Yesterday I wrote about failure, and how it could be one of the keys to success. This connects to the recent controversy over Solyndra’s failure, as well as to energy and innovation in general.
I found this brilliant paragraph by Matthew Nordan, whose bio reads “I’m a venture capital investor at Venrock focused on energy and environmental technologies. Earlier, I co-founded and led Lux Research and forecasted technology futures at Forrester. I really do live and breathe this stuff.”
Failure is a fact of life in venture investing – and energy innovation. VCs provide capital to high-risk businesses that can’t be funded any other way. Most venture investments either fail completely or deliver mediocre returns. Cases like Solyndra come with the territory, and they say no more about all the other VC-backed energy start-ups than Webvan said about Amazon: The whole point is to risk failure, because you have to take on many (informed, balanced, and uncorrelated!) bets for a shot at a big outcome. Those outcomes, in turn, pay for the failures many times over – while improving lives and creating jobs. There’s a legitimate argument about whether taxpayer money should be deployed in this pursuit, but to treat even a very costly cratering like this one as anything other than de rigeur seems silly. [more]
Below are some several excerpts from reports about Solyndra’s failure.
First, the company’s original announcement. Emphasis mine. Solyndra Suspends Operations to Evaluate Reorganization Options
August 31, 2011 – Solyndra LLC, the American manufacturer of innovative cylindrical solar systems for commercial rooftops today announced that global economic and solar industry market conditions have forced the Company to suspend its manufacturing operations. Solyndra intends to file a petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code while it evaluates options, including a sale of the business and licensing of its advanced CIGS technology and manufacturing expertise. As a result of the suspension of operations approximately 1,100 full-time and temporary employees are being laid off effective immediately.
I think it’s interesting that the press release emphasizes the macroeconomic nature of the problem, as well as the specific shutdown of manufacturing operations, since other operations could continue.
But this won’t be easy. This Greentech Media post distills Solyndra’s situation into a clever subhead: For sale: factory. In Fremont. Little used. IP portfolio as well. Serious inquiries only. Here are my favorite lines:
Any potential acquirer would also inherit a titanic-sized bookkeeping and public relations headache. Solyndra has received more than $1 billion from VC partners and over $535 million in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy. Congressional opponents of green policies like Michigan Congressional Representative Fred Upton regularly hold up Solyndra as an example of why the U.S. shouldn’t support green energy policies.
The only green jobs that have been created, one wag told me today, have been ones for accountants and bankruptcy attorneys. [more]
Well, Obama and other politicians do always tout “green jobs,” and accountants and bankruptcy attorneys need work, right?
Solyndra’s failure has become a political football, which is a valid debate but not without some misconceptions. In a Washington Post piece, “Five myths about the Solyndra collapse,” Brad Plumer writes:
the fact that China hurls money at solar isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since cheaper solar prices can benefit the United States too. The Energy Department seems to have recognized that going toe-to-toe with China on direct subsidies may be futile and is instead trying to focus on complementary efforts to bolster innovation, through programs like its Sunshot Initiative. Also, for all China’s subsidy frenzy, the United States still exported$1.9 billion of solar products last year and actually has a trade surplus in solar with China. [more]
Also, a lot of the controversy has focused on the loan guarantees that the Obama Administration gave to Solyndra. Bryan Walsh, writing for TIME’s Ecocentric blog, says the Solyndra “Scandal” is Washington Business as Usual.
My response: meh. TIME’s Michael Grunwald has covered this from the start, and while he’s unhappy—to say the least—with executives at Solyndra for misleading the government on its financial health, the solar industry more broadly is doing well, thanks in part to the money the Obama Administration has channeled towards more successful companies. And it’s worth noting that in addition to government loan guarantees, Solyndra also scored over $1 billion in private capital—including from GOP-friendly investors like the Walton family of Wal-Mart. Solyndra turned out to be a bad investment—the company failed in part because it made the wrong bet on solar technology, failing to foresee that silicon prices would drop drastically. Bad investments are a part of business, especially a cutting-edge industry like renewable energy, and failure is a necessary ingredient for innovation. (Just ask the famously fired Steve Jobs.) The idea that the collapse of one solar company discredits the entire solar industry is absurd. [more]
What do you think? What does Solyndra’s failure mean for the future of solar energy in America and beyond?