No company has done greater damage to the image of the American solar industry than Solyndra. It was therefore a source of great delight to me last week as I drove along Interstate 880 through Fremont, CA for what I didn't see. The signs on the old factory were gone. Those persistent thorns in the side of American solar, had finally vanished, closing a chapter in solar history.
It was unfortunate enough that the ill-fated company received DoE loans and then declared bankruptcy. Once the Republican Party attempted to exploit that into what they saw as an Obama scandal, those signs looming over 880 were like knives twisting in the gut of solar.
Let's face it, the center of influence and legacy expertise for the cleantech industry is in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s home to 100‘s of cleantech companies, investors and blossoming technologies waiting to be commercialized. Many of us drive 880 on a regular basis and I can only imagine what a persistent cloud of doom those signs were.
How many times did cleantech professionals pass by and feel fear or doubt about their own company ending up like Solyndra? How many times did the signs make a venture capitalist thinks twice about funding a promising cleantech start up? How many times did the signs prevent a homeowner from switching their house to solar?
In my business running a boutique cleantech public relations and social media firm, perception is everything. One's perception is shaped by their prospective and everything in our world influences that prospective, for good or for bad. If you have something constantly reminding you of your past failures, casting doubts on your abilities and suggesting you have no hope of future success, it is very difficult to succeed. In relationships, we call this mental abuse.
For me, the departure of the signs represents a delightful turning point for the industry. The cloud has been lifted. It's a symbol that the story of the company's fall is finally "old news" that no one is interested in any more. The fact that President Obama was so bullish on clean technology in his 2013 State of the Union is testament to this. The Republicans may have gained some short term political leverage by attacking an industry that's growing at 13% and creating over 13,000 new jobs in this country, but the Obama reelection shows they ultimately did not succeed with the tactic.
As the industry continues to grow and challenge entrenched fossil fuel interests, we can expect more attempts the politicize solar, especially as more states reach grid parity. Ultimately, the solar industry will find it's mainstream legs and reach a tipping point to being the energy of choice. Until then, it's up to us as an industry to educate and shape public perception in the industry’s favor.
The Solyndra signs are an example of a negative symbol of the industry that could have been easily removed and should have been as soon as the politicization of the company became apparent. We can be guaranteed the opposition will do their part to shape public and political opinion away from solar. We must be on guard and take action where necessary. It's up to us to play a better offense in this game. With the signs gone, there's nothing to remind us we can't.
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