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Solar Facility Makes for Ironic Photo Op

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When Energy Secretary Steven Chu steps before the media this morning at Sandia National Laboratories to promote Obama administration renewable energy initiatives, the photo op backdrop will convey a mixed message.

Off to one side at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility stand 11 innovative solar dish systems developed by Sandia and Stirling Energy Systems.

The whirring solar engines at the heart of the solar dishes were once hailed as a major innovation in the attempt to harness the sun’s rays to generate electricity and have been a regular stop for visiting politicians promoting renewable energy. In the summer of 2005, President George Bush stood beneath them for a photo opportunity.

Last fall, Stirling, victim of a changing energy landscape in which its solar systems could not compete, filed for bankruptcy.

Amid the bankruptcy of the much larger solar panel maker Solyndra, which received a $535 million federal loan guarantees, the Stirling bankruptcy received little public attention in part because the government’s role was far smaller. Through Sandia’s research, the government made in-kind contributions worth $7.6 million, according to Chuck Andraka, who headed the project.

But experts say the case of Stirling also illustrates an important point about the role of government investment in technology innovation – sometimes those investments don’t pan out.

Stirling failed because it could not compete with cheaper alternatives, said Jesse Jenkins, an energy policy analyst at The Breakthrough Institute in California, who has studied the role of Sandia’s solar research center and other facilities like it in supporting U.S. energy innovation efforts.

In the years since Bush’s visit, Stirling developed a 60-dish solar array near its corporate base in Arizona. But, ultimately, cheap Chinese solar panels and the plummeting cost of natural gas made it impossible for Stirling to compete, Jenkins said in a telephone interview.

Ironically, work done at Sandia and other national laboratories in support of a competing technology – “fracking” to release natural gas trapped in shale deposits – was part of Stirling’s undoing. Federal research investment dating to the 1970s, including work at Sandia, paved they way for the current natural gas boom, according to an analysis by Jenkins’ Breakthrough colleagues.

Obama cited that research in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

“Our experience with shale gas, our experience with natural gas, shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away,” Obama said. “Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.”

The purpose of Chu’s visit, the Energy Department said in a statement, is to highlight the administration’s “commitment to energy innovation and advanced manufacturing.” While at Sandia this morning, and the Energy Department lab, he will tour the National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

In the afternoon, he is planning a half-hour “town hall meeting” with University of New Mexico students.

Sandia’s solar research center and other similar federal facilities like it are critical, Jenkins said, to helping industry innovate.

“Those demonstration sites are a pretty good low-cost way to see if these technologies are viable,” Jenkins said.

Stirling, with a congressional appropriation to support its work, first approached Sandia in 2004, said Andraka. Over the years, the federal government invested $7.6 million to fund the time of Andraka and other Sandians who worked on the project. Under the cooperative research deal, Stirling brought its own researchers to Sandia to share in the work and contributed the hardware, which grew to 11 solar dishes over the years.

While the company itself may be gone, Andraka said, the technology transfer between Sandia and the company was a two-way street. With Stirling out of business, technology developed under the partnership can now be licensed to other private companies.

“It’s frustrating to lose the SES thrust,” Andraka said, “but someone will pick it up.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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