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And remember Solyndra? That's the solar panel company that went bankrupt three years ago amid much publicity. It defaulted on a $535 million Department of Energy loan. The agency had a few other high-profile bankruptcies too, including electric car company Fisker, but now the Energy Department has made up all those losses and as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, more successful investments are turning a profit.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Investing in new clean energy technology is risky but that's exactly what the Department of Energy's loan program was designed to do. Each project could end up worth billions or nothing. Still, when Solyndra went bust, Republicans on Capitol Hill blamed the Obama administration.
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REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SCALISE: This is disgusting. I hope you'll go back in your agency and have some heads roll. People need to be held accountable.
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SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI: We have a colossal failure within the Department of Energy.
BRADY: That was Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise and Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity piled on with this television ad.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wealthy donors with ties to Solyndra give Obama hundreds of thousands of dollars. What does Obama give them in return? Half a billion in taxpayer money to help his friends at Solyndra.
BRADY: There was an FBI raid on Solyndra's headquarters but so far, no prosecutions and now that the loan program is back in the black, those critics are silent. They either declined or ignored NPR's request for an interview. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz wants to change your perception of his agency's loan program.
ERNEST MONIZ: It literally kick-started the whole utility scale photovoltaic industry.
BRADY: Moniz says the program funded the first five huge solar projects in the West. Before that solar developers couldn't get money from private lenders but with proven business models, now they can and Moniz says his agency actively watches all the companies in its portfolio for default risks.
MONIZ: And when there are warning flags, then the disbursements are suspended - possibly ended - but certainly suspended.
BRADY: Energy Department losses from those early loans totaled about $780 million. The program has collected $810 million in interest payments, putting it $30 million in the black, but Moniz says making a profit isn't the only priority.
MONIZ: We have to be careful that we don't walk away from risk because otherwise, we're not going to really advance the marketplace.
BRADY: For example, Beacon Power. It was jump-started by an Energy Department loan, went bankrupt and defaulted on about $14 million in debt but today, the company is back in business providing a valuable service and repaying the rest of its loan. In eastern Pennsylvania, one of its plants sits on four acres in an industrial park. CEO Barry Brits says his company uses something called flywheels to store electricity.
BARRY BRITS: We're really recycling excess energy that's on the power grid and then putting it back into the grid when it's needed.
BRADY: The flywheels look like big batteries - black, seven feet tall, three feet around and weighing 2,000 pounds.
BRITS: Essentially we are mechanical battery. What's unique about the flywheel is that it really is unlimited in terms of the numbers of times it can charge and discharge.
BRADY: Storing electricity is important because wind and solar generators only produce power when the sun is out and the wind is blowing. The flywheels make easier to connect these intermittent renewable sources of power to the grid, where they can replace fossil fuel-generated electricity.
Brits says the government loan allowed his company to improve its flywheels.
BRITS: Our technology is now well proven. We have over 7 million operating hours on our technology. Our cost has reduced significantly. It is less than 50 percent of what it was three years ago.
BRADY: Overall, the Department of Energy says the loss rate for its loan program has been low - about two-and-a-quarter percent - and the agency is ready to invest in more projects that could advance clean energy technology in the U.S. The agency says it has about $40 billion to lend in coming years.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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