Solar companies Solyndra of California, Evergreen Solar Inc. of Massachusetts, and SpectraWatt of New York have all filed bankruptcy petitions and face drastic restructuring if not liquidation. “There is a crisis in the solar manufacturing world … no question about it,” recently stated Ken Zweibel, director of the Solar Institute at George Washington University.

The crisis transcends the companies in question. The underlying reality is that solar power is radically uneconomical against conventional electricity generation on the grid. Thus special government favor for short-term profits sets up the industry for longer-term failure when the subsidies dry up—or if other countries bait the same perilous hook and beat us at our own political game.

We should know that solar is not competitive by a long shot. As DOE secretary Chu told the New York Times last year, solar technology would have to improve five-fold to find its own way in the competitive world.

False Promises

Here are some examples of the false prognostications made by solar advocates:

Environmentalist and erstwhile presidential candidate Barry Commoner (1976):

Mixed solar/conventional installations could become the most economical alternative in most parts of the United States within the next few years.

The head of the Solar Energy Industries Association (1987):

I think frankly, the—the consensus as far as I can see is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.

Cynthia Shea of the Worldwatch Institute (1988):

In future decades, [photovoltaic technologies] may become standard equipment on new buildings, using the sunlight streaming through windows to generate electricity.

Enron’s Misdirection

Back in 1994, the New York Times excitedly reported that solar’s competitive moment had arrived thanks to Solarex, the second largest U.S. manufacturer of photovoltaic cells, operated and half-owned by Enron.

The feature, complete with a photo of an Enron executive holding a panel up in a sunny sky, concerned a project in the southern Nevada desert that would be the largest in the country, generating enough electricity from sunlight to power the equivalent of a city of 100,000 people. It was expected to begin operating by year-end 1996.

The project came with a bang and ended without a whimper. Here is what I wrote about the “smoke-and-mirrors” project in my book Capitalism at Work (pp. 310–11):

Enron hoodwinked the public back in 1994, claiming that its proposed $150 million project could produce solar power “at rates competitive with those of energy generated from oil, gas and coal.”

A business-section feature in the New York Times, “Solar Power, for Earthly Prices: Enron Plans to Make the Sun Affordable,” reported Enron’s pledge to deliver power for $0.055 per kilowatt hour from a 100 megawatt solar farm in the Nevada desert within two years, comparable to the average cost of delivered electricity across the nation. Enron’s rate was unheard of, exceeding even the most optimistic estimates from environmental pressure groups. But it was highly contrived, depending on a raft of government subsidies, as well as questionable assumptions about financing, technology, and delivery schedules. The rate was also back-loaded, with compounded annual cost escalations for thirty years.

Still, the article described the enticing profit prospects of Enron’s advances. Two officials from the Clinton Administration’s Department of Energy were quoted. “This establishes the benchmark we want and restarts a stalled solar industry,” said the head of DOE’s photovoltaic section. Deputy Secretary William White (aka Bill White, one of Enron’s last defenders [and later Houston’s mayor from 2004 through 2009]) stated his intention to try to help make the economics of the project work.

But the smoke-and-mirrors project was too much for the Clinton Administration—and even for Enron, despite a suite of special subsidies. It languished and quietly died. Nevertheless, it was a heady PR moment for a politically correct company and a credulous press that either did not know or did not report the whole story.

Don’t expect false hopes to disappear. The European solar lobby is now predicting that solar will be cost competitive by 2020.

But the failed past of solar informs the present, and Obama’s new push for “green” energy should be judged accordingly. Although stand-alone solar power has a certain free-market niche and does not need government favor, using solar power for grid electricity has been and will be an economic loser for ratepayers and a burden to taxpayers.