Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

Summary: The demise of Solyndra should be cause for reflection, but it shouldn't shake our support of photovoltaic and concentrating solar projects.

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TOPICS: IT Employment, China
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Amid all the negative coverage of the Solyndra solar bankruptcy in the past two weeks, three other tidbits might have escaped your notice. But I think they bear highlighting here, because solar technology continues to be an incredibly viable renewable energy option for the United States -- not just in terms of an energy source but as a source of American "clean" jobs and new revenue.

The first development was an even bigger loan guarantee by the U.S. Department of Energy, to the tune of $1.2 billion, to finalize a concentrating solar plant in the Mojave Desert. The project is sponsored by Abengoa Solar and it will have a capacity of 250 megawatts when completed. That will increase the nation's supply of concentrating solar power by 50 percent.

Noted Energy Secretary Steven Chu:

"Investment in solar generation facilities like the Mojave Solar Project are critical to our effort to create good, clean energy jobs in America and compete with countries like China in the global clean energy race. This project will supply local utilities with energy, help drive down the cost of solar power, and fund more than 900 American jobs, all at minimal risk to the taxpayer."

You can bet this project will be scrutinized very closely, given the Solyndra bankruptcy, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The project will generate enough electricity to power approximately 54,000 homes, and project is being supported through a power purchase agreement with PG&E.

Earlier this month, ABI Research predicted that the United States would become the world's biggest market for annual solar photovoltaic installations in 2013, edging by the current leader, Germany. (Yes, this is a different sort of solar, I know.)

In 2010, approximately 900 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity was switched on, and that number is expected to double in 2011. One factor that will drive the shift in installations is the anticipated introduction of feed-in tariffs, under a clarified ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Feed-in tariffs provide long-term contracts to renewable energy producers. ABI believes that California will be the first state to introduce the tariffs.

If things go as expected, there could be 5 gigawatts of solar capacity installed during 2013, according to ABI. Among those poised to benefit are three U.S. companies: First Solar of Tempe, Ariz.; SunPower of San Jose, Calif.; and SolarWorld of Camarillo, Calif.

I especially love the third bit of news, which I picked up yesterday from the Solar Foundation, which conducts an annual census of jobs in the solar industry. Warning, the next paragraph includes good news about U.S. employment, which may prove alarming to those of us used to negative numbers.

The latest report, "National Solar Jobs Census 2011: A Review of the U.S. Solar Workforce," estimates that solar companies added 6,735 new workers across all 50 states. That was a growth rate of about 6.8 percent, compared with 0.7 percent for the economy as a whole. (Yes, even though the unemployment rate seems stuck, there were actually net new jobs created last year.)

I suppose it is human nature for us to focus on the most recent, most sensational news that we have heard about a given topic. Solyndra's demise -- with its layoffs and taxpayer implications -- is certainly worth close scrutiny. But sloppiness on the part of the Department of Energy, or whoever is to blame for this misguided investment, isn't a reason to write off solar in the United States. Despite the politics, the technology still has a bright future in the United States, if we give it a fair chance.

Topics: IT Employment, China

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51 comments
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  • Keep the Government out of it.

    Keep the government out and let the free market decide if solar power is a viable option.

    Government has been all over oil from almost the start back in the 1800's and it's been a corrupting influence ever since. If your want solar to be truly clean, keep the government out of it.
    ancientprogrammer
    • Unless the govt.

      @ancientprogrammer
      gets out of oil, then the 'free market' will never reflect real costs.
      So either the govt. needs to back both, or the govt. needs to back neither. And I can pretty much guarantee big oil has enough friends in Congress that their backing isn't going away.
      My personal opinion is the US govt. needs to do a 'Manhattan Project' for energy. We need to be able to handle America's energy needs right here, and stop sending billions to countries that don't like us.
      mdemuth
      • Yeah get the govt out of both. The oil companies will find a way to do

        what the government does for them at much lower cost. And we wont be doing it for europe any more either.
        Johnny Vegas
      • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

        @mdemuth Your suggestion is accurate, the government should not choose winners and losers, it has always and everywhere made poor decision. China will too, we won't see the disasters, they are carefully hidden and covered up. Some won't show up for 15-20 years. But they will.

        But "Manhattan Project" stuff is appropriate, grants for research etc.

        But the concept of thousands of people subsidizing the electricity for some makes no sense. Where is natural gas in all of this? Plus if we are to be competitive in solar it will mean 15 guys in a factory with robots and machines, we cannot and should not try to compete with cheap labor.
        stano360
      • No need for a "Manhattan Project" for oil, since oil is already

        very cost effective and widely available.<br><br>If a Manhattan Project is needed, the only thing that it should include is to get the government completely out of the energy industries. That would guarantee a boom to the industries and a boom to jobs, and huge savings from not having to purchase our oil from overseas, which would then further increase our jobs creation process because that saved money could then be invested within our own country.
        adornoe
    • duh gument is in ma hare!!!

      duh gument is in ma hare!!!
      chrisbranning557
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @ancientprogrammer

      Shouldn't we be considering the power of government to foster new industries?

      Consider Japan. Though they had *no natural resources to make steel* in their country, created an entire auto industry through government subsidies. Now look at all the Japanese brands on our streets...Toyota, Honda, Daihatsu, Nissan, Suzuki, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Isuzu, Kawasaki, Yamaha.

      China is doing the same thing with solar subsidies - and putting solar countries in the U.S. out of business in the process.

      Isn't history filled with examples of where government has helped their countries become dominant in various industries?
      gillammi
      • Study MITI

        @gillammi
        By all means, consider Japan. At one time they had a very powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) that picked winners and losers, shoveled money to the anointed winners, and discouraged Japanese companies from entering "disapproved" efforts.

        After 15 years of this, MITI had a long list of flops, the companies that took the money and followed the advice were no better off, and the rising stars of the Japanese economy were companies that went their own way.

        There's a reason the Soviet Union crashed. Bureaucrats have a different decisionmaking process than business people. It turns out in practice not to be well suited to engaging in economic activity.
        Robert Hahn
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @ancientprogrammer
      I agree. I did receive a gov grant here in spain when I installed my solar system and it was gratefully accepted. The grants would be better spent however when invested in making solar more viable to all not just for those few of us who need or want solar now.
      graham palmer
  • What exactly is a clean job?

    Making solar panels sounds like a dirty job to me.
    zmud
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @zmud I keep hearing that, but right now it's a phrase, and - OMG here we go again - stumping term to get the same jack a$$es we have in there now re-elected God help us. I would love to see a plan a list of industries etc. Otherwise that's just typical Washtington empty suit talk to the hippies.
      ItsTheBottomLine
  • It's just throwing good money after bad

    It would be interesting to compare the stated power capacities with what's truly being produced and generated.

    Even at the rated capacities the numbers are pathetic, but true numbers (should they ever be made available) would hopefully end this nonsense for good.
    Takalok
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @Takalok like most of these projects they never make sense financially. You could argue that for security reasons we need to not be dependent on other countries, but even then we get most of our oil from friends (some more friendly than others!) not the Middle East.
      stano360
  • We need to stop investing in solar manufacturing until the tech reaches

    much higher conversion efficiency. Theres no point in making and installing panels that give such poor outputs. Stop pooring taxpayer money into it. Focus the private sector money on advancing the tech and ignoring manufacturing until they come up with something worth buiding!
    Johnny Vegas
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @Johnny Vegas
      Not to mention competing against china in the manufacture of most goods is completely pointless. It would be foolish to pay American (or any other free market) price. Even our worst and dullest union employees cost 10 times what a blue collar worker in china does.
      KenoshaSysAdmin
      • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

        @KenoshaSysAdmin - Don't forget Housing remember the real estate commissions what you to realize housing construction will get us out of the recession. Two 1950/60 jobs (manu and housing) that are no longer viable. We are grasping at straws and extremely poor management in DC.
        ItsTheBottomLine
    • Bullseye

      i couldn't agree more. i foresee left-leaning government types soon pushing the notion of "we helped finance your company, so we're taking a share of the profits." uncle same, venture capitalist! somewhere, karl marx is smiling.
      DJJazzyJeff
      • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

        @DJJazzyJeff That would be called "corporation tax".
        MrBeck
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @Johnny Vegas That is where we will compete, when cells that are "printed" or output with little labor it will leave China in the dust. But they will continue to sell the old tech to protect their investment.
      stano360
    • RE: Why the U.S. shouldn't give up on solar technology

      @Johnny Vegas

      Consider the idea that if we waited to invest - the U.S. could lose our chance to be significant in the market.

      Notice the exponential trend behind the drops in cost solar has been experiencing: http://bigthink.com/ideas/31635

      We have just 16 years to be significant in the market.

      If we don't invest and foster companies now - the U.S. could lose the chance to ever be in the race.
      gillammi