Solyndra Controversy a Transparent Attempt to Kill Green Energy

David Dayen will be a featured speaker at the Take Back the American Dream conference, convening in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 3 to 5. The following was originally published at FireDogLake.

Conservatives are pushing very hard to punish the White House over loan guarantees they made to the now-bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra, and by association to damn any investment in green technologies whatsoever, to keep the dirty energy economy paramount.

The latest claim is that the White House tried to rush the $500 million loan to Solyndra to line up with a September 2009 announcement at the factory by Vice President Biden.

The Silicon Valley company, a centerpiece in President Obama’s initiative to develop clean energy technologies, had been tentatively approved for the loan by the Energy Department but was awaiting a final financial review by the Office of Management and Budget.

The August 2009 e-mails, released exclusively to The Washington Post, show White House officials repeatedly asking OMB reviewers when they would be able to decide on the federal loan and noting a looming press event at which they planned to announce the deal. In response, OMB officials expressed concern that they were being rushed to approve the company’s project without adequate time to assess the risk to taxpayers, according to information provided by Republican congressional investigators.

Solyndra collapsed two weeks ago, leaving taxpayers liable for the $535 million loan.

This would not be the first time that the political and policy shops bicker inside a White House. But what’s the claim here? That there was a rash move to make a solar energy investment for political reasons without assessing the risk? Then you have to blame the Bush Administration, which started the loan process with Solyndra as far back as 2006 as part of a previous energy bill.

If the argument is that the Solyndra loan was oversold as a job creation engine, maybe that’s true. But that’s not the argument that conservatives want to make. They want to claim that green energy investments must be ended because they cannot possibly work. With a perspective like that, obviously so. But the truth is that the Solyndra bankruptcy represents 1.3% of the total green energy loans put out by the Energy Department. Solar energy, far from being doomed, is booming, and solar PV was even a net exporter to China last year. If there were a level playing field and China wasn’t subsidizing it’s solar industry across platforms at 20 times the level of the US, or if the US met that challenge with a similar level of investment, it wouldn’t be a contest. But there’s still plenty of room for a solar and greentech space in the US, regardless of one company’s troubles.

Moreover, the private sector simply won’t do the work necessary on research and development to move the technology forward. ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s R&D arm, is doing a lot more to further innovation than the private sector will ever do. We need green investment to get any improvement in a fast-growing sector and not slip further behind China and Germany.

Finally, the expectation that the companies receiving loans in a high-risk, high-reward sector will never go bankrupt is just not a realistic strategy. Ask Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney or any other investor. You take chances with the hope of reward. You try to make the soundest investments possible, but it’s not an air-tight guarantee. The defense made by the Administration on this looks right to me.

The bankruptcy of California-based Solyndra underscores the need for the United States to double down on investments in clean energy, Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, will argue Wednesday during an oversight hearing in front of a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel.

“The question is whether we are willing to take on this challenge, or whether we will simply cede leadership in clean energy to other nations and watch as tens of thousands of jobs are created overseas,” Silver says in his written testimony, excerpts of which were provided to The Hill by the Energy Department.

“We were once the leaders in this field, and we can be again.”

Conservatives are asking of the government what they would never ask of private industry – and they’re doing it in a transparent effort to prop up dirty energy as the only solution (as if we don’t waste billions more on dirty energy subsidies than we ever did on Solyndra).

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