Post-Solyndra: U.S. Politicians Vilify Solar Energy Subsidies

published: 2011-12-08 10:07 | editor: | category: Analysis

According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, “All the energy stored in Earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is matched by the energy from just 20 days of sunshine.”

Solar provides less then one percent of global energy needs each year. As prices fall, this clean, inexhaustible source of electricity, heat or hot water becomes less expensive and within the financial reach of the masses. PV-generated electricity has many advantages, which make it attractive, including few or no moving parts, noise and pollution-free and reliability. Maintenance and low operating costs also add to its appeal.

The global installed capacity for photovoltaic (PV) systems grew from 7.2 GW installed in 2009 to 16.6 GW the following year, per figures released by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA). The EU accounted for over 78 percent of the installations-- over 13 GW installed.

With EU subsidy cuts in 2011 cutting into demand, solar market analysts expect the U.S. to transition into the world's new growth market for photovoltaic developments.

PV installations in the United States doubled from 435 MW in 2009 to 878 MW in 2010. Currently, the numbers show more solar projects in the development pipeline than oil, gas, coal nuclear or wind.

U.S. Department of Energy's Ambitious Plan for Grid Parity

The Department of Energy (DOE) has a very aggressive plan in place to support research and development in photovoltaic science and technology. The primary objective of this initiative aims to achieve grid parity in the year 2015. The Department of Energy has concentrated it efforts across the entire value chain of PV development, including material science, solar cell technologies, manufacturing scalability, and complete system development. Standardizing and streamlining the permitting process across the country also has high priority.
The  DOE's Next Generation PV Program focus resources on  high-risk projects that has the potential for significant returns-all with the intention of  delivering electricity at a cost  significantly below  grid-generated electricity. The program's has the ambitious goal of developing prototype cell and required processes by 2015. DOE wants to bring products to full commercialization from 2020-2030.

Solar Threatening the Status Quo

In an interview with Bloomberg Financial, the global research director of General Electric Co. Mark M. Little said, “solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations.” Furthermore, according to Little, “If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I'm hopeful that we will do, you're going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home.”

Just recently, Dan Arvizu, Director and Chief Executive of NREL, delivered the keynote speech at the 26th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition. Arvizu stated in his presentation that the spectacular expansion of solar energy over the past six years would lead to a demonization of solar cells by the supporters of fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

Coincidence or not, several days later, the U.S. Committee on Oversight and Government Reform  moved  to investigate the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the thin film company that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy's  (DOE)Loan Guarantee Program, only to go under 24 months later.

One of the main issues at the heart of the investigation concerns whether the relationship of a Solyndra investor, George Kaiser, a major fundraiser in President's Obama's  2008 presidential campaign,  played a role in the beleaguered firm landing one of the largest loan guarantees ever approved by the DOE.

Playing Politics with Solar

Undoubtedly, a large part of the fallout from the Solyndra situation has to do with partisan politics, especially with the 2012 election season underway. “Smoking guns” have surfaced as e-mails, which document White House officials pressuring the civilian federal reviewers to approve the loan guarantee despite the firm's weak business model and questionable financial status. Adding fuel to the fire, in May 2010, the President made a visit to the firm's new solar panel manufacturing plant to push his “green jobs” initiative.

Even if the investigation into the allegations of undue influence turn out to have no truth to them--perceptions when presented as short sound bites, carry more weight than reality.

Nonetheless, the outcry of improprieties goes beyond whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House after the elections. Increasingly, it has become obvious that powerful interests take the recent surged in solar installations, in the U.S., and worldwide, and accompanying solar initiatives, very seriously.

In September, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,  chaired by House Representative Darrell Issa, released a scathing report, entitled: “How Obama's Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs.” Following are some excerpts from the report:

•    “The theory behind a “green jobs” fueled recovery is also called into question by numerous sources documenting instances of inappropriate political influence affecting the distribution of government grants.”
•    “By sacrificing domestic carbon-based resources upon the altar of an ill-fated “green energy” experiment, the President has put U.S. economic security in jeopardy and wasted billions in taxpayer money at a time when our fiscal health is in peril.”
•    “However, despite these resources, the Obama Administration seeks to fundamentally alter the American economy by forcing a transition to “green” energy. Because most alternative energy sources are significantly more expensive than traditional sources of energy, such a transition requires the Administration to raise the price of fossil fuels, while at the same time subsidizing “green energy.”
•    “Only when the cost of green energy is close to the price of fossil fuels will the market sustain these technologies. The Administration has been busy pursuing these twin policies in an effort to force a “green” revolution”

Sadly, the tone and language of the report highlights the type of rhetoric that often passes as healthy debate on both sides of the political aisle.

Hypocrisy Instead of Sound Policies

In 2010, Congressman Issa had a different take on “green” energy, as evidence by his letter, addressed to DOE Secretary Steven Chu, in which he attempted to secure a loan guarantee for Aptera Motors Inc. The California-based electric car manufacturer looked to set up shop in his home district of Carlsbad, California.

In the letter's introduction, Issa wrote, “I write to express my support of Aptera Motors's application for a loan under the Department of Energy's 136 Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Incentive Program (ATVMIP),” another program under the DOE’s Loan Program Office.

Issa continues in the document, “Electric vehicle initiatives like Aptera's will aid U.S. long-term energy goals by shifting away from fossil fuels and using viable renewable energy sources like plug-in electric energy.” He went on to write, “Additionally, Aptera's vehicles will reduce dependence on foreign oil and enhance energy security.”
 Aptera failed to secure the loan guarantee.

House Speaker John Boehner also seem intent on playing favoritism based on the following statements: "For the federal government to be out there picking one company over another, one type of energy sources over another I think is wrong."
Just a matter of days after making this pronouncement in a television interview with Fox News, Boehner had no problem actively pursuing a $2 billion loan guarantee for a nuclear-fuel facility in his home state of Ohio.

Subsidies and the Energy Industry

Either the Congressional members do not understand the precedence of the federal government's role in providing financial support for the gas, oil and nuclear industries-sectors that reached maturity long ago-- or they choose to ignore the well-documented history of such support.

Case in point, read the conclusion of Congressman Issa's committee report:
“Of course, we welcome and embrace all new technologies, especially those with the aim of increasing environmental conservation. However, there is an important distinction between industries that can stand on their own and make our economy stronger and those which require taxpayer assistance to survive.”

The venture capital firm, DBL Investors conducted a study titled, “What Would Jefferson Do? The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America's Energy Future,” which examines the federal government's financial support of the fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy industries -- tax credits, land grants, tariffs, R&D, and direct investments for the energy sector is as American as apple pie.

The report determines that solar and other renewable energy solutions, such as wind, hydro, and biomass have received the least amount of government support, compared to the other energy sectors.

The following standards provide the framework for the information presented:
•    Subsidy increases energy production
•    Availability of all data
•    Financial support available in the early phases of production
•    Subsidy allows for comparison across the different energy sectors

The study separates subsidies for bio-fuels from other the renewable energy component, but even after  adding the items together, the funding provided to the oil, gas and nuclear industries still dwarfs resources invested in solar and other renewable energy-- $630 billion to $40 billion.


The implication of the undue criticism has been-- the failure of Solyndra in some way highlights the critical mistake of pursuing photovoltaics or other “green energy” strategies at the expense of development of fossil fuel and nuclear plants. It's synonymous to saying the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, in 2008, damages the entire financial sector and makes the financial industry destined for failure.

The nuclear disaster, which occurred at Fukushima or the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- it would be just as flawed to denounce the nuclear and oil industries based on these calamities. A fair and impartial analysis requires the examination of the social, economic, social and environmental impact of these industries using legitimate criteria.
As the costs of solar energy systems continue to fall, solar generated-electricity has become a viable game changer-in the U.S. and around the globe-- without taking into account the negative externalities of the competition.

Politics has no place in the conversation. The investigation into Solyndra and other loan guarantees emphasize to need to overhaul the system to ensure transparency and evenhandedness in the assessment of all policies and the allocation of taxpayer resources.

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