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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Can the U.S. Learn to Love Renewables?

Just to give you an idea of what’s happening, in 2008 in the United States there were about 300 megawatts of solar installed. Across Europe, there were nearly 4,000 megawatts of solar installed.

So what do we have to do to catch up? There’s been a lot of venture capital investment, but we really have to provide incentives so that manufacturing of these devices is created in the United States. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [the so-called stimulus plan] does include a manufacturing tax credit, but its terms have yet to be established and the amount of money set aside for it is relatively small.

S+B: Is it purely a question of what the government should do or does the private sector also bear some responsibility?
SPLINTER: Private-sector companies like ours are going to invest huge amounts in R&D and in developing the next generation of technology. We are investing more in R&D than any other company — and the U.S. government — in the solar field. We are making a huge bet that we will be able to drive the cost down.

If I have a fundamental concern, it’s whether we’ll have large-scale manufacturing in the United States. If we do only research and development in the United States, we’ll have a hollow industry here with all the manufacturing jobs going elsewhere. Those are great jobs for factory workers and engineers and managers. And they’re long-term jobs — they will be around for 20 years or longer.

Venture capitalists have invested a huge amount in solar in the past few years, but the financial crisis has created difficulties. There’s also been huge volatility in energy prices. In early 2008, gasoline was nearly $4 a gallon, oil was at $150 a barrel, and natural gas prices were 100 percent higher than they are today. Reductions in cost can profoundly affect the financial community’s view of renewable energy and what they’re willing to support.

In view of that, there has to be demand creation, and because renewable energy still costs more than fossil fuel energy, the government has to create the market. If the private sector creates the technology and drives down cost and government creates the market, we will have a chance to solve environmental and climate issues. I certainly think we can catch up and even take the lead in solar, because innovation is the core of our culture.

Author Profile:
William J. Holstein is the author of Why GM Matters: Inside the Race to Transform an American Icon (Walker, 2009). For more on his work, see
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  1. Adam Aston, “Can China Go Green?BusinessWeek, May 14, 2009: An examination of Suntech Power, Himin Solar Energy Group, and other companies attempting to help China clean up its environment.
  2. David Biello, “Solar Power Lightens Up with Thin-Film Technology,” Scientific American, April 25, 2008: A detailed look at various forms of thin-film solar systems.
  3. Yuliya Chernova, “Applying Moore’s Law to Solar,” Venture Capital Dispatch blog, April 22, 2009: Applied Materials CEO Michael Splinter explains why he thinks Moore’s Law can be applied to solar energy.
  4. Peter Farley, “Thin Film’s Time in the Sun,” Technology Review, July 27, 2007: A look at the technologies that seek to challenge solar panels built on silicon. 
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