All of a sudden, it seemed, the sun ceased to shine on Idaho’s once-promising solar industry.
First, in late May, Hoku Materials announced 100 layoffs at its still-unopened $700 million Pocatello production plant. The root cause: a shriveling market for polysilicon, the raw material for solar panels, which Hoku plans to produce at the plant.
A week later, Transform Solar said it would shutter its Nampa plant and put at least 250 people out of work. This plant, a collaboration between Micron Technology Inc. and Origins Energy in Australia, struggled to find a share of a crowded market for solar panels.
Both plants are feeling the effects of supply and demand. Competitors flooded the market with cheap supply — and, in May, the U.S. Commerce Department said Chinese manufacturers had dumped below-cost solar panels into the U.S. market.
Perhaps the flooded and manipulated market could not have been foreseen. But the troubles with the Idaho solar plants resonate a bit more because of lofty expectations.
Gov. Butch Otter made solar a talking point in his 2010 re-election ads. In 2011, Otter touted Transform Solar as the kind of company that had the potential to grow into the next Albertsons, Micron, J.R. Simplot or Melaleuca.
But the private sector was just as optimistic, hence the heavy investment in the Nampa and Pocatello solar plants.
None of this sounds a death knell for the solar industry, nationally or in Idaho. This is an industry in its infancy. And it’s hardly the only industry to ride the turbulence of unforgiving supply-and-demand economics — as any observer of Micron and the semiconductor sector knows all too well.
The lesson for Idaho, then, is an old one. Diversify. Don’t bank on any one piece of the renewable energy puzzle.
And capitalize on other opportunities as they present themselves:
Æ So far, Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission has been overshadowed by a controversy beyond the commission’s control — a debate about whether Idaho would or should entertain allowing additional nuclear waste shipments into the state. The answer to that question, clearly, is no, as Otter has ruled out such a dead-end proposition.
Now the job for the commission is to look for ways to capitalize on the Idaho National Laboratory’s legacy in nuclear energy research, to the state’s advantage.
Æ Idaho’s rapidly growing wind energy sector has some well-placed foes, especially in comparison to a solar sector that has basked in widespread political support. Idaho Power has openly complained about being forced to purchase costly and sporadic wind power and work it into its power grid, while legislative critics have repeatedly floated the idea of imposing a moratorium on new wind farm development.
The fact is that persistent winds make southern and eastern Idaho a prime location for wind power development. This climatic condition is akin to the INL’s nuclear research expertise and infrastructure — it’s one more competitive edge for the state to leverage. Instead of fighting to slow the growth of the wind sector, we’d rather see state leaders work with the industry to come up with creative ways to make this sector more efficient and cost-effective.
Renewable energy is not just a key to a sustainable environment; the green energy revolution will also reward communities and states that get ahead of the economic curve. Recent setbacks in solar underscore the importance of thinking broadly and inventively.
“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email email@example.com.