In September, Dan Arvizu, who heads the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, made a prescient prediction during a European solar energy conference. He said the meteoric growth of photovoltaic installations over the last six years would cause fossil fuel and nuclear interests to demonize solar cells in hope of killing what they might see as a powerful threat.
Days later, Washington politicians started ramping up an investigation into Solyndra, a leading maker of thin-film solar cells that had gone bankrupt two years after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Today, the bankrupt company’s CEO, Brian Harrison, stepped down.
While the glee of many Solyndra bashers mostly seemed to derive from how deeply the Obama administration had been involved in making the loan — the president himself having visited the firm last year to talk up his green economy initiatives — the subtext has been that Solyndra’s failure somehow points out the fatal flaw in photovoltaics and renewable energy in general (see Rep. Darrell Issa’s stinging critique, especially pages 3 and 7)
But if an auto company goes belly up, does it follow that cars are technologically flawed and doomed for extinction? We’ve seen more costly — and deadly — disasters with the more established energy industry in the Gulf of Mexico and at Fukushima, so using the same logic, shouldn’t we condemn oil and nuclear to the dust bin of history? Not everyone is ready to throw the solar baby out with the Solyndra bathwater, but we really should separate the politics from the power.
Solyndra’s production run only amounted to about 1/8,000 of the entire installed capacity of photovoltaics, hardly a bellwether for the solar industry as a whole. I would argue that its technology was based on a bad bet. During the beginning of the accelerated growth period — between 2006 and 2008 — silicon, the feedstock for most solar panels, became scarce. Prices rose and it looked like silicon’s price would only continue its rise. Some observers, myself included, discussed new photovoltaic approaches, like using plastics or polymer paints. In that vein, Solyndra developed panels that did not rely on silicon, but on what is called thin-film material. The effort looked like a bright idea that might help the U.S. re-establish its dominance in renewable energy.
As President Obama said at the ill-starred appearance at Solyndra: “Fifteen years ago, the United States produced 40 percent of the world’s solar panels — 40 percent. That was just 15 years ago. By 2008, our share had fallen to just over 5 percent. I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to cede American leadership in this industry, because I’m not prepared to cede America’s leadership in the global economy.”
Unfortunately, the silicon logjam broke, production of silicon has increased exponentially, and the price of silicon solar modules dropped precipitously. When problem Solyndra’s approach disappeared, so did Solyndra. But solar remains in ruddy good health after what some have termed a “shakeout.”
If the congressional committee really wanted to show the American people the state of the solar electric business in America, its members would have invited executives from the U.S.-based Hemlock Semiconductor Group to testify. It ranks as one of the largest producers of silicon, the starting material for most of the photovoltaic panels in the world, and employs more than two thousand workers in Michigan and Tennessee.
The committee also should have heard from executives from First Solar, the most profitable photovoltaic company in the world, due to its industry-leading low production cost. At the end of the second quarter of 2011, the company had accumulated earnings of $1.84 billion.