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Joe Nocera on “The Phony Solyndra Scandal”: The “Real Winner is … the Chinese Solar Industry.”

By Joe Romm on September 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm

"Joe Nocera on “The Phony Solyndra Scandal”: The “Real Winner is … the Chinese Solar Industry.”"

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If Brian Harrison and W. G. Stover, the two Solyndra executives who took the Fifth Amendment at a Congressional hearing on Friday, ever spend a day in jail, I’ll stand on my head in Times Square.

It’s not going to happen, for one simple reason: neither they, nor anyone else connected with Solyndra, have done anything remotely criminal. The company’s recent bankruptcy — which the Republicans are now rabidly “investigating” because Solyndra had the misfortune to receive a $535 million federally guaranteed loan from the Obama administration — was largely brought on by a stunning collapse in the price of solar panels over the past year or so.

The company’s innovative solar panels, high-priced to begin with, became increasingly uncompetitive in the marketplace. Solyndra didn’t have enough big commercial customers to create the necessary economies of scale. And although Harrison and Stover remained optimistic up to the bitter end — insisting six weeks before the late-August bankruptcy filing that the company was going to be fine — they ultimately failed to raise additional capital that would have allowed Solyndra to stay in business.

The Republicans are trying to make that optimism appear sinister, but if we’ve learned anything from the financial crisis, it is that wishful thinking in the face of a collapsing market is not a crime. Otherwise, Richard Fuld, the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, would be wearing prison garb….

At the hearing on Friday, several of the Republican congressmen boasted that, in passing the continuing resolution to keep the government running the day before, they had succeeded in slashing the program that had made the loan to Solyndra….

But the real winner isn’t the American taxpayer or even the House Republicans. It’s the Chinese solar industry.

That’s business columnist Joe Nocera in a great NY Times piece “The Phony Solyndra Scandal.”  Nocera is not some progressive, renewable energy advocate columnist.   Before joining the NYT in 2005, “Mr. Nocera spent 10 years at Fortune Magazine, where he held a variety of positions, including contributing writer, editor-at-large and executive editor.”

That’s why his piece makes so much sense –  he is just looking at this with business sense.  Here’s more:

Harrison and Stover are on the hot seat. Anything they say in their defense — even an off-hand remark — can and will be used against them. Their lawyers would be fools if they didn’t insist that their clients take the Fifth Amendment.

Do the Republicans know this? Of course. Do they care? Of course not. For an hour and a half on Friday morning, they peppered the two men with questions about this “taxpayer ripoff,” as Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, described it, knowing full well that Harrison and Stover would invoke their constitutional right to remain silent. Joe McCarthy would have been proud.

The purpose of the hearing — indeed, the point of manufacturing a Solyndra investigation in the first place — is to embarrass the president. That’s how Washington works in the modern age: the party out of power gins up phony scandals aimed at hurting the party in power.

Undoubtedly, the Solyndra “scandal” will draw a little blood: there are some embarrassing e-mails showing the White House pushing to get the deal done quickly so it could tout Solyndra’s green jobs as part of the stimulus package.

But if we could just stop playing gotcha for a second, we might realize that federal loan programs — especially loans for innovative energy technologies — virtually require the government to take risks the private sector won’t take. Indeed, risk-taking is what these programs are all about. Sometimes, the risks pay off. Other times, they don’t. It’s not a taxpayer ripoff if you don’t bat 1.000; on the contrary, a zero failure rate likely means that the program is too risk-averse. Thus, the real question the Solyndra case poses is this: Are the potential successes significant enough to negate the inevitable failures?

I have a hard time answering “no.” Most electricity today is generated by coal-fired power plants, operated by monopoly, state-regulated utilities. Because they’ve been around so long, and because coal is cheap, these plants have built-in cost advantages that no new technology can overcome without help. The federal guarantees help lower the cost of capital for technologies like solar; they help spur innovation; and they help encourage private investment. These are all worthy goals.

To say “no” is also to cede the solar panel industry to China, which last year alone provided some $30 billon in subsidies for its solar industry. Over all, the American solar industry is a big success story; it now employs more people than either steel or coal, and it’s a net exporter.

But solar panel manufacturing — a potential source of middle-class jobs, and an important reason the White House was so high on Solyndra, which made its panels in Fremont, Calif. — is another story. Not so long ago, China made 6 percent of the world’s solar panels. Now it makes 54 percent, and leads the world in solar panel manufacturing. Needless to say, the U.S. share of the market has shrunk. The only way America can manufacture competitive solar panels is to come up with innovative technologies that the Chinese can’t replicate. Like, for instance, Solyndra’s.

Well said.

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20 Responses to Joe Nocera on “The Phony Solyndra Scandal”: The “Real Winner is … the Chinese Solar Industry.”

  1. Turboblocke says:

    Isn’t it about time someone clearly stated that AGW deniers are traitors to the American economy?

    If they block investment in sustainable technology they’re making the USA more dependant on foreign supplies of fossil fuels and are also putting America at a competitive disadvantage.

    The wasters who drive gasguzzlers, refuse to insulate or switch off lights etc all ultimately contribute to the USA needing more imports of FF. By wasting these imports rather than using them productively to generate wealth they are putting a drag on the USA’s competitiveness.

    I think that’s the framing we should use when talking about the deniers.

    • Imo, we can generalize by restating Senator Mitch McConnell’s goal: that the right-wing Republicans (rwGOP) serve only as obstructionists, dedicated solely to undermining the Obama administration. That is, they serve this goal, and in so doing, they do not serve their country; they do not serve as representatives of their respective districts and the citizens thereof; verifiably, they have lied to and disinformed the American public; verifiably, they fraudulently misrepresented their agenda during the 2010 elections; and above all, by acting in unison to support realization of Senator McConnell’s stated goal, the rwGOP have demonstrated acts of economic aggression against the U.S. Government.

      In other words, the entire rwGOP agenda, including denial of climate-change science, is at best an abdication of their Congressional responsibilities; or at worst, an act of treason.

      Imo, there is sufficient legal grounds for dismissing, as per Congressional rules, all rwGOP members of Congress.

  2. MorinMoss says:

    Dick Fuld SHOULD be in jail, at the very least.
    I wouldn’t rule out a public flogging and he should own some of these “stocks”:
    http://www.freefoto.com/images/1012/42/1012_42_3—Ancient-stocks–Cerne-Abbas–Dorset–England_web.jpg

  3. Chris Winter says:

    An undated article from the Environmental Law Institute notes that “Energy Subsidies Favor Fossil Fuels Over Renewables”
    http://www.eli.org/Program_Areas/innovation_governance_energy.cfm

    Somewhat related was the protracted battle between Boeing and Airbus over subsidies to each other’s respective airliners. The WTO settled that earlier this year, finding that both had received unfair advantages.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airbus

  4. Len Conly says:

    Pleading their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid testifying at this hearing doesn’t reflect well on the top officers of Solyndra, regardless of their guilt or innocence.

    They would be justified in assuming that the Republican-controlled committee was conducting a witch-hunt, but it would seem that a company that could afford to spend $1.8 million on lobbyists over the last few years would have been able to obtain better PR legal advice before appearing.

    See:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/us/politics/in-rush-to-assist-solyndra-united-states-missed-warning-signs.html?_r=1&sq=in%20rush%20to%20assist%20solar%20company,%20u.s.%20missed%20signs&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=all

  5. Don Pickard says:

    What’s weird and sad about this is that many of these Chinese Solar Companies is that many are listed on US stock exchanges, and could benefit US investors, but there’s a quiet war going, and so that opportunity for Americans of limited wealth* to take some advantage of the Chinese move in Solar. The only people making money in Solar Stocks on Wall Street are Shorts.

    It might get interesting soon. The Chinese are theoretically going to put out the funding plan for their most recent “five year plan” around the beginning of October, though there have been long delays in the past.

    What is pretty clear, however, is that the US is not going to take the lead. For years I’ve hoped, but at this point the hope for Solar is in the hands of the Chinese.

    * Those that don’t have access to, say, Hong Kong markets.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    According to David Ricardo, if making solar PV panels is less expensive in China then build the units there.

  7. John Tucker says:

    China does not have acceptable environmental or labor standards. Much of it actually facilitated by US companies and government policy.

    ( http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/20/world/la-fg-china-solar-20110920 )

    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-education_through_labor )

    Labor Rights in China ( http://www.fpif.org/articles/labor_rights_in_china )

    • John Tucker says:

      Not to say renewables there should be discouraged or even penalized here. Cheap solar is a good thing. US companies need to be compensated for following strict environmental standards and paying their US workers more.

      If the subsides fossil fuels receive in the form of US health costs and environmental damage were actually fairly collected from them solar panels would be like a free money machine.

      • Leif says:

        John Tucker states: “Cheap solar is a good thing. US companies need to be compensated for following strict environmental standards and paying their US workers more.” I fully agree.

        The only fair way to achieve equality with the Chinese is an international carbon tax that is returned to all countries to spend on sustainable investments. We must move the money from the wealthy segment to the masses but it must be done with the awareness that it is for the good of all. A sustainable survival for humanity into the foreseeable future. Efficiency and conservation must be the by-word. This cannot be a war among Nations, it must be a war of all Nations to banish greed and endorse harmony.

        • john tucker says:

          International agreement on that kind of thing seems distant. We should help our industry until them.

          Boy there are rumors of major problems Monday at European banks. I hope just Internet chatter is all they are. With the right obstructing, partially causing and celebrating a US manufacturing failure, not to mention menacing fed representatives they are being beyond irresponsible. It really could get much worse.

          yikes.

  8. John B Hodges says:

    Replying to David Benson #6; FYI David Ricardo’s “principle of comparative advantage” argued that if two countries differed in their advantages for different industries, both would benefit from a policy of free trade. BUT, his argument assumed that capital (and labor) was NOT mobile between countries. This was a realistic assumption in the 1700′s, but not today. See the book FOR THE COMMON GOOD by Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., chapter eleven.

    • David B. Benson says:

      Thank you for the reference. I didn’t say I agreed with David Ricardo and even assuming immobility there is, 8it seems, to reason to believe that comparative advantage actually must occur; see the Wikipedia page.

    • David B. Benson says:

      Wow! I read a preview of chapter 11 and am now motivated to find a copy of the entire book.

      Thanks again.

  9. Greg Wellman says:

    There’s some false equivalency from Nocera in there. “That’s how Washington works in the modern age: the party out of power gins up phony scandals aimed at hurting the party in power.” Hmm, think of as many such fake scandals as you can from Vince Foster to Solyndra … gosh, it’s almost always Republicans ginning them up. Funny how that works.

    • Jim Pettit says:

      Too true. In fact, the left generally shies away from investigating even *real* scandals, possibly out of the everlasting but misplaced hope that both sides just get along and concentrate on actual issues. The rwGOP (I like that) spent months going after Clinton in the Lewinsky affair that really hurt no one but Hillary and Chelsea, yet not a single high-level member of the Bush administration has been made to sweat for even a second over any of the lies they told to instigate the war in Iraq that wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and led to the deaths of tens of thousands.

      False equivalency indeed.

  10. John Tucker says:

    Looking at the waivers for the Stimulus there seems to be a running blanket waver for foreign solar equipment:

    ¨(1) Domestically-manufactured modules
    containing foreign-manufactured cells,
    (2) foreign-manufactured modules,
    when completely comprised of
    domestically-manufactured cells, and
    (3) any ancillary items and equipment
    (including, but not limited to, charge
    controllers, combiners and disconnect
    boxes, breakers and fuses, racks,
    trackers, lugs, wires, cables and all
    otherwise incidental equipment with
    the exception of inverters and batteries)
    when utilized in a solar installation
    involving a U.S. manufactured PV
    module, or a module manufactured
    abroad but comprised exclusively of
    domestically-manufactured cells.¨
    ( http://www1.eere.energy.gov/recovery/pdfs/amended_solar_public_interest_waiver_8062010.pdf )

    Pretty much made permanent:

    ¨Pursuant to this delegation, the Assistant Secretary has determined that application of
    section 1605 restrictions would be inconsistent with the public interest for incidental and/or ancillary solar Photovoltaic (PV) equipment, when this equipment is utilized in solar installations containing domestically manufactured PV cells or modules (panels).¨( http://www1.eere.energy.gov/recovery/pdfs/solar_decision_8-5-11.pdf )

    Main listing ( http://www1.eere.energy.gov/recovery/ba_waivers.html#unreasonable )

    Im surprised we have any solar manufacturing left at all.

    • John Tucker says:

      Also its of note the US companies invested in shared innovation in less efficient and previously less expensive non silicon technology as a common denominator. The thinking was shortages would drive up prices. That didnt happen. Cots associated with products in China are not necessarily driven by market forces.

      Part of this also may have to do with US outsourcing of our ¨heavy¨ industry to less environmentally responsible and cheaper staffed foreign companies.

      Unless we take care of our own industry I think this could get much worse. I think it could be very problematic for American clean energy and US manufacturing in general.

      Solyndra haunts other government-backed solar firms
      ( http://money.cnn.com/2011/09/22/technology/solyndra/index.htm?iid=HP_River )

    • John Tucker says:

      Lord even the German companies cant compete:

      SolarWorld ( http://money.cnn.com/quote/quote.html?symb=SRWRY ) lost 25 percent of its stock price today. They are closing American factories and it looks like they are going under.