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Solyndra and Its Defenders

The more green energy advocates either ignore or defend what happened with Solyndra, the worse they look.

3:35 PM, Sep 19, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Over at Reason, Tim Cavanaugh observes that the few defenses being mounted for loaning failed solar company Solyndra $535 million in stimulus funds are really, really wanting. "Democrats appear to be backing into a strategy of vilifying the company (previous efforts to blame perfidious China and wish the story into a cornfield having failed)," he writes.

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Elsewhere they're just ignoring the story. Former White House chief of staff, now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel claims he didn't know anything about the loan, which is highly unlikely, and the fine folks at MSNBC are leaning forward so far that they're falling down on the job. Over the weekend, it was observed that in the over two weeks since the company went belly-up, taking all that taxpayer cash with them, there hasn't been one mention of the scandal on any of the cable news network's primetime programs. 

Still, the award for most obdurate defender of Solyndra has to go to Time's Michael Grunwald. Grunwald, you might recall, was responsible for this less-than-prescient defense of the Solyndra loan this past July: 

But the loan won’t cost the government anything unless Solyndra defaults. And for now the company looks healthier. Shutting down the inefficient older factory and ramping up production in the cutting-edge new factory has driven down costs. Harrison, a former pitcher in the Seattle Mariners organization who spent 24 years at Intel, has also doubled his sales and marketing staff in just the last six months to address the demand problems. Despite all the hubbub about layoffs, Solyndra now employs 166 employees more than it did when Obama visited—and that doesn’t include the 3,000 temporary jobs created during construction.

And yes, sales are recovering. Solyndra had $140 million in revenue last year, and Harrison says it’s on track to double its shipments this year. Skeptics point out that the company’s modules are still more expensive than traditional panels on a cost-per-watt basis, but because they’re so easy to install—they just sit flat on the roof, they interconnect like Legos, and they don’t even require tools, much less a sophisticated mounting and tracking system—Harrison says they’re already competitive on overall cost.  And he believes Solyndra will get much more cost-effective as it expands volume.' ...

As for Solyndra, I can report to the Republicans who seemed so concerned about the company’s viability that it no longer seems to be on the verge of a humiliating collapse. I’m sure they’ll be relieved.

Oops. In fairness to Grunwald, he later served himself some crow -- see "Department of I’m an Idiot: A Solar Company Goes Bust." That was big of him, but as of a few days ago, he was still defending the loan program that responsible for this debacle. "I doubt the facts are going to matter much now that Republicans have latched onto the Solyndra solar 'scandal,' and even if they did matter, I’d be the wrong guy to defend the Obama administration (and some of the world’s top venture capitalists) for making the same honest mistake I made," he wrote last week.

Yes, he really did put scare quotes around the word "scandal." One of the President's major fundraisers, George Kaiser, was one of the biggest investors in the company, and the government restructured the loan earlier this year to prioritize the billionaire fundraiser over taxpayers -- but who says we have a "scandal" on our hands?

And speaking of whether the facts are going to matter much, here's a damning critique by Massimo Calabresi of Grunwald's latest Solyndra defense offered up elsewhere on Time's website:

The talented Mike Grunwald laid out the case yesterday for quarantining Solyndra from the rest of the solar effort. Just because Solyndra’s model failed, he says, doesn’t mean the rest of the push to fund innovation in renewable energy while simultaneously creating much-needed jobs is corrupt or doomed to failure.

It’s really not my area, but I’m skeptical of the idea that wind and solar energy can play a significant role in supplying U.S. energy needs, let alone ultimately displace dirty sources like coal or crude oil. As of 2009, wind and solar combined made up all of 1% of U.S. energy production and 0.8% of consumption, according to this Energy Department report (pdf). Solar taken by itself makes up a whopping 0.1% of total production and 0.1% of consumption. 

Mike says, “The U.S. solar market doubled last year, and it’s expected to double again this year, even though many states are reducing their subsidies.” Says renowned Ag-jobs expert, Foghorn Leghorn: “Two nuthins is nuthin.”

Read the whole thing, especially the bit where Calabresi eviscerates Grunwald's laughable claim that wind power is now a bigger employer than coal. (Even if it were true, it is actually an indictment of green energy. "If it takes that many people to make the equipment to produce 0.7% of America’s energy needs, it’s totally unscalable," as Calabresi observes.)

I realize I'm picking on Grunwald a lot here, even if he did put himself out there. However, it should be noted he merely makes a convienent bad example, as a lot of the arguments he's making pass for conventional wisdom about green policies on the left. It's really just a shame that Grunwald and others defending green jobs policies are so delusional about what's going on here, both on the political and economic fronts.

At this point, anyone attempting to defend Solyndra looks like they're just lashing out. Today, Grunwald's spinning the whole "scandal" as a matter of GOP hypocrisy and I fully expect this argument to pick up steam as those worried about what Solyndra's demise means for the future of green energy continue to grasp at straws. If the charge is that the GOP is also guilty of crony capitalism involving similar programs, there's a good case to make -- but ultimately GOP hypocrisy doesn't mean that the White House shouldn't be held accountable for fast-tracking Solyndra $535 million from the public treasury after one of the major investors raised a bunch of cash for Obama's campaign.

If you really believe that supporting green jobs and other strict environmental policies are necessary, you should be outraged that this program was manipulated for political ends, as it will make it harder to muster any future government economic support for green jobs and green tech.

Grunwald and other sincere green energy supporters got played by lobbyists, rich businessmen and a White House full of Chicago politicians that thinks pay-to-play is the usual way of conducting government business. The more Grunwald and others alternately ignore or disingenuously fail to own up to what's really behind the Solyndra debacle, the worse they look.

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