And these government subsidies were an attempt to counteract China’s heavy subsidies. Joe Nocera on that The New York Times this weekend:

To say “no” is also to cede the solar panel industry to China, which last year alone provided some $30 billon in subsidies for its solar industry. Over all, the American solar industry is a big success story; it now employs more people than either steel or coal, and it’s a net exporter.

But solar panel manufacturing — a potential source of middle-class jobs, and an important reason the White House was so high on Solyndra, which made its panels in Fremont, Calif. — is another story. Not so long ago, China made 6 percent of the world’s solar panels. Now it makes 54 percent, and leads the world in solar panel manufacturing. Needless to say, the U.S. share of the market has shrunk. The only way America can manufacture competitive solar panels is to come up with innovative technologies that the Chinese can’t replicate.

These are interesting numbers, but that last sentence is bogus in a couple of ways. First, the Chinese will figure out a way to replicate anything, patent or not. And I can think of another way we could manufacture competitive solar panels here: Slap tariffs on Chinese panels to counteract those subsidies.

But these numbers are excellent context, and combined with the LAT story, they’re essential to understanding the Solyndra story.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.