U.S. solar industry is hurting

Construction workers install solar panels at Hami Solar Power Station on in Hami, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Steve Chiotakis: The number of people last week who filed for unemployment benefits for the first time fell by 12,000. But it's still above that 400,000 level, which means the job market's very, very sluggish right now. One place that was supposed to be a bright spot in the job market was the green energy sector. But the solar market -- at least in one company's case -- has turned very, very dark, with the announcement Solyndra is shutting its doors.

And Marketplace's Eve Troeh is with us in our Los Angeles studios with the latest on that story. Good morning Eve.


Eve Troeh: Hey, good morning.

Chiotakis: So what happened to Solyndra? Tell us a little bit about this company.

Troeh: Well it was a six-year-old. It was six years old, and it was a Silicon valley start-up. And it got over half a billion dollars in loans from the Department of Energy -- first under the Bush Administration, and then President Obama kind of made a pet of it and made it a case study for clean tech jobs. In fact it got government help as part of the stimulus package.

And yesterday, it fell hard, and fast. Closed the factory in Fremont, Calif., let go of 1,100 workers, filed for bankruptcy. Now, you know, the government will be first in line to get its money back as the company liquidates its assets.

I want to play you something from Rob Day. He's a clean tech investor with Black Coral Capital. He says Solyndra made this unique type of solar power system -- they tried to cut out the engineers and other middlemen you might need for solar power, usually. But it was also more expensive, and that was likely behind the downfall.

Rob Day: This was a bold attempt at innovation not just in how to make solar panels, but how to reinvent the entire solar value chain. And whenever you're making a bold attempt like that, not all of those efforts are going to work out for the best. Solyndra will probably become a political football, when in reality it's really a special case.

And that football is already being tossed around by some folks in the GOP today. They say government shouldn't be betting on individual startups like this.

Chiotakis: Alright. So, Eve, how is the solar power industry doing overall?

Troeh: Well it's looking good on paper. It's getting a lot more popular -- more people are buying solar power systems for their houses, and even big box stores and factories are putting them in. There are these tax incentives that are driving those sales. But the jobs and sales -- not so much in sync because of China. Chinese companies are making tons of cheap solar panels, people here are buying them, and then that makes the dilemma, right? Because even as solar power gets more popular here, the U.S. manufacturing sector doesn't get that big bump.

Chiotakis: Marketplace's Eve Troeh from the sustainability desk. Eve, thanks.

Troeh: Thank you.

About the author

Steve Chiotakis was the host of Marketplace Morning Report until January 2012.

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