The Top 10 Science Stories of 2011

Tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors, Twitter-fueled political uprisings, a possible violation of Einsteinian physics--these and other highlights defined this year in science and technology

The Sun Sets on Solyndra

In 2010 President Barack Obama hailed Solyndra for "demonstrating that the promise of clean energy isn't just an article of faith." In 2011 the company, which pioneered cylindrical thin-film solar cells, filed for bankruptcy—signaling the end of a long solar boom in the U.S.

For some observers, Solyndra became a symbol of the failures of spending taxpayer dollars to support particular industries (although that role could just as easily have gone to fellow 2011 bankruptcies flywheel-makers Beacon Power or biofuel-maker Range Fuels).

But the truth is, Solyndra failed because solar power is now cheap—conventional silicon photovoltaic modules can be had for roughly $1 per watt, compared with more than $3 per watt for Solyndra's thin-film cylindrical versions. That's a good thing for those who would like to see the renewable technology on more rooftops. In fact, 2011 was a banner year for the U.S. solar industry in terms of installations and the like.

Still, solar power cannot compete on cost with electricity generated from burning fossil fuels in many places—and with the end of government subsidy programs in most parts of the globe following Solyndra's bankruptcy, next year looks set to be even more challenging for solar companies.—David Biello

Image of cylindrical thin-film solar cells courtesy of Solyndra

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