In 2011, a solar panel manufacturer in California named Solyndra filed for bankruptcy and left 1,000 workers jobless. Solyndra would have been just been the story of a company that tried to develop a unique non-silicone photovoltaic panel and hit a ditch when silicone prices plummeted. The scandal that followed was because Solyndra received over 500 million dollars in a rushed, guaranteed federal loan. Some point out that this funding project originated in 2005 with bipartisan support during the Bush administration. Regardless of the start of this funding, the Obama administration took the torch and ran with it. They heralded Solyndra as a prime example of future of green collar jobs in America, made speeches, and stood for photo ops at the factory.
It is apparent that the Obama administration and the Department of Energy (DOE) put too many eggs in one basket with Solyndra. Critics show this as a prime example of Chicago-style cronyism and bad business sense at the taxpayer’s expense. At the very least, it was a hasty selection of a company to be a poster child for a larger energy agenda.
An always or never approach is how solar funding seems to be proceeding in the wake of Solyndra. The Treasury Department was given only one day by the DOE to review the Solyndra loan in 2009. This lack of diligence blew up in the DOE’s face. However, now the DOE is so gun shy that the 16.7 billion dollars allocated for research and development assistance is locked up tight (WSJ 2012). The full throttle or full break approach to energy investment is toxic.
Railroading loans through is a bad idea. Not funding anything on the possibility that a particular company might not be a home run is even worse. Even in the event a company doesn’t live up to its hype, that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. Just think of how many startups and small businesses tried to build flying machines over the years. We have all seen grainy old videos of hilariously ineffective flying machines. While unsuccessful, they were part of the important scientific process of elimination.
Not all technology companies will change the world, yet every company, failed or successful, teaches a lesson. What to do or what not to do are both important to someone who takes the time to learn why. A 500 million tax dollar loan shouldn’t be handed to any company without due diligence. It is an additional shame when 1,000 jobs are lost. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that other manufacturers can learn from Solyndra’s mistakes and the solar industry, nation, and world progress.
While Solyndra leaves a bad taste in our collective tax paying mouths, we can’t afford to continue our current stagnant funding strategy for solar energy research and development. In 2009, the federal government spent around three billion dollars on energy research according to an American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC) study. To give a sense of this funding as compared to other sectors, the National Institutes of Health received 36.5 billion and defense researchers received 77 billion. (I would argue that investments in our energy independence are actually investments in our national security, but that is another topic).
The harshest skeptics of the DOE have deduced that government money spent to aid the creation of green jobs or products is a complete waste. The Heritage Foundation’s Morning Bell posted an article titled, “Solyndra Scandal Ends Green Jobs Myth.” Solyndra doesn’t prove that green jobs are a hoax just like the Ford Edsel doesn’t prove that all new automobiles will be flops. Additionally, the Solyndra loan made up only 1.3% of the money given to green energies that year (Washington Post 2011). The other 98.7% of the investments don’t seem to get much media attention. The idea that green jobs, as a sector, are worthless is the narrowest of tunnel vision. I would equate this logic to a man standing in the middle of a desert next to a barrel of water and laughing at anyone who decided to leave and look for more water. The amount of water in the barrel doesn’t matter, it will one day run out.
The shame of Solyndra is that it is a black eye on the face of solar energy research. As a 26-year-old, there is a possibility I will see oil dry up in my lifetime. As a country, we can’t afford to let solar energy research and development be shelved or underfunded. The amount of coal, oil, and natural gas left on earth is not easy to nail down in a terms of years left. It is with absolute certainty that we have a finite amount of oil, coal, and gas on Earth and more developing countries are ramping up their consumption. The sun will shine on the day we use the last drop of oil. Whether or not we are prepared for that day is what we will decide in the next few decades. If we stop funding solar with public or private dollars, we are doing a disservice to our future. Solyndra was a failure, but the solar sector is still worth backing. I would rather my tax dollars go to companies who search for new ways to harvest free clean energy than to someone standing next to a barrel of water in the desert. I won’t defend the decision to fund Solyndra with so much money, but I hope that it doesn’t become an excuse to not look for future energy in the sun.