The link between algae and solar

The solar industry has hit hard times. How will bad news in the solar industry affect the algae industry?
| September 06, 2011

After reading the following question, take a brief moment to make a mental list of all the possible answers. The growth of the algae industry over the next two years will be most affected by the following:

My list includes many of the standard answers I would suspect most other lists would include: harvesting methods, cost-effective lipid extraction processes, conquering scale-up issues, finding and entering the most applicable biobased product markets, etc. All of those standard answers are linked to what algae companies can control, but now, after an announcement by Solyndra (the solar-panel production company that was once touted by President Obama as a major part of the country’s clean energy future) that the California-based company will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and essentially waste away an astounding $535 million U.S. DOE loan guarantee, I have an inkling to add the success, or in this case failure, of the solar industry to that list. Here’s why.

In response to Solyndra’s announcement, two Republican Representatives, Fred Upton, R-Mich, and Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., not only called the investment by the U.S. government in Solyndra “dubious,” but also called into question the current administrations “failures” with renewable energy.

“Solyndra could not achieve full-scale operations rapidly enough to compete in the near term…” Solyndra said in a statement on the chapter 11 filing plans. Given that many of those lists of factors that will affect the growth of the algae industry will include the issue of conquering scale-up, isn’t it conceivable to insert “Algae company X” into that statement by Solyndra? And, isn’t it conceivable that our political representatives could form an unwarranted link between one innovative renewable energy technology and approach (solar) to another (algae)?

Combine all of those possibilities with the reality that much of the 2012 farm bill and election process could potentially be swayed by debt reduction and spending cut commitments, and the thought that bad news in the solar industry could be bad news in the algae industry seems very real if that unwarranted link between the solar and algae industries is made.

Fortunately, some political leaders aren’t too concerned by the Solyndra news. In response to the bankruptcy announcement, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif, said that “Congress needs to get serious about promoting energy independence,” and that “we should be doing everything possible to ensure the United States does not cede the renewable energy market to China and other countries.” While Waxman’s sentiments are nice to hear and might signal that the algae industry as a renewable energy sector apart from solar might still get the governmental funding it needs to succeed despite of solar’s recent hard times, are his thoughts on renewable energy enough to protect the algae from the negativity currently clouding solar? Or, does bad news in the solar industry have no impact on algae and no place on the list of growth factors for the next two years? Let me know.