China is stealing America’s solar manufacturing industry. Should we fight back—or rejoice?
By Will Oremus/Slate
This was supposed to be a happy time for BrightSource Energy. A year ago, on Earth Day 2011, the Oakland, Calif.-based solar-power startup announced plans to go public in spring 2012.
The stock offering was hailed as a validation of the
potential of solar thermal energy, a technology that holds
the promise of powering homes and businesses around the clock. (Traditional photovoltaic solar panels transmit power only when the sun is shining.)
BrightSource hadn’t yet figured out how to make solar thermal power as cheap as wind turbines or photovoltaics. That was OK, though, because it had a major buyer lined up: the state of California, which has passed laws requiring it to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by ambitious amounts. Solar thermal power would play only a minor part in California’s first goal, which is to cut emissions 25 percent by 2020. But it could be crucial to meeting the state’s second goal, to slice emissions another 80 percent by 2050.
Such long-range thinking is hard to accommodate in a market economy. What investor wants to pour her fortune into a company that might take off only after she’s dead? To those who care about climate change, then, BrightSource’s IPO was a beacon: proof that smart state-level policies could foster private investment in innovative technologies.
In the year since BrightSource announced its IPO, however, clouds have formed over the U.S. solar industry. A boom in hydraulic fracturing has sent natural gas prices plummeting, making alternative energy sources such as solar look much pricier by comparison. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have signaled that they plan to let the clean-energy subsidies introduced in the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus bill expire. A $9 billion cash-grant program, which quietly created thousands of jobs, has already lapsed.
At the same time, China has made solar manufacturing a centerpiece of its economic agenda, sending a tide of cheap photovoltaic panels to American shores.
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