Why the Sun Set on Solyndra

How the bad news about green jobs could be better

With Labor Day on the horizon, it was another grim week in green-job news, as a solar panel manufacturer in California’s Silicon Valley shut down and laid off 1,100 workers.

Fremont-based Solyndra, which received a controversial $535-million Energy Department loan guarantee as part of the federal government’s $787-billion economic stimulus package, announced Wednesday that it is closing its factory and filing for bankruptcy protection.

The closure is “a blow to the Obama administration’s effort to create green jobs … [and] a high-profile failure for a federal stimulus program that gives loan guarantees to green-tech manufacturers,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Baker reported. Plus, two other American solar companies, Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt, sought bankruptcy protection in August.

Solyndra’s demise is an opportunity to revisit an article I criticized last week, and to explore more fully the shortcomings in too much of the press coverage of the green-jobs story—namely, there’s far too much bickering about the numbers and not enough exploration of the various reasons why the US is not creating as many green jobs as advocates, both within government and in the private sector, think is possible.

Last week, I addressed a piece by the San-Francisco based Bay Citizen, which ran in The New York Times under the headline, “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Promises.” The piece called the green employment targets presented by President Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown “a pipe dream.”

I faulted the Bay Citizen for cherry picking gloomy details from a recent assessment of the “clean economy” in metropolitan areas nationwide and ignoring some of its relatively optimistic findings. On the other hand, I also faulted other critics of the article for characterizing the assessment as rosier than it was. The report, by the Brookings Institute and Battelle’s Technology Partnership Practice, said that growth in the clean-energy sector was, in particular, “torrid.” Yet strong annual growth rates among small companies belie the small number of total positions generated. Overall, the clean economy created half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010, which is not fast enough to meet Obama and Brown’s targets.

The problem with The Bay Citizen’s article was that it oversold the nut, arguing not that green-job creation will be arduous, but that it is impossible. One can see what looks like The New York Times’s effort to temper that argument in its decision to change the headline from the original, “Green Jobs Predictions Proving a Pipe Dream,” to, “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Promises.”

Whatever the case, Aaron Glantz, who wrote the piece, penned a blog post for The Bay Citizen’s website responding to his critics, which contained a lot of the nuance that his story didn’t (apparently his editors cut a lot). For instance, he presented additional quotes from one of his sources, Obama’s former green-jobs advisor, Van Jones. In the article, Jones came off sounding like he’d grown frustrated by the clean economy’s lack of growth. In fact, he’d grown frustrated with Republicans thwarting progress, by blocking a mandatory limit on climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions, for example.

But Glantz also pointed out that his article did, in fact, explore a “variety of factors that have prevented the [clean-tech] sector from delivering broad-based employment.” In one case, he noted, “a $186 million weatherization program paid for by the stimulus has been slowed by federal prevailing wage provisions and delivered the equivalent of only 538 jobs in the last quarter.”

A deeper exploration of those confounding factors, bureaucratic or otherwise, is important. It’s fine for journalists to report that green jobs have failed to meet expectations. That’s newsworthy enough. But what really matters is why they have failed. Answering that question lets readers know whether the barriers are simply high, or truly insurmountable.

A bit of that exploration is happening in the coverage of Solyndra’s collapse. In another piece for The Bay Citizen Glantz highlighted the fact that demand for clean energy has waned during recent economic turmoil, and that:

China’s low wages and generous subsidies for the solar industry have helped drive the price for solar cells down by 42 percent since January. According to a Department of Energy report released Wednesday, the US share of solar panel manufacturing fell from a peak of 43 percent in 1995 to just 7 percent last year.

[Update, 10:15 a.m.: On Friday, the Times had an article on the front of its Business section headlined, “China Benefits as U.S. Solar Industry Withers.” It went into greater depth on the trade rivalry between the two countries, presenting a number of interesting perspectives. For example, American solar companies “still have a technological edge over Chinese rivals, but seldom a cost advantage, according to industry analysts.” And some American energy companies feel that “it is cheap capital, not cheap labor, that gives Chinese companies the main competitive advantage.”

For a different perspective, one need only turn back to the Times’s Business section on Monday. There, another article reported that, “A study sponsored by the solar power industry has concluded that the United States ran a trade surplus of $1.88 billion in solar technologies last year, as exports of raw material and factory equipment for the solar sector outpaced imports of finished solar panels. The report is clearly aimed at addressing worries about the rapid rise of Chinese solar panel manufacturers, who now represent 58 percent of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity.”]

A Tuesday New York Times article by Matthew Wald reported that there also were more basic technological concerns:

Solyndra’s design avoids the use of silicon, a commodity that was selling at very high prices in 2009 when the loan guarantee was approved but that has crashed since then.

The design also sought to cut costs with an innovative cylindrical design that reduced the labor required for installation. As the sun moves across the sky, the light hits a different facet of the cylinder. But the capital costs for manufacturing were high.

Regardless of the particular confluence of circumstances and choices that brought down Solyndra, the Obama administration is apparently staying the course. A number of articles quoted a blog post at the Department of Energy, which read:

We have always recognized that not every one of the innovative companies supported by our loans and loan guarantees would succeed, but we can’t stop investing in game-changing technologies that are key to America’s leadership in the global economy.

Likewise, White House spokesman Eric Schultz e-mailed the following comment to Bloomberg News: “While we are disappointed by this particular outcome, we continue to believe the clean-energy jobs race is one that America can, must and will win.”

It’ll be hard slog, to be sure and journalists should be skeptical of such anodyne statements. The question that Schultz should be answering is what the administration is going to do to realize its goals. Clearly, something needs to change.

To help the White House, and the public, figure out what that is, the media should keep hammering away at the green-jobs story. In addition to trumpeting the fact that there aren’t enough, however, reporters must investigate why. It’s the difference between covering a challenge and a pipe dream.

[Update, 10:15 a.m.: On August 26, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the Department of Energy finalized a partial guarantee for an $852 million loan to support the development a 250 megawatt concentrating solar power facility in California that “will increase the nation’s currently installed CSP capacity by about 50 percent.” The solar thermal technology it uses is completely different from the photovoltaic panels manufactured by Solyndra. The relative merits of home efficiency projects versus utility-scale projects yet another angle for journalists to explore.]

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: ,