Hold Solyndra to Higher Standards than Oil and Nuclear Energy?

Guest Blog | September 27, 2011 | Energy Policy

As more details about the Solyndra bankruptcy and governmental support for the now-defunct solar manufacturer emerge, an important question is going to have to be addressed: What now?

Solar Installer

Renewable energy is wildly popular in the United States. Indeed, a poll completed in 2009 showed that a whopping 92 percent of Americans supported solar energy. Perhaps those high approval ratings are because solar power is one of the fastest growing industries in America. Just in the past two years, some 27 solar manufacturers have set up shop here in the US – including two separate billion-dollar investments in Tennessee. In total, solar energy supports some 100,000 jobs in the US.

For whatever reason people support solar, those poll numbers from 2009 have likely changed in the wake of the Solyndra’s “PR nightmare.” But also since 2009, the United States has witnessed its biggest oil disaster in history, and the still unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan will, too, have changed public opinion. Public support for drilling offshore and building nuclear reactors took significant dives after the BP oil spill and the Japanese tsunami. We won’t revisit all the horrifying impacts of those two disasters, but to put it into context, please note that Solyndra went bankrupt, lost $535 million in taxpayer dollars and now 1,100 people are out of work. As further context, the solar industry is performing well as a whole; the loan guarantee to Solyndra by the Department of Energy (DOE)  makes up just 2.9 percent of the DOE’s renewable loans.

If the oil and nuclear disasters are any indicator of how the solar industry will be treated in a post-Solyndra world, then nothing will change. More than a year after the BP oil spill, Congress has still not passed a single piece of legislation to bolster safety in the deepwater offshore drilling industry. Despite the events in Japan, President Obama continues to support loan guarantees for the domestic nuclear industry, to the tune of $8.3 billion for two proposed reactors in Georgia – never mind the fact that nuclear reactors have a historical 50 percent default rate.

The last time there was a bankruptcy within the energy industry, the president was blamed for that too. Indeed, Solyndra is to Obama what Enron was to Bush. But, when the Texas-based Enron went belly-up in 2001, and President George W. Bush was partly blamed, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill batted away criticisms with this zinger: “Companies come and go. It’s part of the genius of capitalism.”

Hopefully, President Obama and Congress will do more in the wake of the Solyndra bankruptcy to prevent that kind of activity, than what it has done in response to the BP oil spill and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It’d be a shame if the wildly popular solar industry suffers the full wrath of government, while other, more dangerous and less popular energy industries get a free-ride.

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