The U.S. solar industry had $1.8 billion in net exports last year. But it faces daunting challenges from both Chinese competitors and GOP budget cutters. Not every U.S. company will survive global industry consolidation. But the PV segment as a whole has seen more than 10% annual job growth since 2003 and is certain to continue being a big job creator — if the U.S. government doesn’t let the playing field tilt to foreign companies.
The news broke yesterday that solar manufacturer Solyndra was filing for bankruptcy. The thin-film producer closed its California-based manufacturing facility and laid off 1,100 workers.
One more business going bankrupt in these tough times wouldn’t normally make big news and draw GOP cheers. Solyndra, though, had received a $535 million loan guarantee from the federal government to manufacture a unique cylindrical solar module that reduced installation time, increased efficiencies, and didn’t use the most expensive material in conventional solar modules, silicon.
GTM Research Senior Solar Analyst Shyam Mehta made an accurate (if somewhat understated) observation about the coming blowback:
Unfortunately, most coverage of today’s news is likely to gloss over the market’s subtleties and conclude that supporting domestic solar manufacturing is a waste of taxpayer money. Thus, the image of the U.S. solar industry is likely to be affected negatively in the minds of both policymakers and the general public in this post-Solyndra world.
The fact is that with a glut of solar panels on the market today, depressed silicon prices, and the Chinese government lavishing huge amounts of subsidies on domestic manufacturers — 30 times the amount of loans as the U.S. in 2010 — Solyndra’s cost structure simply couldn’t compete in an increasingly-commoditized market. In a statement yesterday, the company cited “global economic conditions” as the main reason for the shutdown.
Conservatives are dancing all over Solyndra’s grave, trying to turn it into a referendum on renewable energy and green jobs. But the U.S. invented the modern solar cell half a century ago, and the route to sustainable wealth can’t possibly be one where we invent technologies and other countries manufacture them.
No, rather than a referendum, this should be is a chance to learn the lesson of how the US can compete in one of the fastest job-creating sectors in the world.