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

The demise of Solyndra should be cause for reflection, but it shouldn't shake our support of photovoltaic and concentrating solar projects.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

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.

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