The Past and the Future

04/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week provided an interesting contrast between the energy technologies of the past and the future. First, the much-bruited "nuclear revival" once again showed its inability to meet the test of the marketplace.

The idea that one key to a brighter nuclear future was reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium into civilian reactor fuel led the federal government to commit $5 billion to construct a 60,000-square-foot facility at Savannah River, South Carolina. The project, now 15 percent complete, had one customer -- Duke Energy. But last week Duke canceled its contract to buy the reactor fuel -- potentially leaving the taxpayers with yet another $5 billion radioactive white elephant.

A much more robust future emerged on the solar front when the Department of Energy decided to make its first loan guarantee to Solyndra, a California company that makes an innovative rooftop solar technology that's more efficient and easier to install. Solyndra has been shipping and selling its product but needed capital (hard to come by in today's market) to double its manufacturing capacity in California. DOE granted Solyndra $535 million in loan guarantees that will cover 73 percent of the capital cost.

Solyndra estimates that its expanded factory will produce solar panels sufficient to generate up to 15 gigawatts of clean, renewable electricity -- enough to avoid 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Further, Solyndra estimates that construction of this complex will employ approximately 3,000 people, that the operation of the facility will create more than 1,000 jobs, and that hundreds of additional jobs will be created in the U.S. for the installation of Solyndra's photovoltaic systems.

Can this kind of green energy be taken to scale in ways that will jump-start the American economy and get us out of the climate crisis? Well, in Minneapolis-St. Paul (the American city that's been planning for green energy economic development the longest), the local agency doing the planning was able to identify $3.2 billion in green energy projects that are eligible for funding under President Obama's stimulus package. That's far, far more funding than the Twin Cities will actually receive.

It turns out that, even in today's economy, we've got many more green energy opportunities than we can fund -- and no need for boondoggles like nuclear.