09/16/2011 12:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

No Reason to Give Up on Clean Energy

I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley, the birthplace of technologies that have transformed our world and powered our last economic boom.

But rest assured that for every Google or Apple or Intel or Facebook, there are hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of other unknown technology companies that failed. Creating truly transformational technology is tough. Success almost always comes with a few failures.

With that in mind, I can't help but be perplexed at suggestions that the high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra Inc. is somehow a death knell for the clean energy industry.

It's that kind of head-in-the-sand mentality, along with outdated energy policies, that has kept us shackled to fossil fuels for far longer than makes sense. Look where that has gotten us so far: Gas prices that are breaking the family budget, lost lives in foreign wars, an economy that is held hostage by foreign oil suppliers.

The clean energy industry is still our best hope for our economic and energy future -- with or without one company called Solyndra.

It is an industry that overall is strong and growing. Consider:

  • The solar power business is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. There are more than 5,500 companies operating in the solar industry today, employing 100,000 Americans.
  • When you include other clean-energy businesses -- everything from wind turbine makers to green building contractors -- the job count is much greater. And while the economy was contracting, the clean energy sector was expanding. In 2009, there were 2.2 million green jobs in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By July of this year, that number had increased to 2.7 million, according to the Brookings Institution. By comparison, there are 375,000 workers who mine coal, produce oil and gas and turn fossil fuels into consumer products.
  • Clean jobs pay better. According to Brookings, median wages in the clean energy sector are 13 percent higher than the wages in the overall economy.

If the clean energy industry is doing that well on its own, you may ask, why should our government continue to support it through loan guarantees, especially given the circumstances surrounding Solyndra?

Here's why.

Making transformations to something as big and as important as our energy system is not something any industry can do on its own -- much less an industry that's competing against one of the biggest, most influential (and most heavily subsidized) industries in the world: The fossil fuels industry.

History has shown when you're tackling something this big, the government must be a catalyst, a driver, a partner. Without government participation in the economic transformations of our past, we'd still be traveling on dirt roads. We'd still be reading candlelight. The Internet wouldn't exist.

Some of our biggest and most transformational success stories -- from the highway system to the electrification of our country to the development of the Internet through DARPA -- all came about because of government participation.

And remember this. All along the way to those successes, there were failures. We didn't give up on transformational opportunities before because of a failure or two in the past.

Is there anybody in our country who really wants to walk away from the opportunity of a brighter, cleaner world tomorrow because of a failure today?