EarthTalk / From the editors of E
Published 11:26 am, Thursday, March 1, 2012
Dear EarthTalk: What caused Solyndra, a leading American solar panel maker, to fail last fall and what are the implications for U.S. alternative energy industries? -- Walt Bottone, Englewood, N.J.
Solyndra was a California-based maker of thin-film solar cells affixed to cylindrical panels that could deliver more energy than conventional flat photovoltaic panels. The company's novel system mounted these flexible cells, made of copper, indium, gallium and diselenide (so-called CIGS), onto cylindrical tubes where they could absorb energy from any direction, including from indirect and reflected light.
Solyndra's technology was so promising that the U.S. government provided $535 million in loan guarantees -- whereby taxpayers foot the payback bill to lenders if a borrower fails. And fail Solyndra did: In September 2011 the company ceased operations, laid off all employees and filed for bankruptcy.
What caused this shooting star of alternative energy to burn out so spectacularly after just six years in business and such a large investment? Part of what made Solyndra's technology so promising was its low cost compared to traditional photovoltaic panels that relied on once costlier silicon.
"When Solyndra launched, processed silicon was selling at historic highs, which made CIGS a cheaper option," reported Rachel Swaby in Wired Magazine. "But silicon producers overreacted to the price run-up and flooded the market."
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The result was that silicon prices dropped 90 percent, eliminating CIGS' initial price advantage.
Another problem for Solyndra was the falling price of natural gas -- the cleanest of the readily available fossil fuels -- as extractors implemented new technologies including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to get at formerly inaccessible domestic reserves in shale rock. In 2001 shale gas accounted for 2 percent of U.S. natural gas output, while today that number is closer to 30 percent. The result of this increased supply is that the price of natural gas has fallen by some 77 percent since 2008, meaning utilities can produce electricity from it much cheaper as well.
"Renewables simply can't compete," added Swaby.
The final blow to Solyndra was China's creation of a $30 billion credit line for its nascent solar industry. "The result: Chinese firms went from making just six percent of the world's solar cells in 2005 to manufacturing more than half of them today," said Swaby. U.S. market share is now just 7 percent.
Low natural gas prices have also hurt other renewables, especially given the slow economy and its stifling effect on innovation. To wit, the rate of new wind-turbine installations in the U.S. has declined by more than half since 2008. "The fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress clearly see the solar and wind industries as a threat and will try to kill (them)," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass, a top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Regardless of the challenges in furthering renewables, the White House remains committed to the greener path. In his recent State of the Union, President Obama renewed the call for a federal Renewable Energy Standard that would force utilities to derive significant percentages of their power from cleaner, greener sources. This would provide much-needed regulatory uniformity and a more robust and consistent market for renewable power, wherever solar panels, wind turbines or other equipment happen to be manufactured.
Dear EarthTalk: I was in Los Angeles recently and the smog was not nearly as bad as when I visited 15 years ago. Is it really better now, and if so, how did it get that way? Or did I just happen to visit on a good day? -- Marjorie Hicke, Atlanta
Los Angeles is almost as famous for its choking smog -- a haze of ground-level ozone and particulate pollution that can aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems -- as for its Hollywood stars. The reason so much smog forms there is because the city is in a low basin surrounded by mountains, with millions of cars and industrial sites spewing emissions into the air.
But thanks to tougher state and federal air quality standards, LA residents can breathe easier than they've been able to for decades. According to the nonprofit Environment California, air pollution from cars and trucks across the state has decreased since the 1970s by more than 85 percent, with peak smog levels in the city of Los Angeles itself dropping some 70 percent. Meanwhile, California's South Coast Air Quality Management District has been tracking smog levels in the area since 1976, and reports the number of ozone advisories -- where residents are advised to stay indoors due to unhealthy local accumulations of smog -- fell from a high of 184 days in 1977 to between zero and a few days a year now.
"California's efforts to reduce air pollution from cars and trucks have made the state's air cleaner than it has been in decades and Californians are healthier as a result," Bernadette Del Chiaro, Environment California's clean energy advocate, said. This is especially notable because the number of miles driven in California doubled since the 1970s even though emissions significantly dropped -- meaning that vehicles have gotten considerably more fuel efficient over the years.
"The technologies found on new car lots today were practically unimaginable even 20 years ago, much less 40 years ago," added Del Chiaro. "Yet thanks to strong policies, California has pushed the auto industry to innovate and engineer a greener, cleaner car."
According to Environment California's research, a typical new car today is more than 99 percent cleaner burning than its 1960s counterpart. An older car produces about a ton of smog-forming pollution every 100,000 miles; a new car generates only 10 pounds over the same distance. This improvement saves consumers money at the pump as well as health care expenses and lives due to reduced pollution loads. And a new generation of hybrid and electric cars is driving automotive efficiency to even newer heights.
Updated federal air quality standards implemented in 2008 have also helped reduce ozone alert days in California and elsewhere. But despite this progress, environmental and public health advocates are urging federal lawmakers to raise air quality standards even higher.
The goal is to get ground level ozone, a chief contributor to smog, no more prevalent than the range of 60 to 70 parts per billion averaged over eight hours, as unanimously recommended by an independent board of air experts and scientists created under the Clean Air Act to provide periodic review and recommendations on air quality standards.
The Obama administration reportedly considered updating the 2008 standard last summer but decided to table the decision until 2013 given economic priorities. Let's hope that the economy turns around enough in the meantime so that industry won't push back too hard against raising the federal standards.
EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss.