Solyndra’s failure shouldn’t deter government investment in solar power

October 30, 2011

Throughout our nation’s history, the federal government has played a critical role in scaling new industries and new technologies. From defense to computers and railroads to aviation, government investment has created thriving industries and good careers for generations of Americans.

Today, clean energy technology, including solar, can be one of our nation’s next growth industries if we continue to make sustainable businesses an economic priority.

Despite the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, our nation’s early investments in clean energy have begun to pay off. The U.S. solar industry grew 69 percent in 12 months representing the fastest growing industry in the nation. More than 100,000 Americans in all 50 states are employed by solar, more than the coal mining or the U.S. steel production sectors, according to the Solar Foundation.

But just as this industry is beginning to scale, we are seeing a timidity to support this fledgling industry because of the high-profile failure of one company, Solyndra. While we can undoubtedly learn lessons from Solyndra’s bankruptcy, our nation and our policy leaders should see Solyndra’s demise for what it is — a reminder that some companies inevitably fail in growing industries.

From my perspective, I left a 20-year marketing career in the retail apparel industry for a new career with Sungevity, a residential solar company. Like me, many members of our staff transitioned from well-established industries including real estate, retail and finance to bring their experience and skills to help grow this industry and our company. As a result, Sungevity has experienced significant growth, expanding from three Western states — Arizona, California and Colorado — to include Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in our service territory, and multiplying sales by 10 times over the past year. It is this kind of growth and continued momentum that have brought strategic investments from Fortune 50 companies like Lowe’s to our business.

Sungevity’s success story is attributed in part to the government’s role in fostering a supportive climate for sustainable businesses in growth industries. American Sustainable Business Council, a leading advocate for sustainable economic development, argues that a framework of federal policies, investment programs, government loans and tax incentives is often needed to help new businesses grow, create jobs and strengthen American competitiveness.

The semiconductor industry in Northern California illustrates how successful government policies work to establish an effective business climate. During the first 10 years of the semiconductor industry’s formation, the U.S. Department of Defense provided more than half the total revenue to the industry.

By backing this young industry, the government led the way for semiconductor technology to become the industry it is now, and for American companies to take an early lead. While many Americans may not be familiar with the semiconductor industry, most of us know where the industry calls home — Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley would not be the same without those early policy investments.

Our nation’s track record demonstrates incredible success when we support emerging industries. Sungevity’s growing momentum illustrates that individual companies with smart business models can succeed.

Solyndra’s lesson shows us that individual failures should not cloud our industry’s overwhelming success nor weaken our nation’s resolve to support growing industries. Rather, the federal government should build on its record of success and continue investing in the sustainable businesses of the 21st century.

Sherri Pittman is vice president of relationship marketing at Sungevity in Oakland, Calif.

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