03 November 2009
The German solar thermal firms, Solar Millennium & MAN Ferrostaal have created Solar Trust of America with contracts to build 2 plants in California and 5 more plants in the US.
Once again we have succeeded in handing the lead in a new energy technology to foreign entrepreneurs with more foresight and long term horizons than we seem to be able to muster in the US. With the Solar One and Solar Two projects in the Mojave Desert, in the 1980's and 1990's, we were among the leaders in alternative, sustainable energy development. This technology was pioneering and forward thinking. It was sponsored by the DOE and could have been the basis for the US taking a leading role in the large scale global market of sustainable energy production. Instead of that what happened?
Well, it is the typical US story.
First - the DOE spent money and time to sponsor cutting edge energy technology. (This part of the story is still on going, as the DOE continues to sponsor such research.) The politicians had a photo op upon opening of these projects.
Then - in the US the political will to support such industry was not there. In the time of $1 gas and republican rule, any hint of sustainable energy support was withdrawn. But there was a group that had the political will and was interested in supporting this technology, this group was lead by Germany. Thanks to their parliamentary system of government, the German Green Party was able to gain the minimum vote percentage to become part of a ruling coalition and because of their determined advocacy of sustainability, the German Government adopted a forward looking approach to sustainable energy.
Now - fifteen years later, the technology that the US taxpayer supported through the DOE in the late 1970's and 1980's and the US political leadership promptly dropped (remember the solar system on the White House) is needed in the US and who is installing those systems? Many are being installed by European Companies that have had the governmental support through subsidy and regulation to get them over the "hump" and now they are poised to grap a large percentage of the global market. One German company is expected to own 20% of the US market!
What can we learn from this. We need to learn that long term thinking and political will to support it is what is needed in the US if we do not want to be left behind in the 21st century economy.