solyndra and renewable power

September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Solyndra is to shut down after being so heartily championed by the federal government, which had earlier forked over to the company about $500 million in loans (link). A tired storyline: cheap Chinese imports corner the market, drive everyone else out of business. Not so tired: how is China’s government subsidizing the private, clean energy firms created in and operating out of that country, and do its methods of encouraging growth in this industry conform to WTO guidelines? If the end product is cheaper clean energy, coming at the expense of the economic health of American solar companies, would and should a violation of multilateral regulations matter? An ethical rubix cube for you philosophers out there.

Relevant reading: Beijing’s crash program for clean energy, a Danish community’s victory over carbon emissions, and an inventor from MIT discovers the limitations of technological ingenuity. This last one is unendingly interesting to me because I remember reading with a great deal of fascination and curiosity about the man’s invention of a device that, literally, took and poured liquid glass into a container of some sort which, minutes later, the liquid glass I mean, hardened to become the lenses for your eye-glass frame. These lenses were perfectly calibrated on the spot to match your depth of vision. It was cheap, instantaneous, and wonderful! You’d expect this to revolutionize the eyeglass provisioning industry in developing countries, except, not to get all crushingly depressive or anything, the invention solved exactly the wrong problem. A lens factory is expensive to build and equip, but once you’ve got it built you can make lenses cheaply, and then deliver them anywhere in the world for a buck. And what culprit do we find cropping up again? Cheap Chinese labor. And global shipping. These two together make Griffith’s invention kind of beside the point. As he discovered, the problem comes from the dearth of medical personnel available to test eyes and write prescriptions. And that is an issue of economics and politics, not technology.

Being ethnic Chinese makes me feel incredibly uneasy sometimes. Not only over the government’s ludricrous human rights missteps, which seem manifold even when underreported, but also because the seemingly innocuous phrase “cheap Chinese labor” conceals god knows what breadth of abuses and brutal systematic exploitation of that country’s no-rights working force. If I were paying a fraction of a percentage more attention I’m sure I’d feel incredibly uneasy all the time, but instead I reroute my brain power to the contemplation of other matters, like fictional characters, and marmalade.

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