Solyndra bashing is good for China
By Christina Williams
Editor, Sustainable Business Oregon
Christina Williams is the editor of Sustainable Business Oregon.
It's been an interesting week on the sustainability beat. On Wednesday Secretary Stephen Chu was in Portland repeating his contention that sustainability and clean energy hold the same potential for our economy and education system that the space race kicked off in the 1950s.
On that same day, Solyndra, that once high-flying solar startup that got all kinds of love from the federal government — including a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department for Energy — shuttered its plant, laid off its employees and filed for bankruptcy protection.
The move unleashed a hailstorm of criticism of the federal loan guarantee program and, to some extent, President Barack Obama's entire stimulus policy.
But while we're wringing our hands about how much money the feds might have lost on Solyndra (never mind that private investors stand to lose as much as $1 billion), China's solar startups are licking their photovoltaic chops.
The New York Times pointed out this week that China's already dominant solar market position stands to benefit form solar company bankruptcies in the U.S. Solyndra is the largest of these followed by Evergreen Solar of Massachusetts and SpectraWatt, an Intel spinoff that marched out of Oregon in a huff over the Business Energy Tax Credit program, landed in upstate New York and filed for bankruptcy protection last month.
What's giving Chinese solar companies their head start is the same kind of access to capital that the DOE's loan guarantee program aims to provide. Greentech Media published an eye-popping chart this week showing how much the Chinese government is throwing at its solar startups compared to what a company like Solyndra was able to garner. In short, the billions of dollars in loans China makes available to its solar companies dwarfs the U.S. backing of its nascent solar sector.
Back in Oregon, the week ended with the news that SolarWorld will consolidate its U.S. manufacturing efforts in Hillsboro in an effort to keep cost-competitive with China.
This is potentially good news for Oregon's solar cluster and its job market as well. So is the arrival of SoloPower, a Silicon Vally-based thin-film solar company with its own $197 million DOE loan guarantee.
But it's going to take even more investment to keep the U.S. in this new space race. The question is: Where will it come from?
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