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The Daily Need

After Solyndra, the future of green jobs

The FBI executing search warrants at the headquarters of California solar firm, Solyndra on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. The now bankrupt company received a $535 million loan from the federal government. Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The Obama administration is still struggling to recover from political fallout surrounding the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar power manufacturer long heralded by the president as the future of green jobs in America. Before declaring bankruptcy, Solyndra had received $535 million in federal loan guarantees from the Department of Energy under a program launched by the Bush administration and expanded under President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. Two days after Solyndra filed for bankruptcy on September 6, the FBI launched an investigation into the company, uncovering evidence that White House officials rushed due diligence on the loan. Also of concern to investigators is the fact that the company was also heavily financed by the family foundation of George Kaiser, a major Obama campaign fundraiser.

As the investigation has continued to unravel, Republicans have painted Solyndra as an example of the failings of President Obama’s push for “green jobs” as the core of the new American economy and government involvement in future green projects. Solyndra was the third green energy company to declare bankruptcy in a month, which has prompted concern nationwide about the country’s ability to sustain the renewable energy industry. But is this really a sign that the future of green jobs in the U.S. is growing dimmer? We collected some posts from around the Web to tackle the question.

An editorial from the San Jose Mercury News, published before the investigation was launched, emphasized that Solyndra’s failure was absolutely not symptomatic of the entire green tech industry.

[I]t would be absurd to judge green tech, or the government’s investments, solely on Solyndra’s failure. All industries, particularly emerging ones, have winners and losers.

Private companies that fund research and development don’t expect every investment to result in a marketable product. They do expect that their overall R&D investment will bolster the bottom line over the long term. That’s how the government’s clean-energy investments should be judged — on whether, over the long term, they create jobs and an environment for private industry to thrive.

But at RealClearPolitics, Michael Barone argues that the very nature of government’s involvement in supporting green companies is problematic:

[L]et’s assume for the time being that there was no criminal conduct here, no violation of government procedures, no fraud. Let’s assume everyone in the administration acted with good faith.

There’s still a scandal — the scandal of the government handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to unproven and speculative businesses. Even the shrewdest venture capitalists lose money on most of their investments. But when they lose, it’s their money, not ours.

“Solyndra is the next ‘Climategate,’” declared David Roberts at Grist – in that amidst the scandal, the real threat of climate change and the pressing urge for immediate action is lost in the discussion.

When [Climategate] first broke back in late 2009, lefties and bloggers and Dem lawmakers just ignored it, because it was obviously dumb. This left the field entirely open to a massive attack from the right, coordinated among ideological media, staffers, lobbyists, and pols. When the left finally stirred itself to action, all that emerged were a bunch of long, boring investigations into the details and good-faith efforts to be fair about how both sides a point. By the time five separate investigations had cleared the scientists of all wrongdoing, the damage was done. Now we’re seeing the same script play out again.

Despite the details of the scandal, the overarching story remains that China, as the world’s leading manufacturer of solar products, is handily beating the U.S. in the renewable energy game. The New York Times has a detailed description of exactly how this is happening.

Some American, Japanese and European solar companies still have a technological edge over Chinese rivals, but seldom a cost advantage, according to industry analysts.

Loans at very low rates from state-owned banks in Beijing, cheap or free land from local and provincial governments across China, huge economies of scale and other cost advantages have transformed China from a minor player in the solar power industry just a few years ago into the main producer of an increasingly competitive source of electricity.

Meanwhile, an overall pessimism remains for the future of investments in other solar companies, now that Congressional Republicans are poised for a “huge political fight” over future projects. Andrew Restuccia at The Hill writes:

The fight could be a major campaign theme next year, particularly since the loans are tied to the 2009 economic stimulus package the GOP already believes is a political liability for President Obama.

This fight, experts said, is likely to compound an already dismal outlook for federal investments in solar and wind power, despite arguments that the U.S. needs to act quickly to compete with China and other countries developing similar technologies.

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