"China in particular has been a lot more aggressive" in its support of solar and other renewable energy technologies, DoE's Kelly notes. "They've figured out that clean-energy manufacturing will be an area of major growth and are investing vastly more than we are to support it."
In comparison, the U.S. spends roughly $1 billion a day importing oil. Diverting 10 percent of that money to supporting the solar industry would instantly put the U.S. ahead of China in terms of industrial support. "To walk away from what is one of the most promising areas of the future is insane," van Mierlo argues. "We have to compete. It would be profoundly un-American not to compete."
A better bet than Solyndra with CIGS technology may not be cylinders but rather more flexible arrangements, like a solar carpet being developed by Solopower with another DoE loan guarantee or PV shingles, such as those developed by Dow. "Twenty years from now, solar panels will be completely different. Our job is to enable that," says Ramamoorthy Ramesh, director of DoE's SunShot Initiative, a bid to make solar power as cheap as electricity from burning fossil fuels. "Worldwide, this is a market that will likely be worth trillions over the next four decades."
That means winning some and losing some when it comes to government investment, like Solyndra. Technology aside, the problem highlighted by Solyndra may be the temptation to put good money after bad in a bid to rescue a looming failure for political reasons, but that's hardly scientific. In 2010, before Solyndra failed, Gronet was replaced as CEO by Brian Harrison, because of the latter's background in perfecting manufacturing processes. Solyndra didn't need to sell itself as much as it needed to make massive amounts of solar cells—and cheaply.
In the end Harrison's efforts weren't enough to save an idea that Gronet had while studying semiconductor processing and pondering less expensive ways to install solar panels. Gronet never shed his shares in his idea, nor the company it spawned in 2005. Of course, bankruptcy is no mark of shame in either Silicon Valley or the solar industry, where ideas can fail for any number of reasons, including the so-called "Valley of Death" between venture capital funding and a revenue stream from commercial sales.
In fact, Gronet failed only in a narrow sense. Solyndra turned out to be an answer to a problem that no longer exists: expensive silicon solar panels. That means Solyndra's bankruptcy is actually good news, like Gronet promised—electricity derived from sunshine is getting cheaper. "Today, PV is about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour at the utility scale, without subsidies," says Ramesh of SunShot, which will bid to make solar electricity cost-competitive with coal and other fossil fuels on a budget that is less than 20 percent of Solyndra's loan guarantee. The falling price of highly refined sand may have doomed Solyndra, but it may also help fulfill the promise of solar power.
"The spill in the Gulf [of Mexico], which is just heartbreaking, only underscores the necessity of seeking alternative fuel sources," Obama said at Solyndra's facility in Fremont, Calif., as oil spewed from BP's blown out Macondo well. "It's the right thing to do for our environment, it's the right thing to do for our national security, but it's also the right thing to do for our economy."