing materials and other solar components are voting with their feet. Big suppliers like Applied Materials and smaller startups such as Evergreen Solar have shifted operations to China. Massachusetts-based Evergreen laid-off 800 workers last winter and shifted production to a joint venture in China. Evergreen’s excuse? More Chinese government support.
Solyndra’s collapse after receiving a $535 million government loan, which taxpayers will now have to pick up, will likely undermine economic stimulus efforts designed to boost the domestic solar industry. Smaller U.S. operators will remain, but most manufacturing—and jobs—are gone to China.
U.S. oil companies are laughing all the way to the bank.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee appears to have the goods on the Solyndra loan, including a raft of White House e-mails the panel leaked to the Washington Post. That newspaper appears to have at least done some leg work, reporting that Solyndra’s biggest investors were funds controlled by billionaire and Obama campaign fundraiser George Kaiser. Kaiser has denied any undue political influence in gaining approval of Solydra’s government loan.
The main culprit in Solar-gate is Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison, who failed to inform even committee Democrats of his company’s “perilous condition” prior to its collapse. As Harrison exited by the back door, the feds were carrying boxes of documents out the front entrance as most of the Bay Area’s TV stations captured the proceedings.
The Republican leadership of the House energy panel is and always has been hostile towards solar energy development. It also views the Obama administration’s economic stimulus efforts as picking “winners and losers.” That tired debate is irrelevant as American manufacturing continues its precipitous decline.
(A sliver of hope remains for the domestic industry: Despite all the hoopla over Solyndra’s collapse, the Energy Department is continuing to invest in promising energy technologies, including a $150 million loan guarantee to 1366 Technologies. The company has found a way to use bulk silicon to make wafers used in solar cells. The process technology is close to commercialization. DoE is betting the advance can lower the cost of producing solar cells. “It’s a process innovation, not a product innovation,” a DoE official told the New York Times. “They can produce silicon wafers with much less material and many fewer steps.”)
If the American solar energy industry is in fact on its death bed, where can we still lead in energy R&D and manufacturing? I would argue that the best place is battery technology. Several U.S. companies and a growing list of startups are either squeezing more energy density out of lithium-ion batteries or targeting new combinations like lithium air. Venture capitalists are pouring a sizeable amount of money into these companies, many of which are spin-offs from university labs. Despite all the gloom, there are still plenty of good ideas emerging from these technology incubators.
The solar industry has picked up and moved to China. Let’s mourn, then organize, and refocus our efforts on other energy technologies like advanced batteries--and begin again to restore U.S. manufacturing and energy independence.