By Yann Brandt
Governor Mitt Romney visited the former headquarters of Solyndra. For so many of us in the solar industry, Solyndra has become the topic we never want to hear about again. But if we let politicians and solar deniers sidestep the truth or ignore the facts then we as the solar industry are letting them win.
To me Solyndra exemplifies something different — not so much a story of technological innovation that moved past the commodity pricing of silicon but moreso the innovation of the rooftop solar energy system. As an installer, Solyndra changed the way rooftop solar was estimated, designed and installed. The racking was a part of the system, the wiring was basically integrated, and it took advantage of the rooftop environment.
Labor costs were cut in half and BOS product needs were reduced. Because of Solyndra products, high-performance roof systems were elevated to a new level. The folks at WalMart can attest that just prior to the demise of Solyndra in mid-2011, RFPs were submitted to WalMart that were very competitive at well below $3/watt.
So the purpose of the post is to ask a simple question. What if Solyndra were made in China? The U.S. government issues loan guarantees of $535 million to Solyndra in addition to more than $1 billion of venture capital investment. In the end, Solyndra was not able to make it work and had to file for bankruptcy. It was a disappointment for so many of us that applaud innovation and advancements in the solar industry. It was also a loss for many of my solar friends that were employed by Solyndra. It has been almost a year since the bankruptcy announcement and the question remains, could the United States have done more, or would it have been a net negative for the taxpayer?
I have often thought that the founders of Solyndra would have been better off and the solar industry would have been better off if Solyndra had been founded in China. Put into context of this spring’s announcement of tariffs placed on Chinese solar companies, I am no longer in doubt of that thought. Solyndra would have most likely benefitted by much more access to capital than it did in the United States. This graph courtesy of Climate Progress was published shortly after the Solyndra announcement.
The U.S. political system likes the talking points of domestic energy production but remains infatuated with the manufacturing aspects of energy production. Why does our solar industry focus have to be on manufacturing? The majority of U.S. solar jobs are not in manufacturing but in sales, development and support functions that bring the long term benefits of solar energy to consumers all over the Country.
In retrospect, imagine if the timeline would have been different and Solyndra was founded in China. The graph above would most likely include Chinese Development Capital for Solyndra and last week’s tariffs would have been levied on Solyndra, made in China, as well. The contrast would be extraordinary if my theory is right. In the end, the question I ask you is this: Would the solar industry have been better off if Solyndra had been made in China?
Brandt is the president and chief executive officer of Braya Solar, a consulting and project management firm which continues to lower the project costs while representing the PV system owner. Ensuring the needs for risk, bankability, longevity, schedule and budget of the project are met, Braya’s leadership delivers customized project solutions to developers and investors.