Solyndra scandal compromises US energy policy

Solyndra is a California-based manufacturer of solar panels. (Courtesy of timeswampland.files.wordpress.com)

I think we can all agree that the still unfolding Solyndra debacle is not going to end well for the President — even if allegations of corruption are unsubstantiated. Things are so bad for Obama that no “spin” is necessary to make him look, if not guilty, at least unduly involved in an ill-advised investment.

Solyndra, a California manufacturer of thin-film solar panels, had a $535 million federal loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. This meant that the US government was the lender and the guarantor — the party that would assume the responsibility of the loan if the borrower were to default.

In August, Solyndra declared bankruptcy, closed its plant and laid off all 1,100 of its workers. Following the bankruptcy filing, the FBI raided Solyndra’s headquarters. In comparison with the entirety of the DOE’s loan guarantee program, which tops $9 billion, this single default doesn’t completely tarnish the program’s push for investment in wind, solar and other renewable energy projects.

The biggest problem is that it was clear from the outset that Solyndra was a losing proposition. They produce thin film solar panels, which are much less efficient and much more expensive than the market standard of monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon photovoltaic cells. At the time Solyndra applied for their loan guarantee, the company was hemorrhaging money.

The administration looks foolish after Obama’s multiple visits to Solyndra’s headquarters and his use of the company’s work as an example of what our future green economy could look like. And the visits to the White House by Solyndra investors in the weeks leading up to the loan guarantee don’t look so great either.

To recap, the Administration invested — potentially under pressure — in a company that didn’t have enough support (with good reason) from private investors. Then, Obama went on to tout it as a prime example of the DOEloan guarantee success, until said company went bust.

But I’m just telling you what you already know from a segment that airs on “The Daily Show” — “That Custom-Tailored Obama Scandal You Ordered is Finally Here”.

So, thin film Photovoltaic technology is not yet economically viable. This does not mean that a “green economy” is now unviable — quite the opposite is true in Northern Europe: Germany’s solar market is thriving and can now survive without any subsidies, Norway is powered almost entirely by hydropower and Southern Sweden and Denmark have massive wind farms.

What will it take for the US to get such a “green economy”?

To begin, we need to move past what I imagine might become “Solyndra-gate.” The rest of the $9.3 billion in loan guarantees can still be a success, and if they are successful, both sides of the aisle will be sighing in relief. On Monday, “The New York Times” published letters sent to the DOE by Republicans in Congress supporting applications for loan guarantees from companies in their constituencies. No one wants government spending to be wasteful, especially if they advocated for it.

The next step is to stop subsidizing gas, coal and oil projects and divert that money towards investment in clean energy technology — especially wind energy infrastructure and research — in the form of subsidies that phase out over time. Wind has, by far, the fewest drawbacks of the leading renewable energy technologies in the United States. Its main downside is the inability to store produced energy for any extended period of time.

Solar cells provide a more immediate benefit in the eyes of households that install PV and thermal cells on their roofs, but it takes around two to three years to capture enough energy to “repay” the energy used to make the cells, and up to 25 years to make up the cost of the cells in terms of energy bill savings. These calculations do not include the amount of clean water and, in some cells, harmful chemicals used in production.

Wind farms cannot survive in the current US energy market, and subsidies must be paired with aggressive marketing on the behalf of firms (to match the awful pro-coal ads.) The stigma of windmills ruining landscapes could easily shrink in comparison to the actual destruction of landscapes that accompanies mountaintop removal.

The potential for a green economy is not dead, but there must be significant shifts in either the international environmental regime or in the composition of Congress before greater progress can be made.

But Solyndra’s failure only affects half of the battle; policy supporting renewable energy is not enough to make the complete transition to a green economy. Consumers must also move away from unsustainable patterns of consumption — the truly pervasive hindrance to our efforts to establish a green economy and live within the boundaries of this planet’s resources.

Olivia is a junior. She can be reached at onatan1@swarthmore.edu.

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