Inquirer Editorial: Keep Solyndra in perspective

Posted: September 28, 2011

The scandal involving failed solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which reaches all the way into the White House, should not undermine the nation's commitment to developing abundant clean energy.

The FBI, Congress, and inspectors general from the Departments of Energy and Treasury are looking into whether the Obama administration rushed to sign a $535 million loan guarantee for the company without a thorough examination of its finances or the market for its unique solar panels. Solyndra declared bankruptcy Aug. 31, costing 1,100 jobs and putting taxpayers on the hook.

The administration took a leap with California-based Solyndra, expecting that its unique panels would be competitive and possibly transformative in the new industry, thus giving the United States a market advantage.

Solyndra built panels of lightweight, curved film that captured more of the sun's power than conventional flat panels. Its panels were easier to install and ideally suited for flat roofs on commercial buildings, a growing market sector. Solyndra's panels also weren't made of expensive silicon. But when silicon prices plummeted, and China decided to flood the market with cheaper panels, Solyndra unraveled.

Questions about Solyndra's lobbying efforts and the administration's ease in embracing the company must be examined. No doubt that will keep this story alive for weeks in a polarized political environment. But the investigations should not keep President Obama and Congress from taking responsible risks that are inherent in launching and nurturing any new industries.

After all, this country still supports the old fossil-fuel energy business, and it helped nuclear power get off the ground.

Beyond reducing pollution and the nation's dependence on foreign oil, the solar industry employs 100,000 people, which is twice as many as it did in 2009. The industry is projected to employ almost 500,000 by 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

American solar companies are making gains in the international market even though they are competing against Chinese manufacturers that receive deep subsidies from their government. It must not be forgotten that part of Solyndra's downfall was due to China's undercutting competition with cheaper, subsidized panels.

That is not to say allegations of lax government oversight should be ignored. On the contrary, all steps should be taken to protect taxpayers' interest.

The United States should be a leader in green power, but the risks it takes to get there must be reasonable. An investigation of Solyndra can determine whether that was the case with it. But Congress must not use this occasion to score political points at the expense of the nation's need to embrace alternative energy solutions.

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