I suppose it’s easy to get a story like this wrong if you don’t understand the solar industry at all (or, for that matter, the way new industries work in general). It’s a story that makes for sexy headlines if you have a complete disregard for the facts of a case, which is sadly the case for many of my colleagues in the media these days.
What story am I talking about? I’m talking about the story that broke last week that Sun Trust of America filed for bankruptcy (be careful when you click on the previous link — despite being “updated,” it still contains the error I’m about to talk about). When even mainstream media sources get it wrong, you know there’s a problem.
The problem, as is obvious to anyone who can use the Google machine, is that despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth surrounding Sun Trust’s bankruptcy, there were no Department of Energy loans given the company. Let me repeat that again for those of you who were not paying attention: there were no Department of Energy loans given the company.
Most media outlets who covered the bankruptcy insisted that it had received $2.1 billion DOE loan, much like the Solyndra loan last year (which, as I have been saying for six months, is a politically motivated non-scandal). This bankruptcy wasn’t anything like Solyndra’s, and all it would have taken for these intrepid reporters to understand that rather salient fact was a Google search for SunTrust of America. It’s right there on the website. I use Google all the time. It’s not that hard.
I won’t get into the obvious political slant of some of the outlets that published attention-grabbing headlines. For one, I’m tired of talking about politics in these posts for now (I’ve done it for the past two weeks, and it gets exhausting pointing out all the sound and fury that politicians and commentators are spewing about the industry). Second, the superb bloggers over at CleanTechnica did a marvelous job already in taking down the worst offenders.
What incensed me more was the patently obvious laziness of the so-called journalists covering this story. It brings discredit to my profession when errors like this are made, and it makes me (and my colleagues) mad.
I would love to hear the excuses for how they missed this obvious error. It’s mistakes like this that give the solar industry an undeserved reputation as being more risky that it actually is (and sets off a feeding frenzy among the industry’s critics).
After all, this industry is still relatively young, and there will be an inevitable shakeout (which I’ve also been predicting for five months). It happens in all young industries, and it will happen in this one, too.
None of that means the industry is in trouble. It just means that as market forces are brought to bear on solar, some companies will survive and others won’t. It’s classic Adam Smith (or, if you prefer, Ayn Rand).
But it also means that industry will have to keep fighting to get the truth out about the industry. I’ve harped on this subject before when I’ve felt the industry is under unfair attack, but it bears repeating: The industry must stand up for itself.
I know activism isn’t easy (after 20 years of advocacy myself, I bear plenty of scars), and it’s outside of the comfort zone of most people. But unless we stand up and make sure our voices are heard by anyone who makes false and/or misleading attacks on the industry, misperceptions about solar will continue to fester — doing lasting damage to the industry we all know and love.