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Pity the Green Pioneer

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Judith Lewis Mernit | Sep 16, 2011 05:10 AM

Back in the early part of this decade, when I spent the last week of every August at Burning Man camping in a village called the Alternative Energy Zone, I got a valuable lesson in the intricacies of renewable energy development. I had been trying for some time to coax a couple of electric scooters to run entirely on solar power, a feat I eventually accomplished, but not without losing a lot of money, shedding a lot of tears and ultimately, breaking up with the boyfriend who was ostensibly serving as my chief engineer. At one point, as I shuffled across the alkaline playa defeated and sad, the mayor of the village came by to console me. “You have to remember that alternative energy people are pioneers,” he told me. “And if you remember your American history lessons, a lot of pioneers ended up with an axe in the back.”


I was reminded of the mayor's wisdom last week, when I’d heard that the solar manufacturer Solyndra had filed for bankruptcy even after benefiting from a $535 million loan guaranteed by the Energy Department. I don’t know what happened in the meeting rooms or on the accounting books for Solyndra – maybe mistakes were made or numbers not carried over. It’s hard to tell. But I do know that Solyndra has been working on a particularly innovative kind of cylindrical photovoltaic module that has the potential to capture a lot more sun per square inch than the flat kind. And I suspect that its thin-film solar cells, manufactured from copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) wrapped in glass, were a tad more costly to manufacture at this stage of the game than the old crystalline silicone kind, which are dropping so precipitously in price that developers have been throwing over more complicated technologies for plain old solar panels.

In fact, Vasilis Fthenakis, the Brookhaven National Laboratory senior scientist famous for crunching the numbers on the lifecycle carbon emissions of solar, has said as much.  "Companies have had difficulties producing CIGS without many defects," he told Scientific American in 2008. "They may get more from deflected or reflected light but . . . that needs to counterbalance the increased costs of production."

So Solyndra has ended up with the proverbial axe in its back, as have its defenders – to critics of government-sponsored renewable energy development, the company has become the emblem of a green economy gone wrong, and the Energy Department gone stupid. After all, the Energy Department guaranteed a $535 million loan for Solyndra, and it still went under. Imagine that! A $535 million loan, and the company still couldn’t triumph in an uncertain but cutthroat-competitive market, in which plunging prices have made profit-making as difficult as selling expensive cutlery at a lemonade stand outside WalMart.

To anyone paying attention, the only big shock here is that Solyndra is mostly alone. And that’s not because energy policy has to be so risky, although risk is always part of investment. It’s because loan guarantees and tax credits, as Todd Woody of Forbes’ blog pointed out this week, are a poor substitute for an overarching incentivizing energy policy, one with ambitions toward reversing the carbon-fueled rise in global temperatures and reducing our dependence on imports. A carbon tax, or just a carbon market, would add a dose of necessity to the green technologies the Obama administration wants to nurture. A feed-in tariff system like Germany’s, that pays clean energy producers a reasonable kick back per watt, would promise at least a little profit. Tax credits mean little to a start-up that, like most green energy innovators, doesn't have much to tax.

Absent any of those national directives, however – for which, as Woody and just about everyone else points out, there is zero political will – the renewable energy projects both Interior and the Energy Department have nurtured in the past two years may or may not find a market. Absent state renewable energy mandates like those in California, Arizona, Colorado and other states across the West and the nation, they most certainly would not.

And without national policy to jolt the carbon market, even the regional stabs at establishing carbon-trading systems are in trouble. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Eastern U.S. has lost a key player in New Jersey; the Western Climate Initiative, which includes seven Western states and four Canadian provinces, stands to lose participants as well as economies worsen and jobs seem more important than clean air. California’s own cap-and-trade planning has been held up not just by reluctant industries, but by environmental justice advocates who argue that a system of credits and allowances simply concentrates pollution in poor communities, and won’t work anyway.

Which leaves us pretty much where we were in 2009: A green economy without a compelling regulatory reason for being, and renewable energy pioneers running from the flying axes. If we go on this way much longer, the Solyndra failure may not be an outlier, but a harbinger.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News.

Image of CIGS solar panels courtesy Flickr user Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon.

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