Let's not jump to conclusions about Solyndra collapse

Sure, things look bad for the Fremont-based solar company, but they don't reflect what's going on in the overall solar business (even though some House Republicans are desperately trying to make the connection). Wonkblog, a new site being overseen by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, points out some of the myths.

--Solyndra proves that energy-loan guarantees are a flop. Not exactly. The Energy Department's loan-guarantee program, enacted in 2005 with bipartisan support, has backed nearly $38 billion in loans for 40 projects around the country. Solyndra represents just 1.3 percent of that portfolio -- and, as yet, it's the only loan that has soured. Other solar beneficiaries, such as SunPower and First Solar, are still going strong. Meanwhile, just a small fraction of loan guarantees go toward solar. The program's biggest bet to date is an $8.33 billion loan guarantee for a nuclear plant down in Georgia. Improper political influence in the process is disturbing, but, at least so far, Solyndra appears an exception, not a rule. (That said, the GAO and others have pointed out potential pitfalls and the need for stricter oversight in the loan program.)


--Solar is a doomed industry. This view has been gaining popularity, but it's not borne out by the numbers. Prices for solar photovoltaic modules continue to tumble, even as fossil-fuel prices rise. A June report by Ernst & Young suggests that large-scale solar could become cost-competitive within a decade, even without government support. Of course, grid operators still have to grapple with the fact that the sun doesn't always shine, but storage technologies continue to improve -- in July, a solar plant in Seville, Spain, achieved continuous 24-hour operation using molten salt storage. All told, some 24,000 MW worth of projects are in the pipeline in the United States, led by California. Those projects may not all get completed, but that's a lot of growth underway.

As for the Solyndra deal, there is growing evidence that the loan was approved in an unusual way. That doesn't mean cronyism or kickbacks (keeps in mind that the loan process was initiated in the Bush administration), but it obviously raises a bunch of questions.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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