Let’s play the word association game. I’ll start with ‘solar energy’ – what’s the first thing you think of? Is it ‘the energy of the future’ or ‘bankruptcy’ or maybe even ‘waste of American taxpayers’ money’? Until not too long ago, the answer would be probably be the former rather than the latter. Yet, in the post-Solyndra era it looks like not just government support but also the solar energy has an image problem. But is it really the case, or are the clouds over the image of the solar limited only to the corridors of Capitol Hill?
No matter what you think of solar energy, you have to admit that the last couple of months generated mostly negative news on the solar space – from the bankruptcy of Solyndra and other two other American solar companies to other American solar companies that have laid off workers and cut output to the arguments in the solar industry between solar equipment makers and buyers and installers of solar-energy systems about the wisdom behind a complaint filed last month, asking the U.S. Commerce Department to open an anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigation of solar cells imported from China.
When you hear all these news, even if you’re not an expert in solar energy, and most of us aren’t, you might find yourself wondering if there is a problem with solar energy and maybe it’s just a false hope after all and not the future of energy. It’s not that solar energy doesn’t have influential proponents that try to shine its advantages, from Paul Krugman to Bill Clinton, but somehow the perception is that solar energy isn’t that shiny anymore.
One of the problems is that the messages have changed. In the pre-Solyndra era solar energy, as the cheapest source of clean energy, solar was considered to be one of the building blocks of the low-carbon economy, representing the hope for a better and sustainable future. It was associated in the U.S. mainly with positive terms: innovation, good jobs, affordable clean energy and a shot to reclaim global economy leadership. Just look at President Obama speech in his visit at Solyndra – it’s all there.
In the post-Solyndra era, solar energy is mostly associated with government funding, subsidies and a trade war. Instead of positive terms, we keep hearing it in association with ‘scandal,’ ‘fiasco’ and of course ‘bankruptcy.’ This shift is no coincidence – it is part of the unfortunate politicization of solar energy. The result is that solar energy has joined other environmental issues, like the role of the EPA or the scientific base of climate change, where there’s a strong correlation between your position on these topics and your political affiliation.
Just look at a survey released last week by Pew Research Center and Washington Post on the question of federal funding for alternative energy research. According to the survey, 68 percent of the public is in favor of more federal funding for alternative energy, comparing to 82 percent in April 2009. Yet, if you check it by political affiliation, you find the real trend behind these results – while the support of Democrats remained the same and even went up a little bit, the support of Republicans declined from 83 percent to just 53 percent. Got it? Only two years ago both Democrats and Republicans were strongly and equally supportive of such funding, but now it’s another dividing issue.
One of the reasons for this division is that Republicans see the Solyndra story as an opportunity to attack the Obama administration. It also seems a good fit with the objection to big government spending that is now very popular in the Republican camp. Another element that is helping in framing the message is Fox News, which looks like it is always in search after the next solar scandal. To be fair, I don’t think the Obama administration helped much in the way they intervened in the process of reviewing and approving Solyndra’s request.
It might also be that there’s some impatience when it comes to solar energy. We’ve heard so much about it for so long and yet, it contributes only about one-tenth of 1 percent of American electricity. No matter how fast the market grows, it’s still such a tiny part of the energy market, so it is not surprising that some people wonder if it is nothing but science fiction after all.
At this moment I’m not sure if a branding campaign could fix solar energy’s problems. What we need is an economic solution, not a marketing one, i.e. grid parity – the point at which it would be as cheap to generate one’s own solar electricity as it is to buy electricity from the grid. To get there, we need first to realize that solar demand will grow in the U.S., while supply will mostly come from China. And second, that no matter where the solar panels will come from, the energy generated by the sun is still an important part of securing a better future for the American people, no matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.