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Forecast Turns Sunny for Solar Power Industry

Two weeks ago, Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz traveled to the California desert to dedicate a signature achievement of the Obama administration’s loan guarantee program: an up-and-running, utility-scale solar power plant that is the largest of its kind in the world.

“Investing in clean energy isn’t a decision that limits our economic potential — it’s an opportunity to lead the global clean technology markets that are forming right now,” Moniz said at the ceremony on Feb. 13. “We simply can’t afford to be at the back of the train — we have to be at the front, leading the world in these industries.”

The ceremony celebrating the successful investment marked a reversal from the attacks on the Obama administration’s loan guarantee program in the aftermath of the 2011 bankruptcy of Solyndra, a California solar-panel manufacturer that failed after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

“I think you’re starting to see the administration recognize the fact that some of these projects are working and, frankly, they’re good,” said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell & Giuliani. “They’re good projects.”

Now that the loan guarantee program has spurred the construction of five utility-scale solar plants, the industry’s attention turns to its next challenge — namely, renewal of the tax incentive program set to expire at the end of 2016.

Tax benefits for renewable energy sources have become anathema to some conservative lawmakers who say the industries have had plenty of time to demonstrate their viability without federal help, an argument made more acute by the Solyndra scandal. But solar advocates sense a shift in members’ attitudes toward the resource as more areas across the country become home to businesses that prop up the industry and create jobs.

“Where we used to be treated like an issue, we’re increasingly treated like a home-grown industry,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Ivanpah project Moniz visited snagged a loan guarantee nearly triple the size of Solyndra’s — $1.6 billion — for its own novel technology, which utilizes a field of mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers atop 459-foot towers, generating steam that then turns a turbine to produce electricity. The plant, which has the capacity to produce 392 megawatts of electricity (enough to light up nearly 95,000 homes), adds to the 13 gigawatts of solar power that came online domestically by end of 2013, Resch said.

Solyndra’s failure was rooted in the economics of silicon, the chief ingredient in traditional flat solar panels. Its technology — cylindrical panels made from alternative materials — was intended to offer a viable solution to silicon after its price skyrocketed throughout the 2000s.

But the cost of the material crashed by the end of the decade, and congressional Republicans skewered the Obama administration for its management of the program.

A project like Ivanpah now shows the private sector that innovative clean-energy technologies can be feasible at scales not yet seen, Moniz said.

“We all know there are first-mover problems in terms of moving out with these new technologies at new scale, and that’s essentially what we are doing,” he said.

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