By Richard Deutschmann
1:13 PM EDT, October 20, 2011
We have all been reading a lot about the Solyndra story of late, with numerous articles in the national news detailing the U.S. Department of Energy's support for this now-defunct solar energy manufacturer. The situation deserves the proper scrutiny of legislative investigation to ensure that taxpayer resources are being utilized properly. But rather than the political circus in Washington that will undoubtedly envelop these hearings, Solyndra should be seen as an unfortunate bump on the road to the global economic engine that is the modern solar energy industry.
The numbers speak for themselves. The solar energy industry provides more than 100,000 jobs in the United States; those employees are working at more than 5,000 companies in all 50 states. This is more than double the number of jobs just two years ago — and all of this growth is occurring during one of the worst economic downturns in decades.
The U.S. solar industry is projected to become the world's largest by 2015. It might seem surprising, but the United States is a net exporter of solar goods and services to the global marketplace, includingChina.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 75 percent of all revenue for solar installations in the U.S. accrues to our national economy. While we hear of a few high-profile plant closures in this rapidly evolving industry, solar manufacturing has quietly been setting up new plants in diverse states such as Mississippi, Arizona, Ohio, Colorado and New Jersey. And well-known U.S. companies such as Dupont, 3M, Dow and GE continue to ramp up their solar product offerings.
At the time Solyndra was starting up, the technology it relied on had merit. Prices for polysilicon, the feedstock for the most commonly used photovoltaic solar cells, had skyrocketed. New thin film technologies were widely seen as a cheaper successor, only needing some temporary support to get to the scale needed for mass production.
Then a surprising thing happened: The polysilicon industry added capacity, and prices for silicon-based products plummeted. This has provided for a boom in the global solar industry, as the world will add more than 22 gigawatts of new solar generation capacity in 2011 — the equivalent of around 45 large-scale coal fired power plants. This is not to minimize the very real loss of several hundred million dollars to the U.S. taxpayer. But it should be seen through the perspective of what is projected to become a trillion-dollar global industry in the coming decade."
It is critical that the Solyndra story not become an indictment of continued national support for R&D into new energy technologies, which are so vital in our race to remain competitive with countries such as China and India. While this particular investment did not result in success, the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program has funded dozens of other projects that will bring solar to a scale we could hardly imagine just a few short years ago.
There will be winners and losers, as has been illustrated here. But rather than letting this slow us down, we need to push ahead as a country to realize the enormous economic and environmental promise of the emerging solar energy industry.
Richard Deutschmann, a former NASA engineer, was founder and CEO of Chesapeake Solar LLC and is currently vice president for business development at Tangent Energy Solutions. He lives in Columbia. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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