To some, the potential loss of $500 million of taxpayer money would be the greatest tragedy of the Solyndra event. And while that kind of loss is not trivial, it is small compared to the long term ramifications of the debacle.
To recap, Solyndra is a solar panel manufacturer in California who was provided with a Department of Energy (DOE) loan as part of an effort to stimulate clean energy development in America. The company recently filed bankruptcy and laid off 1100 employees. This is not a defense of the company, the DOE, the Obama administration or any other parties to the transaction. If there is mismanagement, it should be uncovered; if fraud, prosecuted. But none of this: the loan, the bankruptcy, or the possible mismanagement represents the true tragedy of the event. The real cost could be aborting and/or diminishing future loans to clean energy developers and manufacturers.
Already there are such calls. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee, was among the Republican lawmakers who decried the Department of Energy loan guarantee program for "picking winners and losers." Now, Upton is suggesting that the DOE program — which has about $7 billion in conditional loan commitments to green firms that are pending — complains they amount to "risky investments for American taxpayers." Upton, and Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., urged Energy Secretary Steven Chu not to rush to finalize several pending loans that are required by statute to be closed. Stearns said, he is “very concerned” about investing in similar loans.
Moreover, many Republicans are starting to entangle the Solyndra situation into partisan politics, and that is where an even greater tragedy can begin, because it is in the area of green energy and alternate fuels that America has the capability to rise and shine. Innovation, new technology, and invention have been among our nation’s finest accomplishments. That is our legacy. From Eli Whitney…Thomas Edison…to splitting the atom…to the genius of the late Steve Jobs – America has led the way. Clearly, we have lost a good deal of our manufacturing capability. No longer are we going to sew tee shirts, make much furniture, or manufacture a wide range of goods now made more cheaply around the world. But, the development of leading edge “green energy” is in its infancy, and America has the opportunity to score big here. If only we have the resolve, the funding, and the nerve. The torpedoing of government support, funding, and even risk taking would create a chilling effect on our ability to compete going forward.
Even at this early stage, we have fallen behind. Regarding solar production, over 90% of worldwide photovoltaic (PV) solar panel production occurs outside the United States. China produced 3,800 megawatts of PV in 2009, leading all countries for the second straight year. Together China and third place Taiwan accounted for 49 percent of all PV manufacturing, a share that should keep climbing as companies there grow larger. Rounding out the top five producers in 2009 were Japan in second place, Germany in fourth, and the United States in fifth with about 5%share.
Similarly with wind turbines. China vaulted past competitors in Denmark, Germany, Spain and the United States last year to become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, and is poised to expand even further this year. China’s renewable energy industries are adding jobs rapidly, reaching 1.12 million in 2008 and now climbing by 100,000 a year, according to the government-backed Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association. Inexcusably, we are not!
The same story exists with other such leading edge clean energy opportunities as geothermal, hydrogen fueled automobiles (Japan’s Honda already has produced one), and new battery technology. Indeed, it is in the field of batteries that the U.S. still has a huge opportunity. As recently as 2009, we produced less than 2% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, but the DOE is pursuing an aggressive plan to gain 40% of the world production by 2015. Realistically, that will take government funding and involvement.
Which brings us back to Solyndra. Those who will use this loss as an example of why government should stay out of the private sector’s business, are not living in the realities of the 21st century. All countries we compete with have strong government support and partnerships. Moreover, the American private sector has not show a willingness to take the full risk involved in this new and leading edge field. Solyndra failed. Others might too. But in the end, only a partnership of public/private cooperation can capture our share of the world’s future economic prosperity that inevitably will come from the energy of tomorrow.
As with all new commercial ventures, there will be risk, trial and error, failures…but also significant successes. Yes, risk, but as Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stated: "If we want to be a player in the global clean energy race, we must continue to invest in innovative technologies that enable commercial-scale deployment of clean, renewable power”. Risk-taking has never stopped us as Americans before. It should not now. That is our heritage. That is precisely how we grew to be the great nation we are!