Not Much Fanfare Now That Solyndra Loan Program Promise Is Fulfilled

January 3rd, 2015 · No Comments · energy policy, environment, journalism, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

During years of constant claims by conservatives – parroted by media like the Albuquerque Journal – the name “Solyndra” became shorthand for a fool’s errand, both in terms of the promise of green alternative energy and the Obama administration’s encouragement of it.

So, now that the federal loan program behind Solyndra has been proven a tremendous success – $5 billion in earnings to the federal government! Tens of thousands of jobs! – the Journal at least has run that information, even if its placement at the bottom of the business page isn’t quite equal to the frequent front-page coverage the multiple “failure” stories received.

And while the Journal headline on the Associated Press story it ran Tuesday (Dec. 30) is technically correct, it doesn’t convey the story’s information about just how successful the federal green energy loan program of 2009 has been.

First, let’s look at how other media outlets headlined their versions of the same success story. From Businessweek:

“U.S. Expects $5 Billion From Program That Funded Solyndra”

From the Washington Post:

“Remember Solyndra? Those loans are making money”

Here’s the Journal’s headline:

“Green-energy program overcomes Solyndra flop”

Now, as a long-time headline writer, I can see the value of “flop” – it’s short; it fits.

But to the conditioned news follower, “Solyndra flop” carries negative weight that almost prevents the reader from bothering to read the story that follows it. And in this case, the success story merits greater emphasis precisely because the Department of Energy green energy loans received so much bad press in the past.

Not only was the loan program successful for the government (and therefore, for the taxpayers). Those who were exposed to the Solyndra failure stories might be surprised to learn that Solyndra was just one of several companies that applied for the federally backed stimulus money. And Solyndra wasn’t the only one that failed to thrive.

As the AP reminded us:

Besides Solyndra, three other subsidized companies went bust at a cost of $780 million. Critics, especially Republicans in Congress, seized on it as an example of government waste.

And that is why the media, like the Journal, ran so many stories about Solyndra – because it was running stories about those hearings.

But now, roughly six years later, there are signs the loan program is working and that the default rate on those loans was extremely low, according to the AP feature story about Abengoa , a highly successful, environment friendly biorefinery in Kansas (the shortened version of which appeared in the Journal). Again, from that story:

In California, Tesla Motors has flourished, paying back a $465 million loan nearly 10 years early. A handful of companies have opened solar energy sites and signed long-term contracts to sell power to utility companies.

And then there is the Abengoa biorefinery in Hugoton, where Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came in October for the opening. He was joined by two Kansas officials who voted against the stimulus package: Republicans Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback, a former senator.

“This program, let me say, not only here in Hugoton, but across the board has been a tremendous success,” Moniz said. “I mentioned $30 billion in loans with a 2 percent default rate – that is pretty enviable in any portfolio.”

So, the federal green energy stimulus program has had a 2 percent default rate. And, according to the AP story, “the Department of Energy claims the program has created or saved roughly 35,000 jobs.”

This is a quite different perspective from that provided in the barrage of failure stories carried by the media, and flies in the face of the conservative mantra that clean energy is a government-supported boondoggle (but that tax breaks for the fossil fuels industry are good).

Some contend that even though Solyndra went into bankruptcy, the government’s loan guarantee program was, as promised by the administration, a success in terms of promoting the emerging green energy industry.

As a Scientific American article put it in 2011:

. . .bankruptcy is no mark of shame in either Silicon Valley or the solar industry, where ideas can fail for any number of reasons, including the so-called “Valley of Death” between venture capital funding and a revenue stream from commercial sales.

. . . Solyndra turned out to be an answer to a problem that no longer exists: expensive silicon solar panels. That means Solyndra’s bankruptcy is actually good news, like (Solyndra founder Chris) Gronet promised — electricity derived from sunshine is getting cheaper . . . . The falling price of highly refined sand may have doomed Solyndra, but it may also help fulfill the promise of solar power.

And the progressive Campaign for America’s Future puts it in even more positive terms :

The purpose of the government’s involvement was to help trigger the development of green-energy manufacturing in the United States, not to help individual companies. This was not a direct investment in a company with the expectation of a profit for the government.

In the bigger picture of promoting American leadership in the emerging green-energy industry the government’s loan guarantee was a success. Even though Solyndra’s investors lost out, our country retains the trained skilled employees, the intellectual property, the innovators funded, the suppliers, and the factory. As components of a national effort to trigger a key strategic industry, those are all still there and in the U.S.

In other words, despite the individual failure of Solyndra, the federal loan program is accomplishing its mission and the future of solar is bright — in terms of its technology and workability, that is. It is still under constant attack from the non-renewable energy sector and the well-paid think tanks and political groups associated with those types of fuels. But that’s fodder for another post.

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