Like many Democrats, President Obama wants to believe -- wants desperately to believe -- in the technologies that can safely be assumed to be alternative. Most of them are used for electricity generation; and while in principle they are many, in reality they are few. Two in fact: wind power and solar power. Hence, the Solyndra affair and the willful missteps that led up to it.
Though subsidized with tax breaks and other incentives, wind is established – and embraced by utilities, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Solar has had a harder time getting a hold in the marketplace.
It's not that solar doesn't work, but that it's expensive and beset with other problems.
Enter Solyndra, looking like the next generation of solar -- if you will, the new-and-improved solar. First, it used new materials in its solar cells instead of the dominant silicon. Second, it offered an entirely different kind of panel made up of rows of long, cylindrical tubes, or “modules,” designed to capture more of the sun's rays than a traditional flat one.
When I first saw these displayed at an Edison Electric Institute convention, I was intrigued and filmed a short segment for my television program on the technology. It appeared to offer a big step forward – the kind that believers in alternative energy would like to take. They'd like to vault ahead of the limited market penetration (about 3 percent for wind and hardly measurable for solar).
Leaving out the behind-the-scenes politics, Solyndra was compelling for any White House that wanted to be seen as befriending alternative energy technology. This included the administration of George W. Bush.
There's still much of the Solyndra story that has not been told, particularly the role of the Chinese in swamping the world market with cheap silicon cells. Yet, Solyndra was a sophisticated company and it must have known that China was the Goliath to its David. Also, the Department of Energy must have known how fragile Solyndra's market position was.
Yet, fatally, when politicians and scientists want something to happen, they are no wiser than teenaged lovers.
A much bigger question than why the government loved Solyndra too much is why are Democrats, and liberals in general, so passionate about alternative energy? Since the 1970s, they've held out hope that electricity can be made in less than traditional ways, although those ways are proven and abundant; but as with all large industrial actions, they aren't without consequences.
Coal, which provides about half of our electricity, is dirty to mine, transport and burn. It can be cleaned up somewhat, under the rubric of “clean coal.” Natural gas -- now in abundance because of improved drilling and extraction technology in combination with better turbines -- offers a modified environmental impact and is less damaging than coal to extract; and twice as clean as coal to burn. It provides about 25 percent of our electricity and is in growing demand, but it's still controversial.
Then there's nuclear. And here's the rub: It accounts for some 20 percent of our electricity and maybe 80 percent of the controversy in electric generation. Nuclear is a favorite of electric utilities the world over because it's so efficient. One large reactor is available round the clock and produces as much electricity as 1,000 windmills.
But it's been the target of environmentalists since its golden age of expansion in the 1960s.The attacks have covered such a range of issues, from radiological emissions to cooling water flows to the disposal of wastes, that one has to conclude that there's an extreme pathology involved.
If traditional power sources are troublesome and nuclear is detested, there must be alternatives, no?
Thus, the love affair with wind and solar. It's a case, perhaps, among Democrats of not being so much in love as in love with love, overlooking, as love does, some major flaws, like the unpredictability of wind and the cost of solar.
Obama, coming from Chicago where Exelon operates 17 reactors, must know something about the efficiency of nuclear. But his support for it has been
contradictory: He has talked up nuclear but canceled the Yucca Mountain repository (at a cost to taxpayers of $15 billion), bowing to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and to many in his party and in the White House.
The difficulty with coal and the hatred of nuclear, has left Democrats in need of some dream-angel form of energy to love. The Solyndra affair will pass, but Democrats longing for something other than the obvious in energy won't.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org