Obama's solar energy Betamax bet
President Obama prides himself on being a visionary. How often have we heard him speak, if not pontificate, about "green jobs," "Sputnik" moments," "high speed trains," and electric cars? His solar bets have come up a cropper --as we see in the case of Solyndra. But it turns out that he has really played a bad hand in solar energy and has bet billions on yesteryears' technology.
A team of Bloomberg News journalists report:
U.S. government's $8 billion bet on solar energy that would pave the deserts with mirrors risks following the Betamax into the technological wilderness because of Chinese backing for a cheaper system.
The Department of Energy guaranteed loans to six plants that will reflect sunlight to boil water for making electricity, aiming to kick-start commercial projects. Four of those, and a third of $26 billion pipeline encouraged by U.S. aid, may switch to standard photovoltaic panels that generate a charge directly from the sun, said Brett Prior, a solar analyst at GTM Research.
Reality has caught up with fantasy.
Turns out that what many have predicted would be the case has happened: photovoltaic panels have plummeted in price. So instead of vast solar farms with parabolic mirrors generating and focusing heat on a central tank of water (the boiling would turn turbines and generate electricity) it makes far more sense just to rely on solar panels to directly generate electricity. Does the Nobel-prize winning genius who heads up the Department of Energy, Steven Chu, follow trends in science? The mass manufacturing of solar panels (and the slide in the price of silicon) has lowered the price of solar panels just as semiconductor chips have plummeted in price. Is the physicist Steven Chu familiar with Moore's Law?
Those manufacturing jobs that Obama promised? Not happening.
While the developers of some of the U.S. guaranteed projects said they are sticking with mirror-based devices, a switch by others will drain momentum for the technology and shift engineering jobs President Barack Obama aims to create in the southwestern U.S. to the panel plants of eastern China.
Photovoltaic, or PV, panels have benefited from tumbling costs. That in turn fueled demand and allowed manufacturers such as China's Suntech Power Holdings Co. to boost capacity and cut prices for use in fields and on rooftops.
In contrast, thermal developers are struggling to raise money for what are typically custom-designed plants erected in deserts on a utility scale, taking years to design and build. They employ more workers for construction and maintenance than plants using panels.
Thermal plants that rely on boiling water are far more complex and expensive to build. Once built, the costs of their power is 27 cents per kilowatt hour compared to 17 cents for solar panels.
Yet, the Obama administration still has billions in loan guarantees going towards what is widely perceived to be yesterday's technology.
Obama's bet on the solar Betamax is one more loser. The problems is that taxpayers will be left paying off his multi-billion dollar bad bet.