Is the Sun Setting on Federal Funding for Solar?

Nov. 29, 2011
The Sun Shouldn't Set on Federal Funding for Solar

A media maelstrom, swirling in partisan politics, is not something that I usually choose to follow. The story of Solyndra – the bankrupt solar cell manufacturer that received many millions in federal loans that will go unpaid – is an exception.

In recent years I’ve seen exhibits of Solyndra technology at several shows. It was an exclusive and innovative approach. The company designed lightweight cylinders wrapped in thin-film solar cells. While thin film generates less electricity than conventional flat PV panels, Solyndra’s design offered other benefits to boost its performance.

The cylindrical shape allowed sunlight to strike the solar cell from many angles, including light bouncing upward from a reflective roof to the cylinders’ underside. Wind loads were reduced due to the open design that allowed wind to travel around the cylinders without creating uplift pressure. Similarly, Solyndra claimed snow had less impact on performance because it would fall in the space between cylinders. Their light weight allowed the cylinders to be racked in dense formations without the roof penetrations and anchors required for heavy flat panels.

Solyndra was, as we say, a good story. The technology got its share of attention at shows. The firm won some high-profile clients in the U.S. and Europe and earned mention in the 2010 “50 Most Innovative Companies” published by MIT’s Technology Review. It attracted funding from a half dozen venture capital firms as well as from the George Kaiser Foundation, which has been linked to fundraising for the administration. Clearly, the U.S. government was not the first or sole backer of Solyndra, a fact that can disappear in a maelstrom.

I will be interested in the results of the FBI investigation into Solyndra, which seems to have been sparked by the possibility that company officers – some of whom received hefty bonuses just before the bankruptcy announcement – hid the true financial picture until moments before the collapse. Unlawful mismanagement must come to the light of day. On the other hand, there’s no question that many credible people saw value in Solyndra’s product, which was severely undercut by the free fall in prices for conventional PV panels – more than 50% in two years, driven by investments in new manufacturing plants in Asia.

In late November, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu’s testimony before a House committee was nothing but superheated partisan politics, even before it began. Shrill voices accused the administration of cronyism and failure to monitor the loan. Some went further, claiming that government has no right to use taxpayer funds to develop technology in the private sector. The other side, of course, cried partisan foul.

The worldwide alternative energy industry is on the rise, generating jobs and attracting investments from foreign governments. The commercial buildings industry needs alternative energy. I hope the Solyndra case is not used to advance the belief that government has no role whatsoever in supporting the development of technology. Instead, legislators should work together to discover the lessons that will make future investments as productive as they can be.

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