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September 17th, 2009

Friedman says the solar problem is . . .

Published on September 17th, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Well, actually it is quite hard to tell what NYT columnist Thomas Friedman is saying about the solar industry. Like a lot of what he writes, his latest worry-fest is profound, yet kinda stupid.

His “woe-is-us” premise is that the United States is the font of solar energy technology (not exactly true, although in this context it’s not a point worth fretting over), but the U.S. doesn’t have significant domestic solar panel manufacturing (not exactly true, either). In his own words:

The chip business, though, is volatile, so in 2004 Mike Splinter, Applied Materials’ C.E.O., decided to add a new business line to take advantage of the company’s nanotechnology capabilities — making the machines that make solar panels. The other day, Splinter gave me a tour of the company’s Silicon Valley facility, culminating with a visit to its “war room,” where Applied maintains a real-time global interaction with all 14 solar panel factories it’s built around the world in the last two years. I could only laugh because crying would have been too embarrassing.

Not a single one is in America.

Let’s see: five are in Germany, four are in China, one is in Spain, one is in India, one is in Italy, one is in Taiwan and one is even in Abu Dhabi. I suggested a new company motto for Applied Materials’ solar business: “Invented here, sold there.”

He asserts that the reasons solar panels are being sold in (and thus built in) those countries is because:

1) Any business or homeowner can generate solar energy (brilliant, Tom!);

2) If they decide to do so, the power utility has to connect them to the grid; and

3) The utility has to buy the power for a predictable period at a price that is a no-brainer good deal for the family or business putting the solar panels on their rooftop.

Points # 2 and #3 may be generally true with Germany, Spain and Italy, but I don’t think they are remotely true in India, China, Taiwan or Abu Dhabi, if for no other reason than they don’t have the infrastructure to support such policies.

But Friedman’s prescription – establish regulatory, price and connectivity certainty in the U.S. – muddles where the debate actually is in the U.S. Of course those things are needed.

First of all, connectivity is already possible, if not mandated, in much (most?) of the U.S. It is, for example, prevalent in Ohio where I live, yet Ohio doesn’t have significantly more installed PV panels than other states.

The question Friedman conveniently dodges is, how do you establish pricing for renewable energy in an era where many key figures in the political landscape are asininely agnostic when it comes to global warming, and are quite happy to see taxpayers and consumers continue to subsidize traditional energy sources (through environmental remediation programs and health care costs)?

Regulators and politicians in the U.S. – generally speaking – are not ready to take this step because they are concerned about getting on the wrong side of the utilities companies and other industries who would be quite happy to continue to have subsidized power. Perhaps to an even larger extent, the global-warming deniers also fear their whole dishonest fantasy might start to unravel if they had to agree to something akin to a feed-in tariff for renewable energy.

I am not saying that better energy pricing policies, alone, will stimulate the U.S. solar business. But, when coupled with, say, a continuing 30% tax credit policy, it would come close.

In typical Friedman style, he offers no specifics nor does he show any indication that he is willing to name the bad guys. He is the personification of substance-less profundity, wasting one of the largest pulpits in all of media.

Adding . . . I don’t mean a permanent 30% tax credit, but one that last long enough that it gets to the point where residential solar (including all installation costs) is really – versus theoretically – under $1 per watt.


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One Response to Friedman says the solar problem is . . .

  1. Marina says:

    Peter,

    Noticed I had a few of these sitting in my IN box unread.

    Nice job on this one! I guess you don’t like Thomas Friedman’s writing, or his opinions. Bravo to you for making some controversial comments!

    I hope you are getting lots of feedback on things you are writing.

    Marina

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