Solyndra and Historical Innovation

I don’t know anyone against clean energy, though plenty of people might disagree about the priority we should give it, costs vs. benefits and so on.

Along those lines, I took no joy in Solyndra’s sad end, as it might set the cause of cleaner energy back a bit.  On the one hand, there is nothing shocking about a company failing.  Companies do fail sometimes, including those backed by government loans.

One aspect of their rise and fall intrigued me, however.  Their CEO and founder Dr. Chris Gronet had an idea.  Instead of relying on traditional and expensive silicon, he helped develop a process that could eliminate the need for silicon entirely.  It would be a great leap forward, one that would bypass the whole flow of solar panel development that came before it.

Well, among other things, the price of silicon plummeted, making Solyndra’s technological “breakthrough” unnecessary.  Aside from that, the new machines didn’t work well.  Solyndra’s bad gamble may have helped widen the door for China to continue dominate the market.

Aside from possible allegations of fraud and cronyism, did Solyndra just get unlucky?  Or, did they unwittingly violate a law of human experience?  Were they in a hurry?

The idea of a “Great Leap Forward” enticed Mao and entices all of us.  The past can seem burdensome, and  context irrelevant.  But it seems to me that no great historical “leap forward” has every happened without a long steady drip preceding it.

Most would say, for example, that Science defines itself through trial and error, the process of disputation.  As many have pointed out, however, people didn’t decide to do this overnight.  The western roots of disputation went back at least to the Medieval scholastics, if not further back.  Descartes and Newton had kinsmen at least 400 years in the past.

On the surface, Nixon’s trip to China looks like a massive, overnight tectonic shift.  But that too had deep roots in China’s conflict with Vietnam, and the Soviet style ‘one size fits all’ approach to communism that offended China’s sense of its own unique identity, among other things.

How about stylistic leap forwards?  It’s hard to go further than Shakespeare did when he brought a little levity to the dramatic arts.  His example almost destroys my theory.  But even he strikes me as decidedly “Medieval” about his conception of the world and the drama of salvation.  Also it seems that Shakespeare reached back to some of the Medieval sense of play after the heaviness of the Renaissance humanists.  So even Shakespeare did not eschew the past.

Pope John XXIII had it right: don’t be in a hurry.