Model A to Solar

December 20, 2008

As reported in Huffington Post Green

The spacious, airy offices of the SunPower Corporation here in Richmond, California, tell an interesting story of America’s industrial evolution. The building was constructed as a Model A Ford assembly line. Then, during World War II, it became a tank factory where the legendary Rosie the Riveter worked. Now it houses both the corporate and manufacturing facilities of SunPower. And within a month, it will be powered entirely by photovoltaics.

Former Stanford President Donald Kennedy and I are here to lunch with Tom Dinwoodie, the head of SunPower, to help figure out how we can make sure that the forthcoming economic stimulus and reform agendas from the Obama administration are as effective as possible in revitalizing the renewable energy sector, which is currently stalling out because of the credit crunch and economic meltdown.

Dinwoodie identifies the key barrier — interest rates have just soared, putting capital-intensive solar and wind projects on hold. The solution would appear to be tapping into government capital, which carries effectively zero interest rate, perhaps combining it with some of the money that the Treasury lent to the big banks but which, thus far, the banks have been unwilling to lend back out.

Wonderful as the space in this building is, it’s a painful reminder that when we don’t move quickly to do the right thing, we end up doing the wrong thing. Even as we’re meeting, Congress is trying to figure out how to keep General Motors and Chrysler from failing — and Ford, which originally built this, won’t be far behind if an agreement isn’t reached. But what’s slowing it up today? Unbelievably, Republicans in the Congress are objecting to provisions in the bill that would preclude the companies getting bailed out from lobbying or litigating against improved fuel-efficiency standards:

“The Democrats’ call to include the California waiver provision in the auto bailout bill would mean Detroit would gain next to nothing in terms of help from Washington,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Has no one learned anything? Detroit’s dedication to fighting technological innovations in fuel economy was the biggest factor in costing the Big Three so much market share that a recession could send them into bankruptcy. None of the innovative companies — Toyota, Honda — are in this kind of trouble, even though their sales, too, are down — because they have been growing and profiting, not shrinking and bleeding red ink.

A recent story in the New York Times directly traced GM’s travails to its consistent unwillingness to invest in innovation because the profits would come in the future. It’s short-sighted, bottom-line greed that threatens to destroy the company — and much of America with it.

Somehow, somehow, Congress and President Obama must find a way to rekindle the innovative spirit that created the Model A and won WWII — perhaps from SunPower to the Big Three.

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