Why does a solar power company want a piece of GM?

Analysts are scoffing at SolarWorld's bid for Opel. But maybe the rest of us should be cheering

Published November 19, 2008 7:15PM (EST)

The early reaction to the surprise $1.3 billion dollar bid by Germany's SolarWorld to buy the German carmaker Opel from General Motors has not been kind. It's "a great gag" said one German auto-industry analyst, strongly implying that the bid was just an exercise in public relations sensationalism. Another analyst professed "big amazement," noting that Opel's workforce was 16 times the size of SolarWorld's. And for what it's worth, a spokesperson for GM maintained that Opel, which has been part of General Motors since 1929, "is not for sale."

SolarWorld's ostensible goal is to redirect Opel towards producing "green" cars boasting energy efficient and low-emission engines. Whether that's a realistic business plan or a P.R. stunt, I don't know. But I do think there is some interesting symbolism in the gesture. SolarWorld, an integrated producer of silicon wafers, solar cells and solar panels, is one of Germany's fastest growing companies and one of the the largest solar companies in the world. It recently opened a huge facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. It is a prime example of the kind of energetic, ambitious, job-creating green company to emerge from Germany's vigorous government support for and subsidization of renewable energy.

Democratic politicians are tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to keep U.S. automakers from shedding thousands of jobs in economically ailing Midwestern states. But the real challenge is to create new jobs in new industries. Germany has succeeded to a great extent in achieving such aims in the solar sector, to the point that companies such as SolarWorld are now spouting brash rhetoric about plans to pick some flesh off GM's rotting carcass. But Where are the new American companies looking hungrily at the industrial infrastructure of the Rust Belt?

Perhaps a contender will soon emerge from California, where, even in the teeth of a brutal recession, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing aggressively forward with plans to spur the growth of renewable energy. On Monday, GreenWombat's Todd Woody reports, Schwarzenegger issued an executive order requiring that California power utilities get fully a third of their energy from renewables sources by 2020.

California currently requires the state's Big Three investor-owned utilities -- PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric ( -- to secure 20 percent of their electricity from green energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal by 2010. Monday's move turns what had been a 33 percent renewables goal into a mandate and extends responsibility for meeting it to every electricity retailer in California....

California's aggressive renewable energy policies already have had one desired consequence: spurring the creation of green collar jobs. OptiSolar, which earlier this year signed a long-term contract to supply PG&E with 550 megawatts of electricity from a massive photovoltaic solar farm, employs 500 people at its Bay Area headquarters and factory. CEO Randy Goldstein said his company will hire another 1,000 for its new Sacramento factory.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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