The scandal involving failed solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which reaches all the way into the White House, should not undermine the nation's commitment to developing abundant clean energy.
The FBI, Congress and inspectors general from the Energy and Treasury Departments are looking into whether the Obama administration rushed a $535 million loan guarantee for the company without a thorough examination of its finances or the market for its unique solar panels. Solyndra declared bankruptcy Aug. 31, costing 1,100 jobs and putting taxpayers on the hook.
The administration took a leap with California-based Solyndra, expecting that its unique panels would be competitive and possibly transformative in the new industry, thus giving the United States a market advantage.
But when China decided to flood the market with cheaper panels, Solyndra unraveled.
Questions about Solyndra's lobbying and the administration's ease in embracing the company must be examined. No doubt that will keep this story alive for weeks in a polarized political environment.
But the investigations should not keep President Obama and Congress from taking responsible risks that are inherent in launching and nurturing any new industries.
After all, this country still supports the old fossil-fuel energy business, and it helped nuclear power get off the ground.
Beyond reducing pollution and the nation's dependence on foreign oil, the solar industry employs 100,000 people, which is twice as many as it did in 2009. The industry is projected to employ almost 500,000 by 2016.
American solar companies are making gains in the international market even though they are competing against Chinese manufacturers that receive deep subsidies from their government.
The United States should be a leader in green power, but the risks it takes to get there must be reasonable.
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Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle:
Last week, Solyndra execs Brian Harrison and Bill Stover invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refusing to answer questions before a House committee.
Though some committee members urged the two suits to ignore their lawyers' advice and answer questions, I thought the execs did the smart thing. Harrison and Stover have nothing to gain by talking, because there's no good way to explain how they blew close to half a billion in taxpayer money.
Besides, they didn't need to talk when committee Democrats were so willing to toss around a few mitigating factors, such as:
• New technology startups, by definition, are risky ventures.
Problem: Solyndra engaged in profligate behavior. A Washington Post story describes the spending spree that followed the Department of Energy loan guarantee -- new factory, state-of-the-art conference room, lobbying bills that grew from $160,000 in 2008 to $550,000 last year.
• Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations supported Solyndra's loan guarantee application.
Problem: In its final month, the Bush Department of Energy credit committee voted against a loan guarantee for Solyndra.
It was the Obama White House that pushed for early conditional approval of a Solyndra deal, despite an Office of Management and Budget staffer's warning that "this deal is not ready for prime time."
• Private investors sank $1 billion into Solyndra, more than taxpayers. They must have had good reason.
Problem: Venture capitalists gambled with money from willing investors, not taxpayers.
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Joe Nocera, New York Times:
If Harrison and Stover ever spend a day in jail, I'll stand on my head in Times Square.
Neither they, nor anyone else connected with Solyndra, have done anything remotely criminal. The company's bankruptcy was largely brought on by a stunning collapse in the price of solar panels over the past year or so.
Although Harrison and Stover remained optimistic up to the bitter end, they ultimately failed to raise additional capital that would have allowed Solyndra to stay in business. Republicans are trying to make that optimism appear sinister.
For an hour and a half, they peppered the two men with questions about this "taxpayer rip-off," knowing full well that Harrison and Stover would invoke their right to remain silent. Joe McCarthy would have been proud.
The purpose of the hearing -- indeed, the point of manufacturing a Solyndra investigation in the first place -- is to embarrass the president.
Undoubtedly, the Solyndra "scandal" will draw a little blood: There are some embarrassing e-mails showing the White House pushing to get the deal done quickly so it could tout Solyndra's green jobs as part of the stimulus package.
But federal loan programs -- especially loans for innovative energy technologies -- virtually require the government to take risks the private sector won't take.
Risk-taking is what these programs are all about. Sometimes, the risks pay off. Other times, they don't. It's not a taxpayer rip-off if you don't bat 1.000.
The real question the Solyndra case poses is this: Are the potential successes significant enough to negate the inevitable failures?
I have a hard time answering "no." Most electricity today is generated by coal-fired power plants, operated by monopoly, state-regulated utilities.
Because they've been around so long, and because coal is cheap, these plants have built-in cost advantages that no new technology can overcome without help. The federal guarantees help lower the cost of capital for technologies like solar.
To say "no" is also to cede the solar panel industry to China, which last year alone provided some $30 billon in subsidies for its solar industry. Overall, the U.S. solar industry is a big success story; it now employs more people than either steel or coal, and it's a net exporter.
But solar-panel manufacturing is another story. Not so long ago, China made 6 percent of the world's solar panels. Now it makes 54 percent.
The only way America can manufacture competitive solar panels is to come up with innovative technologies that the Chinese can't replicate. Like, for instance, Solyndra's.
At the hearing, several Republican congressmen boasted that they had succeeded in slashing the program that had made the loan to Solyndra. It's true.
But the real winner isn't the U.S. taxpayer or even the House Republicans. It's the Chinese solar industry.
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Ed Fuelner, Heritage Foundation:
Don't assume what happened to the solar-panel company Solyndra is unique. It is the green-jobs fallacy writ large.
Consider how these subsidized companies are funded. Are anxious investors ready to shower dollars on wind and solar power because there's great potential to make more money in this promising field?
Companies such as Solyndra apparently can't get by without money confiscated from you and me. For that matter, they can't even get by with it. That should tell you something about how viable their product is.
Green jobs are few in number, and costly.
"The president's own Council of Economic Advisors admitted recently that only 225,000 clean energy jobs were either created or saved and cost the taxpayer $355,000 per job," Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, writes in U.S. News & World Report.
The green lobby also claims that energy regulations can reduce unemployment. More people have to be hired to help companies comply with the regs, right? But they're overlooking the way the added costs wind up being passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Remember, too, that government spending has to come from somewhere. Money that likely would have been put to a more productive use has been funneled to a politically favored industry.
Simply put, the government is picking winners and losers. Or trying to, at least -- the government record on such efforts is, well, a losing one.