National media "chatter" surrounding the much-publicized bankruptcy of Fremont, Calif., solar panel producer Solyndra Inc. and the loss of $535 million in federal loan guarantees is hurting more successful renewable energy companies and obscuring the new industry's success, solar executives said.
In a conference call Thursday, members of Californians for Clean Energy & Jobs, a coalition of green businesses and environmentalists, said they wanted to put the Solyndra scandal into context. The controversy led to high-profile hearings in Congress and widespread Republican party criticism of the Obama administration.
The solar executives stressed that solar panel costs have plummeted, fueling increased residential and commercial demand for renewable energy. Additionally, the solar industry has come up with creative financing programs that allow homeowners to get off the utility electric grid without having to invest large amounts of money in buying rooftop solar systems.
"Solar power is becoming more affordable every day," with costs down 30% in the last year, said Arno Harris, chief executive of Recurrent Energy in San Francisco, a large developer of solar photovoltaic panel projects. "We need to look beyond the failure of one company and see the tremendous success."
Solyndra, whose high-tech plant was visited by President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, made less than two-tenths of 1% of solar panels on the market, said David Hochschild, vice president of Solaria Corp. in Fremont, which makes photovoltaic modules. The solar industry, he said, has grown by an average of 65% per year the last decade.
Sungevity Solar Home Specialists of Oakland has tripled the number of employees to 300 this year, said President Danny Kennedy. The company puts solar systems on homes without requiring any upfront payments from customers. It then leases the equipment, usually at far less cost than the electric bills they used to get, Kennedy said.
"This is a very affordable way for consumers to control costs at home, particularly in this uncertain environment," said Lynn Jurich, president of SunRun Inc. of San Francisco, which also installs and leases home solar systems.
Despite its growth and success, the solar industry still needs support from government in the form of tax credits, loan guarantees and subsidies, the executives said.
"Those programs are critical in generating success," said Hochschild. "Solar is on the cusp of playing a large role in mainstream markets."
-- Marc Lifsher
Photo: Solar panel construction at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in 2009. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press.