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Can Solar Survive the Solyndra Swirl?

Following the collapse of the ballyhooed solar firm, these are dark times for renewable energy. But big players are still betting it's more than treehugger fantasy

smithsonian.com

Solyndra offices, courtesy of Flickr user Monica's Dad

Solyndra…

I once made a loan to Solyndra

And suddenly I found

How hideous a loan can be.”

–Sung to the melody of “Maria” from West Side Story

Okay, that’s not quite how Stephen Sondheim wrote it, but as company names go, Solyndra is a pretty sweet sound. Until a few weeks ago. Now it’s the dirtiest word in the clean energy business. It’s also a sure bet that Barack Obama doesn’t break into song when he thinks about it. On the last day of August, Solyndra declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and walked away from a $535 million government loan.

A quick refresher: Solyndra was a California outfit that devised an innovative solar panel and the first renewable energy firm to land a big loan guarantee from Department of Energy as part of the 2009 stimulus package. President Obama hailed it as one of the companies “leading the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future.”

Instead, in the past few weeks we’ve seen congressional hearings—with another coming Friday—charges of scandal, countercharges of political hypocrisy and flurries of fact-checking and mythbusting.

A week ago there was another public event in Washington that kinda got lost amid the Solyndra swirl. Big-name CEOs—Bill Gates, General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt, Xerox’ Ursula Burns, to name a few—said the federal government needs to continue investing in research to develop energy sources because most companies no longer are willing to sink money into ventures that may not pay off for years and years.

It’s a forward-thinking sentiment, but what we don’t know, and won’t for awhile, is whether it will survive the Solyndra stigma.

Clean breaks

That said, there’s still an unusual collection of big players placing bets on renewable energy.  Among them:

  • The U.S. military: Last month the Marines invited 13 companies to a base in the California desert to pitch their ideas for solar products and energy efficiency on the battlefield. The Army, meanwhile, is encouraging private companies to build large solar energy projects on land owned by the military, with the hope of eventually cutting its energy costs. And while not funded by the military, another project called SolarStrong will use a $344 million federal loan guarantee to install solar panels on up to 160,000 rooftops at 124 military bases.
  • Google: The sultan of search is still saying it hopes to one day make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Last spring it announced a $168 million investment in the giant Ivanpah solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert. A week later it promised to pump $100 million into the country’s largest wind farm, being built in Oregon. Google has even used its flair for analytics to figure out how to make the solar panels on its own buildings twice as efficient.
  • Samsung: Early this year the South Korean high-tech giant committed to spending many boatloads of money—almost $7 billion—to build wind turbine and solar module manufacturing plants in Ontario, Canada.
  • China: Big surprise, right? It now manufactures 40 percent of the solar panels produced in the world and had $48.9 billion in renewable energy investments last year—almost double the U.S. total. It also now has twice as much installed renewable energy capacity as the U.S. And Chinese companies keep looking for investment opportunities in America. Yesterday the Xinjiang Goldwind Science and Technology Company announced that it will spend $200 million to build a wind farm in Illinois.

A Mightier Wind

Wind power, meanwhile, has managed to stay out of the headlines. But recently there was news from Japan about a new kind of turbine that could be a game-changer. Called a wind lens, it encircles the turbine blades with a brim. Its inventor says it can generate two to three times more energy than the conventional model.

Bonus: Have you hugged an infographic today? Here’s your chance.

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