Solar power and the culture war

In his column today, Paul Krugman shines a light, so to speak, on advances in solar technology.

These days, mention solar power and you’ll probably hear cries of “Solyndra!” Republicans have tried to make the failed solar panel company both a symbol of government waste — although claims of a major scandal are nonsense — and a stick with which to beat renewable energy.

But Solyndra’s failure was actually caused by technological success: the price of solar panels is dropping fast, and Solyndra couldn’t keep up with the competition. In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

That kind of breakthrough isn’t exactly imminent, but it’s nevertheless evidence of exciting advancements. Krugman added, though, that our political system may well delay the energy transformation because “a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives.”

That’s clearly true. It manifests itself in policymaking — Republicans fight for oil industry subsidies, while killing investments in alternatives — as well as the larger political environment. Dave Roberts recently had a terrific piece on this.

So you’d think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician’s mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn’t increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?

Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives’ endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession’s rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company — Solyndra — as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry.

Roberts added, “This. Is. Insane.” He’s right — the solar industry offers so much promise, it’s truly ridiculous to think U.S. policymakers would turn their back on these advancements and rewards, simply because Republican politics have gone stark raving mad.