12:15 PM EDT, October 17, 2011
Rather than the Washington political circus that undoubtedly will mark Congress' upcoming hearings into the collapse of Solyndra, the government-subsidized solar panel maker, the company's problems should be viewed as an unfortunate bump in the road toward realizing the global economic engine the solar energy industry can become.
The numbers speak for themselves. The solar energy industry provides over 100,000 jobs in the United States, 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 occurred 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 surprise you to know that the U.S. is a net exporter of solar goods and services in the global marketplace, including China. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 75 percent of all revenue for solar installations in the U.S. goes back into the American economy.
While we may hear of a few high-profile plant closures in this rapidly evolving industry, solar manufacturers have quietly been setting up new plants in states as diverse 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, its technology seemed commercially viable. Prices for polysilicon, the feedstock for the most commonly used photovoltaic solar cells, had skyrocketed. New thin-film technologies, such as the ones Solyndra was proposing to use, were widely seen as a cheaper successor that only needed some temporary support, in the form of government loan guarantees, to scale up for mass production.
But then the unexpected happened. The polysilicon industry added capacity, and prices for silicon-based products plummeted. Suddenly, Solyndra's thin-film technology was no longer competitive, and the company went bankrupt, leaving U.S. taxpayers on the hook for some $500 million in federal loan guarantees.
Yet the falling price of silicon-based products also prompted a boom in the global solar power industry. This year the world will add more than 22 gigawatts of new solar generation capacity, the equivalent of 45 large coal-fired electrical generating plants.
It is crucial that the Solyndra story not become an indictment of continued government support for the research and development of new energy technologies that are vital to our remaining competitive with countries such as China and India. While the Solyndra investment did not result in success, the U.S. has funded dozens of other projects that eventually will produce solar power on a scale we could hardly have imagined just a few years ago.
There will always be winners and losers in any new field. But rather than let that slow us down, we need to keep pushing ahead as a country if we are to realize the enormous economic and environmental promise of the emerging solar energy industry.
Richard Deutschmann, Columbia
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