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White House yesterday ordered an independent review of all clean-energy loans from the Energy Department. This comes as House Republicans prepare for a possible vote next week to subpoena White House documents related to the California company Solyndra. The solar company received more than half a billion dollars in Energy Department loan guarantees before declaring bankruptcy. With all the publicity over the Solyndra case, the image of solar power has taken quite a hit.
But NPR's Wade Goodwyn attended a solar convention in Dallas, and found the industry is still optimistic.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: As you walked into the big hall of the Dallas Convention Center, it was impossible not to be impressed by the huge array of black solar panels hanging from the ceiling. There were Sharp's new, state-of-the-art panels for residential customers. And right beside them were panels from their large Chinese competitor, Suntech. And next to the Chinese was the elite German glass manufacturer Schott.
MATTHEW KRAFT: So what we're looking at here is a couple of our innovations modules. These are - you know how at car shows, they always have the concept cars of what's coming down the line?
GOODWYN: Salesman Mathew Kraft has his pitch ready. Schott likes to think of its panels as the Mercedes Benz of solar panels, of course. Tom Hecht is a top executive at Schott's U.S. division.
TOM HECHT: Every step of the manufacturing process, every material choice - the encapsulant, the back sheet - all have to work together if they're going to survive 25 years and generate the electricity expected.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Through the completion of Hanwa Solar America, we will fully engage in developing new techniques and technologies in Qidong, China; Baejan, Korea; and Silicon Valley, in the United States.
GOODWYN: The displays were from China, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Spain, Korea, Portugal; 1,400 panel manufactures from 125 different countries. If you were expecting, as I was, a certain level of gloom and malaise because of the negative press surrounding the Solyndra bankruptcy, there's just not much of it - in fact, none. With a dramatic drop in silicon prices, panel prices have come down 50 percent, and business is good.
Rhone Resch is the CEO of the industry trade association.
RHONE RESCH: The United States is the fastest-growing market for solar energy in the world today. And in fact, solar is the fastest-growing industry in the United States. In the last year, we've grown by over 70 percent.
GOODWYN: Not everything is coming up roses. Last week, a group of seven American solar panel manufacturers filed petitions with the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission, alleging that China is illegally subsidizing its solar industry. Resch wants an investigation.
RESCH: This case, at least, will be a very transparent process in which the information will be gathered, and the courts will be able to decide if the Chinese have been unfairly subsidizing their industry or not.
GOODWYN: But the manufacturers' petition has split the solar industry because the lower panel prices have been a boon to solar developers and installers. Still, in this economy, laying out $35,000 is asking a lot of a residential customer. So some in the industry are taking a page out of Dish Network's playbook, and renting the necessary equipment to residential customers. That means there's no money down.
Sherri Pittman is a vice president at Sungevity.
SHERRI PITTMAN: Instead of what you would be paying to your electricity, you're going to make a lease payment to us. And that lease payment is going to be less than what you were paying to your electricity company.
GOODWYN: Sharp, on the other hand, is attacking the financing issue through technology. Their new residential panels each come with their own inverter. Sharp Senior Vice President Eric Hafter explains why this is an important development.
ERIC HAFTER: The inverter is matched with the panel, so each panel is actually producing AC power which can go straight to the home. It's also set up so that you can install as few as one panel, and then add to the system over years.
GOODWYN: Hafter says there is no question that the U.S. manufacturers can compete, and points out the cheapest solar panel currently on the market is made by an American company, not a Chinese one. Regardless, there's going to be a lot of product in the market, going forward. Prices are expected to remain fiercely competitive, and the industry predicts robust growth for this coming year - 60 percent.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.