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Chinese and U.S. Politics and the Solyndra Bankruptcy

In the universe occupied by gleeful Luddites and cynical political leaders, who appear to be celebrating the Solyndra bankruptcy filing, the U.S. government should play no role in economic development and national security. In their myopic view, the national highway system initiated by the Eisenhower administration, which gave such profound impetus to the development of the U.S. automotive and real estate industries while strengthening our national defense, would now be regarded as wasteful spending.

The simplistic conclusion that our modern day Philistines and crass opportunists peddle, is that the Obama administration is profligate and inept, when in fact, the Obama administration’s support of Solyndra was in the great American tradition of supporting technological innovations that have led to countless emerging industries and a plethora of new employment opportunities. 

It is not surprising that those who have made active ignorance and relentless obstructionism an art form, should fail to understand or acknowledge that in a dynamic industry such as solar, there will be technologies that succeed and others that don’t: fast moving businesses, nurtured by steady innovation, result in better products at a lower price---and that brings about economic growth.   Capitalism, though highly effective, often is quite sloppy. 

For those who appreciate the dynamics of the photovoltaic industry, it was not unreasonable to conclude that thin-film PV could be a winning technology when poly-silicon prices were eight times higher than they are today.  The fact that prices of solar equipment have dropped as precipitously -- some analysts and industry insiders are predicting grid parity for solar by 2015 -- should be a cause for excitement, optimism and a sense of accomplishment.    With poly-silicon already selling at a fraction of its price when investment in thin-film was peaking and the relentlessness with which “traditional” solar manufacturers have improved efficiency and driven down prices, in hindsight it is unsurprising that thin-film technology would have ever taken hold.

These modern-day “know nothings” and stone throwers are happy to draw not one, but two erroneous lessons from Solyndra’s travails; the other being that the Chinese are playing a game of unfair international trade with respect to the photovoltaic industry. 

To reach that cozy place, undisturbed by facts, the Cassandra’s must ignore two important facts.  First, that the very folks who are most vociferous in their denunciation of the Obama administration’s support of Solyndra, also have backed subsidies, loans, tax abatements and other such incentives for renewable energy firms located in their Congressional districts.

Second, Chinese solar manufacturers also have had their share of losers in this rapidly evolving sector—just ask Suntech about it’s white elephant thin-film plant in Shanghai, or other mono- or multi-crystalline solar manufacturing firms who are in a “fight to the death” among themselves.   A nuanced look at the current state of the Chinese solar industry belies the monochromatic depiction of a Chinese solar industry taking advantage of its U.S. counterparts through a familiar playbook of nefarious actions.  In fact there is a great deal of stress throughout the Chinese solar industry now, brought about by the familiar cutthroat price competition that typically befalls a high-growth industry suffering from runaway capacity development. Recent Chinese renewable energy articles lament the “cabbage pricing” of Chinese solar industry firms in their cutthroat competition for a share of foreign markets. 

The naysayers can’t have it both ways:  the Chinese government at both the local and national level indeed has provided rich subsidies to its photovoltaic industry not unlike the incentives granted by the Bush and Obama administrations and countless state and local governments to our industry.  It is also true that these investments by the Chinese include a host of unsuccessful bets.   As long as certain segments of our society, who view such time-honored investments as heresy, exercises enough clout to obstruct or discourage those investments, we will continue to lose out to the Chinese whose culture of risk-taking is so reminiscent of how we once operated.

We should pause to consider how we got to a place where investment in new industries that often lead to bountiful employment growth, is more highly regarded in China than here in the U.S.   And that inquiry should then lead us to the much more significant question of whether the U.S. is willing to compete with nations around the world for a fair share of the GDP growth and employment opportunities afforded by emerging industries, such as the solar industry?

It is sad to note that from an investment and public policy standpoint, the Chinese are surging ahead of the U.S. and aggressively building the next set of great industries.  The Chinese do this for all the reasons that we should: ensuring their own energy security and addressing serious environmental issues while supporting yet another source of GDP and employment growth.  We forfeit the right to complain about Chinese business practices when we have put so little effort into securing our own future.          

Lou Schwartz, a lawyer and China specialist who focuses his work on the energy and metals sectors in the People's Republic of China, is a frequent contributor to Renewable Energy World.   Through China Strategies, LLC, Lou provides clients research and analysis, due diligence, merger and acquisition, private equity investment and other support for trade and investment in China's burgeoning energy and metals industries. He can be reached at lou@chinastrategiesllc.com

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