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Solyndra Was Lame and Failed, But That's Not the End of Solar

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In 2009, Solyndra was one of the first cleantech companies to reap the benefits of Obama's cleantech stimulus package. They looked like a good investment because they'd secured billions of dollars in back-orders, had financial backing from heavy-hitting investors, and promised to keep manufacturing local. But they overestimated their market and their ability to deliver, and now, only two years later, they're going under and the talking heads on the 24-hour news channels can't wait to use them as an example of the perils of Obama's stimulus package.

Yes, it sucks. But Solyndra was given money because it was first in line, and the public was putting on a lot of pressure to deploy the new stimulus funds. Unfortunately the government made an investment mistake; Solyndra was not a good business.

But guess what? This happens every single day to Silicon Valley venture capital firms. It's just unfortunate that Solyndra happened to be one of the first deployments of government capital.
To prevent this from happening again, we need to approach it like investors in the private sector who know their way around evaluating cleantech investments rather than doling out money to the first in line.

Remember what the US did with the Internet? It highlights what this country does better than any other country: innovate and sell those innovations to the rest of the world. Cleantech is the next Internet.

Ask someone who manages a hedge fund or venture capital firm and they will tell you, unequivocally, that cleantech (smartgrid, smarthome, electric vehicles, etc) is a budding trillion-dollar market, just like the Internet.

The problem is that because of the current energy market, cleantech companies require hundreds of millions of dollars (instead of a few million) before they can compete with incumbents like fossil fuels. This means enormous risk: you have to put a few hundred million out there to see if it 'works,' and only a few groups that can do that.

This is the perfect opportunity for the US government to invest, because they are big enough to absorb that risk and still get good returns.

Unfortunately with big players like Solyndra taking government money only to fail two years later, we're at risk of this turning into a Shakespearian tragedy where everybody dies in the end, no thanks to misinformation and assumption.

Lots of people after this are going to point to subsidies and say they're bad for job creation. But subsidizing clean technology in a big way is probably the single best way to create jobs in the long run. As a very small example, Germany has one solar job for every 1,000 people. The U.S. has one for every 4,000. And Germany gets less sun than Seattle.

Still not feeling the subsidies? Think about this: coal would never have overtaken the place of its incumbent (wood!) if it was not subsidized, yet everyone seems to forget that. China is subsidizing the hell out of solar, and they're flat-out kicking our ass. (Ask Solyndra, who cited the competitive pricing coming out of China as a reason that they tanked.)

Second, call your senator and tell them you think America needs to lead in clean technology like we did in the glory days of the auto industry. It never hurts for them to hear it from you, the voters.

On a personal note, while I appreciate the environmental benefits of cleantech, I actually got into solar because I'm a capitalist. I grew up in Louisiana, I shoot guns, and I don't think I should be fined for not wearing my seatbelt. Yet here I am saying that if I had a magic wand and could get my great nation to do one thing, it would be to get behind cleantech in a big way now, so that in 50 years, we're still a super power.