I’ve been tracking the political fallout from solar-panel maker Solyndra’s recent, highly publicized bankruptcy. Clearly, it now appears that overly ardent White House staffers fast-tracked government loan guarantees to the Fremont, CA-based startup without properly vetting its shaky financial state. When silicon prices subsequently tumbled, Solyndra—whose business model relied on those prices remaining high—imploded, leaving taxpayers poorer by $528 million (the amount of the government loan).
As I’ve followed these developments, I’ve learned that failure among such high-tech startups is far from uncommon. Many private investors, including Virgin impresario Sir Richard Branson, also lost big money on Solyndra. Expensive failure apparently goes hand-in-hand with the process of innovation. But because the Obama administration had thrown it weight behind Solyndra, conservatives among the House of Representatives GOP leadership are casting the harshest possible glare on what’s actually a pretty modest snafu. As they busily draw up agendas for protracted hearings and investigations, House conservatives are seizing on Solyndra’s demise as an opportunity to expose administration “corruption”—and, worse, undermine government support for increasingly promising green energy technologies.
I read with dismay in the Sept. 23rd San Francisco Chronicle how California Rep. Darrell Issa led off a congressional hearing on the Solyndra bankruptcy by accusing the Obama administration of waging a “war on carbon-based energy” and inflating its success promoting new “green jobs.” (In signaling his dim view of alternative energy, Issa derisively titled his hearing, “How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs.” Having delivered such a verdict in advance, why even conduct a hearing?)
As the hearing proceeded, Issa and Florida representative (and conservative comrade) Connie Mack tore into Obama’s Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’ assertions about administration success spearheading “green jobs.” They further quibbled over the administration’s rationale for defining specific occupations as “green.” For instance, Issa sarcastically responded to Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Keith Hall’s including “bus driver” among “green” occupations. Replied Issa in mock surprise, “Oh, you’re counting everyone who drives a bus as a green job. Oh my goodness, I didn’t know that.”
Sadly, such partisan theatrics are today hardly surprising, notes New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera: “The purpose of [such hearings]—indeed, the point of manufacturing a Solyndra investigation in the first place—is to embarrass the president. That’s how Washington works in the modern age: the party out of power gins up phony scandals aimed at hurting the party in power.”
But as Nocera points out, beyond any political advantage gained by the GOP, the “real winners” of this feud over Solyndra are likely firms within China’s burgeoning solar industry. As our lawmakers squabble over the wisdom of a $528 million loan to a potentially promising American startup—that fell short, as many do—the lurking danger to American enterprise is that we may “ … cede the solar panel industry to China.”
According to Nocera, the Asian giant handsomely subsidizes its own green energy developers. He notes, “[China]… last year alone provided some $30 billion in subsidies for its solar industry.” That level of backing has helped China vault into a dominant 54 percent share of the world’s solar panel market.
Meanwhile, House conservatives press their attacks on the Obama administration’s over comparatively modest subsidies to American green energy developers. It’s hard to overlook the hypocrisy in their objections, given the ongoing, substantial—and enthusiastically GOP-championed—tax incentives to traditional, carbon-based energy producers. A recent study conducted by DBL Investors concluded that, since the U.S. began its energy subsidies, the mega-profitable oil and gas industries have received government subsidies totaling $4.86 billion. “Free market”-touting conservatives continue insisting this kind of corporate welfare is necessary to boost job growth. But that rationale also rings pretty hollow, considering that from 2005 and 2010, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP generated $546 billion in profits, while reducing their combined U.S. workforces by 11,200 employees!
Conservatives defend their actions as holding a line against rampant government overreach. Issa suggested on the C-SPAN program, Washington Journal, “There’s been this attitude that somehow the government can weigh-in with loan guarantees and money and pick specific company winners and losers.” That assertion, however, omits that he personally lobbied Energy Secretary Steven Chu for government assistance on behalf of electric-car maker Aptera Motors Inc., a Carlsbad, CA-based “green” firm within Issa’s home district.
Such paradoxical actions by Issa and other House Republicans clearly demonstrate they have no qualms about playing both sides of an issue to gain political advantage. To be fair, I’m sure liberal politicians find themselves sometimes straddling that line. What’s alarming to me is conservatives’ apparent willingness to toss an entire sector of our economy under the bus—an industry that now employs 100,000 Americans—if only to undercut Barack Obama’s prospects for reelection.