Solyndra's recent bankruptcy has raised questions about the viability of solar power and other renewable energy projects at a time when this country is striving to be energy independent. While some in Washington would scrap the President's ambitious plan to make the United States the global leader in renewable energy production, other nations including China are ramping up their government programs to support the sector.
Without a clear government mandate and ongoing support for renewable energy, America will continue to be dependent on foreign energy sources, mostly from countries in a region beset with political volatility.
So what went wrong with our federal program to support renewables? Nothing, except one company's bankruptcy has cast doubt on the credibility of a government program that is otherwise being administered with incredible efficiency. The facts are that 22 other companies have received loan guarantees, and 18 others are on track to receive them shortly. These 40 companies and projects represent a diversified investment portfolio across multiple industries and disciplines. To claim the entire program is flawed because one company failed after unfortunately getting priced out of the market is to ignore the incredible successes the program can be credited with on numerous other fronts.
Indeed, despite the posturing and finger pointing, the American solar energy industry is alive and well. I should know. My company, Solar Trust of America, is planning to build over 2,000 MW of new solar plants in the coming years. Add to that an additional 5,500 MW of planned utility-scale projects by other companies throughout the American Southwest. And this says nothing of the thousands of megawatts of new solar projects that will be built on hundreds of thousands of rooftops across the country.
To put that in perspective, only 3,100 MW of solar capacity is online in the United States today. By 2014, the United States will become the largest solar market in the world, with new solar plants being the largest source of new electric generating capacity in the US.
What that adds up to is jobs. Good jobs. According to the National Solar Jobs Census & U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Solar Industry currently employs over 100,000 Americans. Many of these solar jobs are in small and medium-sized business in every state in the Union.
That is because the solar supply chain isn't that much different from any other industry. At Solar Trust of America, we have built a domestic supply chain that leverages economies of scale to drive down solar project costs even further than they are today.
With our partners, we source steel directly from the mills of the Midwest, value-engineer components for high-volume production, and leverage state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques borrowed from the auto industry at new manufacturing facilities in the Southwest. In doing so, Solar Trust of America and its partners reduce inefficiencies in the supply chain and help bring the solar industry into the big leagues.
If Solyndra has taught us anything, it's simply that no one technology will be the saving grace of our industry. My company learned that recently when we announced we were changing the technology at our flagship project from solar thermal to photovoltaics. In doing so, we actually turned down what would have been the largest federal loan guarantee for a renewable energy project. Yet, we did it for one reason: the market wants PV right now. Being nimble and responsive to market realities are crucial traits for any company that is going to survive in today's renewable energy industry.
To maintain our national security and leadership of the global economy, America must lead the world in renewable energy production. A large, domestic solar energy industry is already cropping up all around us, but like many new industries, it requires a public-private partnership to succeed.
The facts are clear. Our natural resources are finite, and our environment is fragile. Energy consumption will only increase, and our continued dependence on unstable foreign oil suppliers is a threat to our national security.
With the continued support of Congress, the American solar industry will not only compete with China in the solar space race -- we will beat them. And we will secure America's energy independence in the process.
Uwe T. Schmidt is Chairman and CEO of Solar Trust of America, an integrated solar energy company and developer of the Blythe Solar Power Project, the largest solar facility in the world.
This post has been revised from a previous version.