Solyndra Flop May Cost Taxpayers, Embarrass Obama

The bankruptcy of solar energy company Solyndra is being investigated by the FBI. The company received government loans and President Obama's endorsement in 2009. During a House hearing Wednesday, Republicans attacked the administration's decision to fund Solyndra. Democrats defended the loan program and accused Republicans of trying to twist the story for political gain.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The investigation of a failed solar energy firm has several layers.

GREENE: First, there's the financial loss. President Obama's administration loaned $500 million to Solyndra, which soon went bankrupt.

INSKEEP: Next, there's the politics. Republicans question the motives for the loan.

GREENE: Then there are competing visions of government. The Obama administration and its Democratic allies want to promote renewable energy, even if some investments don't work out.

INSKEEP: Republicans say they doubt the government's ability to do that, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi heard at a House hearing.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Here are the facts about Solyndra. It received a $535 million government loan guarantee, as well as money from private investors. It broke ground two years ago, when President Obama hailed the company as a clean energy alternative that would help create American jobs.

In February, the troubled company renegotiated its loan with investors. And just over two weeks ago, Solyndra shut down operations, laid off 1100 employees and filed for bankruptcy. The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation.

But among members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, there are two very different narratives about what actually happened at Solyndra. Congressman Cliff Stearns related the Republican version of events.

Representative CLIFF STEARNS: What we've established is that the credit committee, during the Bush administration, found the Solyndra deal to be premature and remanded it for further work.

NOGUCHI: After Obama took office, Stearns argued, the White House forced through the deal, pressuring the Energy Department to approve the loan guarantee. Then, as the company faltered, the administration renegotiated the loan to the advantage of Solyndra's private investors, which included a big Obama fundraiser.

Republicans painted the administration as being, on the one hand, too involved with Solyndra's funding. And, on the other, of being asleep at the switch as Solyndra fell apart.

Kansas Republican Mike Pompeo pilloried administration officials for not being able to foresee that China was making solar panels for much cheaper, undercutting Solyndra's market.

Representative MIKE POMPEO: So the globe succeeded in reducing the price, but the American taxpayers lost half a billion dollars by us trying to pick a particular business.

NOGUCHI: Democrats countered with their own version of the Solyndra story. Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette.

Representative DIANA DEGETTE: The documents and briefings that I've reviewed showed that the Department of Energy in both the Bush and Obama administrations supported Solyndra's loan guarantee application.

NOGUCHI: Jonathan Silver is director of the Energy Department's loan program and testified at the hearing. He said the government cannot ensure that every business it provides funding to succeeds. He acknowledged this was a bad outcome, but said creating new industries means accepting some risks.

JONATHAN SILVER: This isn't picking winners and losers. It's helping ensure that we have winners here at all. We invented this technology and we should produce it here.

NOGUCHI: Silver attributed Solyndra's failure in large part to competition from China. He said China offered 20 times more subsidies to its solar companies.

California Democrat Henry Waxman said Republicans are using Solyndra to demonize President Obama's green energy investments and to benefit big oil.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN: Republicans on this committee oppose putting a market price on carbon emissions, they oppose EPA regulation of carbon pollution, and now they oppose government investment that promote clean energy alternatives.

NOGUCHI: Yet another version of events on what happened at Solyndra may soon emerge. Company executives are expected to testify in another hearing as early as next week.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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