Published on September 17th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan2
Q&A on Solyndra, Clean Energy, & Green Jobs
September 17th, 2011 by Zachary Shahan
Here’s yet another great response to the Solyndra debacle and all the attacks on clean energy and green jobs that have followed. It’s part of an email I received from the Natural Resources Defense Council last night. Check it out (and please share it):
Q. What are the facts on Solyndra?
A. Solyndra builds lightweight, advanced solar panels that generate electricity from sunlight. Its products have been installed in more than 1,000 facilities worldwide. Earlier this month, the company laid off its staff of 1,100 production workers, saying it would seek protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The company said its business was being hurt by foreign competition and the global credit crunch, which has made it hard for the company’s customers to finance new projects.
Q. Why is the company under investigation?
A. In 2007, Solyndra applied for assistance from a Department of Energy program that promotes renewable power. In 2009, the DOE awarded the company a $535-million loan guarantee. By the end of last year, the DOE recognized financial troubles at Solyndra and, over the next several months, restructured the terms of the deal to try to reduce the chances taxpayer money would be lost. The bankruptcy, though, has put that money at risk. The Department of Justice is investigating.
Q. Why are some politicians so worked up about this?
A. Anytime taxpayer money is at risk, we need to know the facts. If there was wrongdoing, those responsible must be held to account.
But the world is moving toward cleaner, safer more sustainable sources of energy like solar power. Trillions of dollars are at stake over the coming decades. We’re not going to turn our back on that opportunity every time an emerging industry experiences growing pains. That’s now how America rolls.
We didn’t pull the plug on Edison when the first light bulb blew out. We didn’t close up shop when the first Ford got a flat tire. And we’re not about to give up on the solar industry and the vital jobs it creates.
Q. How big is the solar industry in our country?
A. Solar energy is growing rapidly in this country and the future for this renewable energy source is bright.
Solar capacity has had annual growth topping 45 percent every single year since 2005. Last year it doubled and it grew 66 percent in the first quarter of 2011 – despite the tough economy, according to the Solar Electric Industries Association (correction: these stats originally come from The Solar Foundation). We now generate enough solar electricity in our country to power every home in a city the size of Philadelphia. Additional construction is already underway to increase that output by one-third, in offices, on rooftops to power highway road signs and elsewhere. We need to build on that progress.
Q. How many jobs has solar industry created?
A. About 100,000 Americans now work in the solar power and solar heating industry, which includes 5,500 companies (editor’s note: some are reporting the number is ~5,000) around the country. These are good jobs for engineers, manufacturers, electricians, plumbers, physicists, chemists and others, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The world’s leading producer of solar electricity is Germany – which gets about as much sunlight as Alaska. The United States ranks fourth.
But look at a map. Think about energy costs. Think about growth. Within a few years, the United States is likely to become the world’s leading market for solar equipment, installation and operation. The question is who will build, install and operate the gear. The answer must be American workers. We have the knowledge. We have the skills. It’s our market. We need to own it.
Q. Why don’t we?
A. Our biggest competitor is China. Five years ago, China didn’t make solar panels. Now it controls half the global market. About 95 percent of its panels are exported, mostly to the United States, Germany and other countries.
A number of American companies are competing, based on advanced technologies and design. It’s in our long term national interest to support those companies every way we can.
Q. What is China doing that we’re not?
A. China treats solar power as a strategic industry. China’s goal is to dominate the world market for solar equipment, much as Japan became an auto export giant. The Chinese are well on the way.
Beijing provides Chinese solar companies with competitive advantages that dwarf anything the DOE might provide American firms. Through low-interest loans and other subsidies, the government provides Chinese solar makers with billions of dollars in direct aid. It provides land for manufacturers. And wages are low: $2,640 a year for an engineer, according to the New York Times.
Bottom line: China has identified solar exports as a national priority, and it has tailored national policies and devoted national resources to achieving that goal. The strategy is working – at the expense of U.S. companies and American workers.
Q. It sounds like we’re falling behind.
A. The risk is that we become reliant on China for equipment that is fast becoming essential to an efficient economy, much as we’ve long been dependent upon countries like Saudi Arabia for oil. There’s got to be a better way.
Here’s our view.
Countries all over the world are working to move beyond fossil fuels. They won’t last forever. They’re getting harder to find, riskier to develop and more expensive to buy. They’re destroying our planet and threatening our health.
Solar technology is part of the answer. It’s rapidly reshaping the global energy future. Trillions of dollars are up for grabs over the coming decades. We cannot stand by and cede that future to our competitors – in China or anywhere else. We must invest in our future, put Americans back to work and strengthen our economy going forward.
Q. Sounds good. But I hear some politicians say that green jobs – solar or otherwise – just aren’t happening.
A. That’s just dead wrong. Here are the facts.
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, the number was 2.7 million, according to the Brookings Institution. That compares with 375,000 jobs mining coal, producing oil and gas and turning fossil fuels into consumer products.
The green economy is strong and growing, even as the country struggles with a jobless recovery from the worst recession since World War II. Green jobs are poised for even greater growth once our economy gets back on its feet. Meanwhile, it’s more than holding its own.
Q. Where are the green jobs?
A. Besides solar, let’s look at wind. About 87,000 Americans now support their families by designing, building or installing wind turbines, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, we’re getting 3.3 percent of our electricity from wind, according to August data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Texas, the oil capital of the world, is getting 8 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, and they’re helping to keep ranchers and farmers viable as well.
What about green construction, building sustainable workplaces? In 2005, that work was worth $3 billion a year. Today it’s about $54 billion. In 2015, this will be a $145-billion market, according to McGraw Hill Construction. By then, green construction will support as many as 8 million American jobs, according to estimates by Booz Allen.
These are good-paying jobs for Americans who have the skills to do the work. Construction managers, carpenters, truck drivers, the whole gamut.
The fact is, our world is changing, and our workforce is changing with it. That’s what American progress is all about.
Q. If green jobs are doing so well, why do we need taxpayers to pitch in?
A. We’ve got a jobs problem in this country. We’ve had unemployment rates of 8 percent or higher for nearly three years. Right now, 14 million Americans can’t find work. That needs to change, and we all need to pitch in to make it happen.
Part of the answer, and an important part of the answer, is to invest in our future. There is no greater opportunity, and no more urgent imperative, than for us to invest in a sound and secure energy future. That means efficiency. It means wind, solar and other renewable power sources. And it means sustainable communities.
All of that creates American jobs – more than 2.7 million to date, and growing.
Compare that with other parts of our economy.
Over just the past decade, American manufacturers have shed 4.4 million jobs. Those jobs are gone, they’re not coming back and we can’t change that.
What we can do is to replace those lost jobs with the jobs of the future. That’s how we’ve always moved forward as a nation. We need to make up our minds, as a nation, to do that, then roll up our sleeves and get the job done.
Q. But isn’t government especially bad at picking winners and losers? Why not let the free market sort all that out?
A. From the moment of its founding, our country has rallied around strategic goals then summoned the collective resources to achieve them.
George Washington called us to build great canals that linked markets and ports to factories and farms. Lincoln believed in the power of rail stretching from sea to shining sea. Roosevelt electrified the rural South. Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. Kennedy sent us to the moon, a mission that ushered in the technological beginnings of computers, smart phones and the Internet.
Each of these national achievements, and more, began with a common vision of what this nation might become and where the American people, together, might go. No single person or political party took us there. We arrived by working together, and that’s what we must do now.
We can build energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces. We can create communities that give us more choices in how we live and commute. We can harness power from the wind and the sun. And we can compete with the best in the world.
We must make up our minds to do so, then gather the means to prevail. This isn’t about picking winners and losers. It’s about winning. Winning in the race for the jobs of tomorrow, creating those jobs today, and putting our future on solid ground for generations to come.
Image Credit: energyNOW! Solyndra video