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Solyndra Auction Lot No. 803

On Nov. 2, this load carrier from Solyndra’s shuttered solar panel plant went up for auction, two months after the company filed for bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers, and ignited a debate over the wisdom of government subsidies for green power. In May 2010, President Barack Obama visited Solyndra, based in Fremont, Calif., as a demonstration of his Administration’s faith in solar energy as a source of new jobs and a clean boost to the economy. Unbeknownst to most, Solyndra was already struggling financially, despite receiving $528 million in federally guaranteed loans. When the U.S. Energy Dept. approved the loan guarantees in 2009, Solyndra boasted that its products’ innovative design would cut costs and generate profits. In the space of just a year, market conditions changed drastically. A falloff in the price of silicon, the explosion of competition from China, and a drop in demand from Europe put Solyndra at a disadvantage. It fell like Icarus. Now the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing for fraud, and congressional Republicans have launched their own inquiry.

Solyndra’s demise raises the question of whether it was one bad bet or the embodiment of imprudent industrial policy. Solar advocates stress that every other major energy source—coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear—has received various types of government support over the generations, so why not an industry that promises safe, clean energy? Innovation requires risk, and, as Solyndra painfully reminded its boosters, breakthroughs are often preceded by spectacular failure.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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