Solyndra isn't the whole story

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By Sherry Robinson

In the utility room of a wealthy homeowner was a Rube Goldberg-like solar system, impossibly complex. It wasn’t working. In the 1970s, it was my first solar story.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Now they work, and the biggest obstacle – cost – is going away. Good ol’ American know-how would have risen to the challenge, eventually, but the Chinese beat us to the punch.  
We should be worried about this, but instead we’re listening to talking heads bleat about the Obama administration’s loan to Solyndra, a California solar company that tanked because Chinese technology drove prices down. In the usual political hay making during the investigation, let’s remember: Solyndra isn’t the whole story.     
In the magazine Innovation is a report by Georgina Benedetti, senior energy and power systems analyst for Frost & Sullivan, an international consulting firm.
“Solar photovoltaic systems have, over the last 50 years, evolved into a mature, sustainable and adaptive technology,” she wrote. Technology and design are improving, and solar power is becoming more cost-effective.
(Warning: A defense of solar should not be taken as a snub to conventional sources. We will need them all.)
In the next decade, as nations around the world strive for energy self-sufficiency and reduced emissions, Benedetti predicts more government support overseas, which will spur development. But her pie chart shows a dieter’s-size slice for North America: 7.5 percent, compared with 72.5 percent in Europe and 15 percent in the Asian Pacific.
She also reported (in June) that the cheaper Chinese solar cells were forcing European and American manufacturers to reduce their prices. A solar manufacturer delivered the same message in New Mexico in January.
“We have vast untapped solar resources in this country, but we’re way behind Germany, and we’re getting hammered by the Chinese,” said Gerald Fine, president and CEO of Schott NA, which has a plant in Albuquerque.
Addressing a business audience, he said he was neither a member of the Green Party nor a raging environmentalist.
“Solar is a good business, and it’s good energy policy for the country and the state,” he said. “But I know a bubble when I see one. We are in the midst of an enormous bubble around solar… The hype ignores the reality that six of the top 10 sellers of photovoltaic modules in this country are Asian, but Germany is still the largest market by far.”
He spelled out what the industry needs to grow, and it sounds a lot like what other industries need to grow: the Department of Energy loan guarantee program that’s now being assailed, longer grant programs, and sustained solar manufacturing tax credits.
What the industry doesn’t need is uncertainty. Policies that change every two years discourage sales. “Give us a running start so we can develop volume and create a level playing field with foreign competition,” he said.  
Fine applauded New Mexico’s portfolio standard for utilities that requires 15 percent of electrical power from renewable sources by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020. We are now seeing solar plants go up around the state to meet this standard – the latest in Carlsbad, Santa Teresa and Deming.
I’ve written before that electricity from any source will require more transmission lines. While Solyndra commands front-page stories, we hear far less about the administration’s efforts to step up permitting and construction of transmission lines. In a pilot demonstration, the government just approved projects in a dozen states, including the $1 billion, 460-mile SunZia project from south of Moriarty to the Las Cruces area and west to Casa Grande, Ariz.
For every Solyndra, many other companies will survive. We’ve reached a divide like the Japanese high-tech challenge of the 1980s. Back then the solution of Sematech, a consortium of semiconductor companies backed by federal money. We need to look down the road.