The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

Science, Presidential Politics, and Solar Energy

with 2 comments

Well. It’s been a long time. Here’s a few things that have been keeping my attention:

My last post here was on the Alex Berezow USA Today opinion piece on the anti-science nature of both the political left and right. It seems that story got quite a bit of attention in the science blogging community, including from Chris Mooney, who writes The Intersection, which is quite good and worth your effort. He makes some very strong points on why Berezow, and the resulting turn out in support of Berezow, are wrong. Here’s Mooney, in response to Kenneth Green, who wrote in response to Mooney’s response to the Alex Berezow piece (got that?):

Not only does Green dramatically downplay the Christian Right (free market conservatives’ cozy bedfellow, whether or not they want to acknowledge it). He doesn’t seem to understand that science abuse isn’t about getting something wrong. This happens all the time in science, in academia, etc. That’s okay, because science has a self correcting mechanism—and this is part of its very nature.
The real problem is therefore not mistakes. It’s attacking established knowledge, and spreading clearly refuted falsehoods, for political reasons. And clinging to them, sinking into denial. That is what we are actually talking about.

Indeed. The problem, as I see it, is a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific process. What it means when someone says “scientific consensus,” for example.

Second is  the 2012 GOP Presidential Extravaganza. I missed the last two weeks of coverage, and suddenly Michele Bachmann is an afterthought, Herman Cain won a thing that probably means nothing (Ron Paul’s always winning something or other), Rick Perry is fading because he is a terrible debater, and Jon Huntsman said  he wants to be a rising star. If you want to be a rising star, can you say that you want to be a rising star and not have it sound totally ridiculous? I don’t think so. Anyway, when did all this happen? Now Mitt Romney is going to win, which, well, was probably going to happen anyway, unless, you know, he loses. But who would he lose to?

The real story that has been consuming TRC is the “scandal” President Barack Obama finds himself in regarding the federal government’s guaranteed loans to the solar panel manufacturing company Solyndra. Every day I considered writing this story up, but kept getting too worked up, because there’s no scandal here, at all, no how no way. It’s not indicative of the failing of solar as an industry, which is doing very well. Nor it is indicative of poor vetting by the President. Rather, it is for the President terrible timing for a company who was out-competed, to go bankrupt. End of story.

Guaranteed loans for green energy companies are certainly not a Democrat only desire. And they absolutely should not be. Because they are smart policy. The US Gov’t made an investment to spur energy technology, and that investment didn’t pan out. That’s really not that big of a deal. It happens. It’s not a Democratic or GOP failing, it’s what happens when you can’t tell the future. Bad timing, embarrassing e-mails, over-zealous political maneuvering from the White House, I grant you all this. But scandal? I fail to see it.  That Solyndra couldn’t compete in a global market for pv-cells is Solyndra’s fault. Or the fault of the Chinese, who are kicking our asses on solar manufacturing.


Written by Christopher ZF

September 27, 2011 at 16:40

2 Responses

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  1. I would have to disagree. The Solyndra loans is a scandal of sorts. The Obama was pushing green projects from the get go and wanted to see projects happening. DOE didn’t do its due diligence and they lost lots of taxpayer’s money. Sure the price of pv-cells collapsed, but even before the collapse Solyndra’s business model was completely out of whack. See:

    It’s a scandal because it shows government incompetency. And that’s a problem for the incumbent President.

    redhead in rapid

    September 27, 2011 at 20:45

    • Agree to disagree, Redhead. As usual. But let me explain.
      I don’t think that the investment in Solyndra is a scandal. At best a poor investment, but that does not make a scandal.
      As for the McCardle piece in the Atlantic, I think she’s missing the plot of these kinds of clean energy investments by arguing that “it was unlikely that Solyndra was going to work” because coal is cheap and silicon will not stay expensive and there won’t be a market for something like the product Solyndra was making anyway.
      If this is the case by which we judge investment, why would we invest in anything other than that which already has market success? I think that’s a poor assessment of responsible investment. This is doubly true in energy, where, if investors did not take great risks, and rely on the government to assist in creating a market (whether you think this is sound economics) then literally NOTHING EVER could compete with coal for electricity and gasoline for auto-fuel.
      She argues that if this were money going to scientist who was doing something totally new, that would be different. But the gov’t invests all the time in scientists discovering something radical and never before seen, like invisibility cloaks and steel strength carbon sheets as thin as scotch tape, or solar capturing cells that convert 80 percent of energy captured into electricity (these are all out there, I don’t have time to find links).
      If we don’t invest in creating a market for such advances, you just devolve into the shrimp on treadmills argument of wasted money spent on unused science. Solyndra may not have been reinventing the proverbial wheel (or literal solar pv-cell) but they were trying to create a better product. It certainly went sour for everyone, and I’m not saying it was a good investment, or that the Obama Administration handled it beautifully. I’m saying that, as far as there is a great desire to find a scandal in the Administration, this isn’t it.


      September 28, 2011 at 09:20

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