California’s “Solar Lead” Revisited

Technology, yes. Policy, yes. Manufacturing…maybe not so much

This week as Fremont-based Solyndra sets about the grim business of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it leaves in its wake ample confusion over California’s much vaunted “lead” in renewable energy — so much so that last week a national solar industry association felt compelled to issue a statement reassuring us that Solargeddon was not at hand. (Cy Musiker’s interview with Sev Borenstein of UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute provides some solid perspective on the Solyndra collapse).

It didn’t help that Solyndra had been the arc light of California’s renewable power surge. President Obama, Energy Secretary Steve Chu and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had all led media parades through the company’s Fremont manufacturing plant. The bankruptcy announcement came within hours after Chu finished extolling California’s leadership at an energy “summit” in Las Vegas.

John Hild with the new solar array at the Contra Costa County Office of Education. The panels were "made in the USA"-- but by a Chinese company.

Recently I climbed to the roof of the Contra Costa County Office of Education with John Hild, for an overview of a new 700-panel solar array that covers the agency’s parking lot in Concord.

Hild, who manages facilities there, was impressed with the May electric bill, which had dropped to $19 from about $7,200 before the photovoltaic (PV) panels were hooked up. But Hild says it was tough to find American-made panels, something required by one of the incentive programs that CCCOE was tapping into to make the project affordable. In the end, they found some–but they were made in Arizona, not California, by the Chinese solar juggernaut SunTech. Continue reading