All told, the site chosen for the Solyndra facility was perhaps one of the most expensive pieces of land in the country, and certainly one of the most burdensome locations to operate a business. Bilbray points out that these are exactly the sorts of considerations most investors take into account before financing a new facility. It would have been within the DOE’s authority to attach conditions to a loan guarantee — for example, by insisting that the beneficiary move to a more favorable location. When Bilbray asked Silver at the hearing whether the DOE ever questioned this aspect of Solyndra’s loan application, Silver replied that while he wasn’t at DOE at the time the loan was approved (a convenient and oft-repeated out), Solyndra’s investors and management team “must have concluded that it was the right place to do it.”
But putting all that aside, Bilbray is astonished that no one appears to have second-guessed the decision to build a new facility in the first place, which he calls “absurd.” With the number of Bay-Area start-ups constantly in flux, and with businesses “fleeing the state” in search of more favorable economic conditions, there is no shortage of facilities available to be rented or retrofitted to accommodate even high-tech companies like Solyndra.
Bilbray suspects that costs weren’t taken into account in this case because, as far as the administration was concerned, cost wasn’t an issue. “Part of the reason it was chosen was as more stimulus,” he says. “Which means we don’t worry about the cost-effectiveness. Throwing money at the economic crisis is an answer in itself. The taxpayer should be really nervous about that.”
Democrats at last week’s hearing accused Republicans of being “science-deniers” attempting to exploit Solyndra’s failure in order to discredit the entire “green” industry. But in Bilbray’s case especially, those claims couldn’t be any more off-base. As a self-professed supporter of solar energy who thinks tapping Steven Chu for secretary of energy was “probably one of the best choices this president has made,” Bilbray is not the Republican caricature the other side likes to portray. In fact, Bilbray shares Democrats’ concerns that the Solyndra debacle could end up setting back the solar industry, though for slightly different reasons.
At this point, Bilbray remains unconvinced that the Solyndra case involves “conscious corruption” on the part of the administration. “I see it as being a much deeper problem,” he says. “And that is a naivety of approaching science as if it’s a theology — green technology is all good, it’s all going to be great and it’s all going to make money. It’s this blind faith that green technology, no matter what it is, is going to be a boon, that is the greatest threat for future solar.”
It is eerily reminiscent, he adds, of the zealous frenzy in the past over alternative fuels like ethanol. “Now everybody except the people who have sold their souls knows what a disaster that has been,” he says. So while the administration may not have committed an actual crime with respect to its involvement with Solyndra, they certainly made some appalling decisions. “They were felony dumb,” Bilbray says. “What scares me is, how many other projects are being pushed by a political perception that it is good for politics and that it will always work out?”
— Andrew Stiles is a National Review Online political reporter.