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Guest opinion

Focus on Solyndra distracts from benefits of solar


There is a segment of the U.S. economy that employs more than 100,000 people – and during the past year, employment in that segment grew by more than 6.8 percent.

Compare that to the 0.7 percent growth in the economy as a whole and this is clearly a bright spot in the still-struggling American economy.

That bright spot is the U.S. solar industry. And despite some well-publicized glitches, solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation – and poised to continue growing and supplying more clean power to millions of Americans.

The recent grilling of Solyndra executives before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was a headline-making affair – but it did little to address the real issue: the need to curb America's dangerous addiction to foreign oil while investing in domestic energy.

What's been lost in the fixation on Solyndra is the very real progress that the growing solar industry has made in addressing these problems. And it's happening here in sunny Arizona.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and one of the most passionate supporters of solar energy in Congress. She played a key role in obtaining a $1.45 billion federal loan guarantee that enabled construction of Arizona's largest solar power-generation plants near Gila Bend.

The congresswoman also had solar panels installed on her home in Tucson. She long has recognized the job creation potential associated with solar development. This potential is now coming to fruition.

Just a few weeks ago, Tempe-based First Solar celebrated the development of a new solar manufacturing plant in Mesa. This facility is the size of six Super Walmarts and will create more than 600 jobs.

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Why did First Solar choose Arizona? In part, it's because of the local demand for tens of thousands of solar panels from this factory that will be used by the Agua Fria solar generation facility near Yuma.

This project will be one of the largest of its kind in the world. It is employing hundreds of construction workers – a workforce that has been hit disproportionately hard by the recession. And it is made possible by the same Department of Energy loan guarantee as those made to Solyndra.

Unlike Solyndra, the Agua Fria success story is the norm for these loan guarantee projects – and it isn't alone. The Abengoa project near Gila Bend and Sempra Energy's Mesquite project west of Phoenix also are supported by loan guarantees and will create a total of 2,400 jobs. The fact is that the loan guarantee program is creating real high-wage employment opportunities.

It also is important to remember that the Solyndra guarantee represented only a small percentage of the total loan guarantee portfolio. Focusing on one failure at the expense of the entire portfolio ignores the fact that purpose of the loan guarantee program is for the federal government to buy down the risk inherent in innovative new industries to spur private investment.

Finally, because the federal government owns the assets of companies that default, the Office of Management and Budget expects taxpayers to recoup at least half – and perhaps much more – of the value of the Solyndra loan.

The backlash against the solar industry has not been confined to the federal level. Here in Arizona, there has been a fair amount of criticism aimed at state solar incentive programs.

A typical argument contends that supporting clean energy means "picking winners and losers." This tired phrase often is code for, "Let's not do anything." Inaction is picking a winner, but that winner isn't America and it's not Arizona.

Making the most of a competitive advantage is not the same as randomly "picking winners." Arizona has the land, electrical transmission infrastructure, educated workforce, world-class research institutions and, of course, sunlight needed to make this state not just a solar leader, but an energy leader.

Identifying and capitalizing on comparative advantages is something most governments do. Certainly, the Chinese government has figured it out. It has invested more than $25 billion in solar over the last year alone – and it is paying off.

Those who use a free market argument to call for an end to government support for solar and other clean energy sources should focus the same attention on the billions of tax dollars a year that subsidize old energy sources, such as coal and nuclear.

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We have the sun and we have the technology. Now let's have a fact-based discussion on what it will take to harness the near-limitless solar resource and pull our economy forward.

Thomas Alston is solar outreach and policy coordinator for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

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A single-axis solar tracker in Phoenix.