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Missing the Big Picture: A Solyndra Case Study

November 15, 2011

Solyndra was once the prize pony of the Obama Administration’s policy efforts in the green energy industry, ultimately receiving $535 million worth of loan guarantees from the federal government to construct a second manufacturing plant to produce specialized photovoltaic cells designed for commercial rooftop installation. The company seemed to be at the forefront of the green energy revolution, but the company’s declaration of bankruptcy on September 6th, 2011 seems to have caused a huge political and media backlash not just for the company, but for the entire renewable energy sector. While in this particular case the government’s loan to Solyndra seems to be unnecessarily risky, it is completely illogical to attribute the rest of the green energy industry any guilt-by-association, because it is due to the consistent and resounding advancements in solar technology that Solyndra went out of business in the first place.

After declaring bankruptcy, Solyndra immediately became the poster-child for green energy’s opponents, who were overjoyed by the high-profile firm’s financial collapse. To be a true figurehead for their political backlash, however, Solyndra’s tale could not just be a simple failed business enterprise, they had to make it appear to be a scandal.

Mind you, I am not debating the rationale behind the FBI raid on Solyndra’s corporate headquarters in September. I believe that any company that declares bankruptcy after receiving hundreds of millions in federal loan guarantees should certainly be investigated to ensure that no wrongdoing has occurred. The public deserves accountability, if nothing else. That said, the investigations have thus far failed produced any damning evidence against the company or its use of the federal loan money.

In spite of this, the the right wing has taken off in a campaign of bluster, posturing itself as the defender of the public’s dollar against nonexistent corruption. Their exuberance over Solyndra’s demise is palpable, calling for investigations and inquiries left and right, purporting wrongdoing to the public while failing to actually find any in their investigations. The media, always eager to blow up the next faux controversy, seems once again turned itself into an echo chamber for not just the legitimate arguments against the company, but also airing many farcical inferences about the government’s involvement in the green energy sector as a whole.

The real problem with the public presentation of the facts in the Solyndra case is that it is actually very easy to understand the company’s financial troubles as a product of technological advancements and market forces, rather than extrapolating on the concept of some unsubstantiated scandal. In the context of its role in the renewable energy sector, Solyndra’s demise actually seems to be perfectly logical. While it was a somewhat risky investment at the inception of it’s loan guarantee disbursement, the forces that brought the company down were not entirely foreseeable at the time. Solyndra’s financial woes seem to stem from four basic facts.

1. Solyndra’s business was based around the production of a more efficient alternative form of solar production to the traditional solar panel, based on a tube-like photovoltaic structure that harnesses substantially more energy per surface area than traditional solar panels. Part of what made their solar panels a competitive alternative originally was their design’s ability to omit an expensive substance called polysilicon, which is required for the production of regular solar panels. While this was originally a selling point for Solyndra, the price of polysilicon production has dropped dramatically in recent years, making Solyndra’s panels less competitively priced.

2. Solyndra’s alternative panels are not designed to be competitive in large-scale installations, restricting the purposes of their cells to the small-scale consumer market at a time when demand for solar energy had been severely buffeted by the economy’s continued stagnation.

3. The cost of typical solar panel production has been on a consistent and dramatic downward slope across the board for years, to the point where many forecasts see it as on a trajectory to become price-competitive with many fossil fuels within a decade or less. Solyndra’s photovoltaic tubes, being already more expensive than their competitors, had already been falling further and further behind in comparative cost-effectiveness before they could even get their second factory up and running.

4. The international solar energy competitors, especially those from China, have received even larger subsidies, comparatively, that further reduced the price of their panels in the global market.

Ultimately, Solyndra’s business model failed because their product was becoming less cost-effective and efficient when compared to their competitors before they could even finish their second factory and get their product to the market. While politicians and the media focus all their attention on the justifiable claim that Solyndra was a risky investment for the government, they missed the big picture; Solyndra went out of business because solar panels are getting better and cheaper at unprecedented rates around the world. If anything, the real message should be that the failure of Solyndra is actually a tale of the dramatic technological successes across the renewable energy industry. Too bad it’s a message that often falls on deaf ears.

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