Two weeks ago an American solar company declared bankruptcy. It was one of three U.S. solar companies to go under in a month, but this one was special. Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer, risked losing as much as $528 million in taxpayer money the day it shuttered its Freemont, Calif., factory and is now calling into question the integrity of the government’s loan guarantee program for renewable energies.
But while the evidence continues to prove that gambling millions in taxpayer money on a company that made just $3 for a product that took $7 to produce was rather unwise, it doesn’t look like the one bad apple has ruined the whole orchard of green energy investments.
“I think renewable energy remains one of the best long-term investments one can make as long as you’re careful to pick your companies,” said Garvin Jabusch, chief investment officer at Green Alpha Advisers, which focuses on environmentally sustainable investments. “If some companies go bankrupt, this is just normal capitalism.”
But the Energy Department argues the bankruptcy is not emblematic of the entire loan program. The solar company loan represents about 1.3 percent of the entire loan guarantee program, which was a $2.4 billion initiative created under the 2009 Recovery Act to support the new green technology investments, which can be risky. Under the program, the government does not actually pay out any money, but guarantees that if the company fails, Treasury will repay the private loan.
“What this program is intended to do is leverage private sector capital towards innovative clean energy technology that can help American manufacturing remain competitive, but might not otherwise receive project financing on the open market,” said Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Energy Department. “Congress recognized that investing in innovative tech carries intrinsic amount of risk.”
The Solyndra bankruptcy is not symptomatic of the entire solar industry either, Jabusch said. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the solar market nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010 and is anticipated to add about 24,000 jobs, a 26 percent increase, over the next year.
“They were doing something different and new that nobody else was doing,” he said. “It’s like somebody came out with a new three-wheeled kind of car and hoped for it to grow rapidly. You’re going against the mainstream for that industry.”
And production of solar panels did grow rapidly, but in China, not America. According to the Energy Department, the Chinese government poured $33 billion into its solar industry in 2010, allowing Chinese companies to produce solar panels at a fraction of the cost that American companies like Solyndra were paying.
When the price for solar products fell significantly due, in part, to the flood of cheaper Chinese products, Solyndra could not cut costs fast enough to keep up, Jabusch said.
“The Department of Energy got caught out by that change,” he said. “They weren’t staying on top of the market enough to realize that Solyndra was not going to be able to remain competitive. That sort of event in investment management happens all the time.”
But the difference was that the Solyndra investment was made with taxpayer money, money that some conservatives think should never have been spent in the first place.
“What Solyndra really speaks to is the large issue of how government intervention can sort of hide the normal profit-and-loss signals that direct private investors,” said Lachlan Markay, an investigative reporter with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
He said the public nature of the company’s bankruptcy will act as a “force against future investments, but won’t be the nail in the coffin for green technology.”
Richard W. Caperton, a senior policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, said there was little chance that the Solyndra bankruptcy will put a damper on government subsidies for renewable energy. Ending the programs would be “almost impossible,” he said, because “there are so many success stories.”
And while the scandal may not be a big driver on the policy side, it could definitely be a big player in the politics of President Obama’s re-election.
“Unfortunately the Solyndra default is blood in the water,” said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project. “And I think the loan guarantee will be elevated into the cross-hairs of political battles.”