Solar Future Dims Despite Promise of Stimulus

California’s
green initiatives may well be aided by President Obama’s
stimulus package, but for the time being, the economic collapse is
putting the kibosh on many of the state’s nascent green
businesses. One of the most promising and well-financed of those
businesses is OptiSolar of Hayward, which has been forced to delay
its plans for a Sacramento manufacturing facility that would have
created up to 1,000 badly needed jobs.

Not only does this
setback impact economic development in the capital region, but it may
also have a long-term effect on our ability to convert power
consumption to renewable resources and lessen our reliance on fossil
fuels from volatile Middle-Eastern and South American countries.

According to a
recent article in the San Jose
Mercury News, OptiSolar
has been forced to announce a layoff amounting to nearly half of the
company’s 600-person workforce — and an indefinite delay
in its plans for converting a million square foot McClellan Air Base
facility into a modern plant that would produce thin-film
photo-voltaic solar panels. The Sacramento retrofit of the former
Air Force facility was well underway, with the installation of
manufacturing equipment already begun. The company called its
decision “a bitter pill,” but says it will meet existing
commitments to deliver power to PG&E and a Canadian customer on
schedule.

It’s
important to realize that OptiSolar’s business plan has nothing
to do with rooftop solar installations that remain difficult to
justify for the average homeowner, but the development and managing
of solar farms on large tracts of un-unused land on which megawatts
of power would be gathered and transferred to the state’s power
grid. This type of installation promises so many long-term benefits
that it clearly deserves the opportunity to succeed.

And California has
done as much as any government entity to make large-scale solar power
a reality. Much of the financial backing for OptiSolar and similar
companies (including BrightSource Energy of Oakland, which recently
announced the world’s largest solar deal has
been structured around investment tax credits. With approval of the
federal stimulus package, more help is on the way. But it may take
too long to get here.

Part of the
stimulus bill is a $20 billion allocation to what’s called a
“smart power grid” for the entire country. Smart grid is a catch
phrase that encompasses a broad array of utility applications that
enhance and automate the monitoring and control of electrical
distribution, and is believed to be better suited to renewable energy
sources than the aging energy distribution system in current use.

But a similar
approach to nationwide broadband infrastructure has already been
hacked out of the bill, and a concerted effort to find “shovel-ready
projects” covering more traditional concrete infrastructure
could yet jeopardize renewable energy initiatives. To the more
conservative political players, renewable energy has always smacked
of “new-age” utopian thinking, while drilling for more
oil has seemed the more reliable and quicker route to energy
independence.

The stimulus plan
contains other, important provisions in support of renewable energy
including a manufacturing tax credit and a renewable grant program
(which is particularly helpful to companies that are not yet
profitable and thereby have no major need for tax credits). But the
bulk of stimulus funding is contained in provisions to enhance the
nation’s power grid.

Smart funding by
the government should be forward-leaning — much as the
visionary development of an interstate system was in the 1950s. It
should include funding to reduce our reliance on foreign and
politically risky sources of energy, and ensure that we get there
faster. If it also provides employment opportunities, than the
matter becomes a no-brainer. Why, then, is the industry going
backwards at this crucial juncture? And why does funding largely
support this effort through smart grid technology that is likely to
take years to have any real impact? Doesn’t it make more sense
to kick re-start businesses that show so much promise on all fronts?

Imagine a future in
which our children look at pictures of a dilapidated building on the
grounds of the old McClellan Air Base , and ask “why didn’t
we do better?” We must not turn California into the new
rust-belt when the future is so close to reality.