GETTING PAST SOLYNDRA
Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine January/February 2012
LAST FALL, WHEN SOLYNDRA COLLAPSED, it left many Democrats and the White House red-faced. And regardless of what investigations of the solar company ultimately find, the company failure was red meat for Republicans. Never mind the arguments made by Democrats that the loan guarantee program that had been so lucrative for the solar company was designed to help risky ventures, or that Solyndra's $535 million guarantee was just a small fraction of the total program. It just looked bad, and politically speaking, that's more than enough.
As enthusiastically as the Democrats hailed the company as a symbol of solar's success at creating jobs and innovative product in the market during good times, the Republicans are railing against solar in bad times.
Solyndra is now a dirty word on Capitol Hill.
"Solyndra's failure is evidence of the folly of subsidizing green energy combined with the folly of politicians' handpicking winners and losers in the market," declares a report written by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, typifying Republican commentary on the company.
So now, whatever the merits of the specific accusations about Solyndra may be, the company's bad name is being used to smear all of solar.
"This is not the time to be in the headlines," one green energy lobbyist said, complaining about just how hard it has become to make the case for solar on Capitol Hill. It's not the time, because key government incentives for solar are expiring, and the American manufacturing industry is in the early stages of a trade war with Chinese manufacturers. Strong support from politicians would be important on these issues in any atmosphere, but especially so in these bitter, partisan days.
So how can the solar industry get help this time, without a bottomless reserve of money built up from decades of successful business? Be realistic about where the industry is, and get focused on life after subsidies and how to get there as quickly as possible, several people said.
In the past, the green world - not just energy - has been guilty of setting very high expectations and then letting the politicians who support them run wild. President Barack Obama's promise of 5 million new green jobs, which sounded so uplifting at the time, something that could really motivate voters, is now one of the phrases that Republicans turn back on their Democratic opponents. Solyndra was arguably a case of setting expectations too high - it was heralded as a success even before anyone knew if it could be, and when the chance of failure that everyone tuned in to the industry and the government loan program knew was possible, happened, it stung badly.
There is an opportunity in the post-Solyndra era, Tom Kimbis, the Solar Energy Industry Association's vice president of strategy and external affairs, said.
"We have to make sure we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because we have one or even a handful of companies fail isn't indicative of the overall industry," Kimbis said. "Nor would it be fair to look at the industry through the lens of one particularly successful company. It's a diverse and competitive industry."
Discussing the possibility of incentives drying up or federal policy turning against solar, Kimbis readily acknowledged how tough it might be but emphasized that the most successful industries had hard times before they became some of the most profitable. And his public message focused on life after government subsidies.
"I see solar today as going through something very similar to what the telecom industry or what the personal computer went through," he said. "We're in a transformative phase."
Jesse Jenkins, director of energy policy at the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that focuses on pushing innovation and new technology to solve major energy and climate problems, believes the time is right to reset the message on solar. Kill the idea that solar is an industry perpetually in need of support, he said.
"I think what the industry has to do is really get clear in the messaging to policymakers that they're not asking for open-ended, unending subsidies," he said. "They need to say, `Here's a road map; we're going to execute, a real, credible plan. We need help to get us through this road map, and here's the policy to get there.'"