I got an email from a reader recently taking me to task for my lack of comment about Solyndra, the Northern California solar company that went bankrupt at the end of August and is now at the center of a political feeding frenzy in Congress and the media.
The Republicans clearly smell blood and the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, President Barack Obama and solar technology in general are the bait.
Are there balanced views to be had out there?
A good starting point is Brad Plumer’s blog post “Five myths about the Solyndra collapse” on The Washington Post website, which does a lot of wheat and chaff separating, from the White House’s role in pushing the loan approval (a qualified maybe) to whether we can blame it all on China (convenient, but no).
The key point he makes is on the question of whether the government should be involved in renewable energy financing.
Plumer writes: “Actually, there’s reason to think the private market is drastically under-investing in new energy technology. As a new report from the American Energy Innovation Council lays out, the utility sector spends just 0.1 percent of its revenues on R&D — the average for U.S. industries is 3.5 percent. The electricity sector is heavily regulated and capital-intensive — power plants last for decades and turn over slowly — and hence tends to focus less on innovation. What’s more, many objectives that may be in the public interest, such as reducing carbon emissions, aren’t fully valued in the marketplace right now.
“As such, the AEIC report concludes, “Energy innovation should be a higher national priority.” Right now, the federal government spends a middling amount on energy research (about $3 billion in 2009), compared with the sums lavished on the National Institutes of Health ($36.5 billion) or defense research ($77 billion). And the AEIC report recommends public support for all aspects of the innovation process, from basic research to pilot projects to helping companies commercialize their products. (Solyndra was in that last phase.)”
Marian Wang on Pro Publica also has put together a good recap of what’s happened to date, with lots of links to primary documents such as the Republicans’ investigation released Wednesday and the Government Accountability Office’s 2010 report on the DOE loan guarantee program.
Wang’s most trenchant observation comes on the issue of the U.S. government’s track record as an investor:
“Ultimately,” she writes, “Solyndra was a failed investment decision on the part of the government, which, unfortunately for taxpayers, isn’t unusual. Consider the billions in bailout dollars that were lent to banks that, like Solyndra, ended up bankrupt.”
Along the same lines, GreenTech Media has a chart comparing the government’s loss on Solyndra to the billions it’s shelled out for military boondoggles. I tried to download it so I could include it in this post, but it’s just too big, so get a look by clicking here.
I could probably spend the rest of the day on the Internet reviewing the Solyndra press, but I’ll end here with a link to Darren Samuelsohn’s piece on Politico.com, talking with renewable energy leaders and other political folk about the public relations’ nightmare the scandal has created for the clean energy industry in general.
Paul Bledsoe of the Bipartisan Policy Center gets to the heart of the matter with his argument that the main misstep for Obama and the Democrats was to promote the loan guarantee program as a jobs creator.
As quoted in Samuelsohn’s article, Bledsoe said renewable energy advocates are suffering from unfair expectations and budget debates best described as “famine-feast-famine.”
“The real problem was trying to sell incentives for clean energy narrowly on the basis of a green jobs program,” he said. “I think that put a level of expectation on the sector that was unrealistic and was never really the primary focus on incentives for clean energy in the early years.”
With the stimulus funding, “you try to get a decade worth of funding done in 18 months,” Bledsoe added. “It’s inevitable there are going to be mistakes.”
Which is not to say that the green economy — including solar, wind and green building– is not creating jobs, as noted in an email blast the Natural Resources Defense Council sent out on Solyndra.
Some of the figures:
– In 2009, there were 2.2 million green jobs in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By July of this year, the number was 2.7 million, according to the Brookings Institution. That compares with 375,000 jobs mining coal, producing oil and gas and turning fossil fuels into consumer products.
– About 87,000 Americans now support their families by designing, building or installing wind turbines, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, we’re getting 3.3 percent of our electricity from wind, according to August data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Texas, the oil capital of the world, now gets 8 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, and those projects are helping to keep ranchers and farmers viable as well.
– As of 2005, green building projects in the U.S. were worth about $3 billion a year. Today it’s about $54 billion. In 2015, this will be a $145-billion market, according to McGraw Hill Construction. By then, green construction will support as many as 8 million American jobs, according to estimates by Booz Allen.