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How the GOP Is Using Solyndra to Kill Clean Energy

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Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison and CFO Bill Stover are sworn in at the beginning of a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last Friday, House Republicans achieved a much-sought-after goal: to criminalize the pursuit of clean energy in America.

Granted, Congress has not yet passed laws to jail entrepreneurs and engineers who dare to develop technology that will reduce the stranglehold that Big Oil and Big Coal have over our lives, but it might not be far away.  If nothing else, last Friday’s hearing in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in which executives of Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar company that blew through $535 million in federal grants and, along the way, made President Obama look like a just another shill for corrupt clean-energy hustlers, was a triumph of political theatre.  There was Brian Harrison, the CEO of Solyndra, and Bill Stover, the company’s chief financial officer, sitting ashen-faced in front of the committee, refusing to answer questions (they pleaded the Fifth) and looking for all the world like stonewalling sleazebags.

Who knows what laws, if any, these guys have broken?  And who knows what tawdry details the unraveling of Solyndra will reveal?  (The New York Times had a good backgrounder last week, and the Los Angeles Times ran a piece this morning that reveals that the federal government was far from the only sucker for Solyndra – private investors like Richard Branson also lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the company’s collapse.)  But at this point, that hardly matters.  House Republicans have already got what they want – video images of the clean-tech entrepreneurs looking like crooks.

They know that most Americans are far too stupid about how Silicon Valley-style capitalism really works – that companies on the cutting edge of innovative new industries like solar (or, a generation ago, PCs or the internet) fail all the time.  That is how good ideas are separated from bad ideas.  In fact, failure is a badge of honor in Silicon Valley – it means at least you got off your ass and tried to make a go of your ideas. 

More importantly, Solyndra didn’t fail because they are crooks, or because they were grossly incompetent.  They failed because they bet on a business model that was dependent upon silicon prices remaining high. (Silicon is used in the construction of most conventional solar cells; Solyndra used glass tubes coated with thin-film materials.) When costs fell, largely because of the success of the solar industry in driving down prices, the company’s business model collapsed.  So in a way, they were victims of the success of the clean-tech revolution, not the poster child for its failure.

Finally, House Republicans know they can use Solyndra to continue whacking Obama as a big-spending Communist who is out of touch with red-blooded American capitalism.  In the coming weeks, you will hear a lot about how government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers, and about how Solyndra was a prime example of the federal government pouring your hard-earned dollars into a half-assed technology that will never amount to more than a cute way for rich liberals to charge their iPads. 

Of course, the truth is the clean tech industry gets a fraction of the federal subsidies that the fat cats in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries have enjoyed over the years.  A new report from a California investment firm makes this clear (PDF):

"As a percentage of inflation-adjusted federal spending, nuclear subsidies accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget over their first 15 years, and oil and gas subsidies made up half a percent of the total budget, while renewables have constituted only about a tenth of a percent. That is to say, the federal commitment to O&G was five times greater than the federal commitment to renewables during the first 15 years of each subsidies’ life, and it was more than 10 times greater for nuclear."


I’m not saying that the Solyndra didn’t make mistakes, or that the Department of Energy shouldn’t have been smarter in how they doled out funding for clean-energy projects. (I happened to have been traveling with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in 2009 at around the time the Solyndra loan was being considered for a Rolling Stone profile – and I can tell you that the Department of Energy was under heavy pressure from the White House to get stimulus funding out the door as quickly as possible.)

But we’re in the middle of a concerted campaign to demonize clean-tech entrepreneurs, one that fits into the grand narrative that fossil fuel apologists and shills have been pushing for several decades now: that America as we know it and love it runs on oil, gas, and coal, and that anyone who says otherwise is a liar, a communist, or a criminal.  House Republicans are already using Solyndra’s failure as an excuse to slash federal loans to clean energy start-ups, as well as plotting a carnival of hearings and investigations that will keep this story in the news for months.

In fact, what’s criminal is not starting a solar company and losing hundreds of millions of dollars. What's criminal is using that failure as an excuse to kill the promise of new jobs and cook the planet.  

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