[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.]