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Notes From the Solyndra Hearing (Part II)



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Continued from part one.

Why can’t we be more like China? No Tom Friedman didn’t testify today, but he might as well have. Democrats lamented that the United States does not spend, as China does, roughly $30 billion per year (officially) to subsidize its solar power industry. “China [not Solyndra] is the headline,” Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) proclaimed, arguing that in the wake of the company’s collapse the government should be spending more, not less, on speculative “green” technology.

Jonathan Silver, who heads the loans program office at the DOE, defended the taxpayer-funded guarantees to solar and other “green” energy companies as “necessary to compete with China.” As he said in his opening statement: “The race for solar manufacturing jobs is a race worth winning.” Interesting that he emphasized the “jobs” aspect of “green” technology. As Greg Pollowitz points out, the DOE loans programs, by its own accounting, has dished out a total of $38.7 billion and created a whopping 65,578 jobs, which works out to a rate of just under $600,000 per job. And in Silver’s view, a $535 million failure like Solyndra simply “comes with the terrain of backing innovative technologies.” Though he left it out of his spoken testimony, Silver’s written statement includes a quote from JFK (re: the moon mission) to color his argument: “If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sight in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.” 

California Dreamin’. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R., Calif.) had perhaps the most compelling questions for the witnesses (even though they ducked and dodged them all). For instance, why on earth did the administration approve a $535 million loan guarantee for to fund the construction of a new manufacturing facility in California — a state with significant financial problems, 12 percent unemployment, an abundant supply of empty warehouses (a result of businesses “fleeing” the state, Bilbray said), and some of the strictest regulations and permitting requirements in the country?

This was just “absurd,” he said, and raises questions about the competence of the agencies who ultimately approved the loan. Bilbray outlined the litany of permits and regulations a new facility in California would have to comply with, especially since the building site was located on “virgin farm land” and fell within a “non-attainment” zone as classified by the EPA. Because the resulting costs would be quite high, why build a whole new facility, as opposed to renting or retrofitting an existing facility? Or open a new plant in another state? Bilbray asked. Fair questions, but neither witness claimed to know anything about that aspect of the loan decision.

Miscellaneous:

  • Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.), midway through the hearing: “I’m still waiting to see something that makes me concerned.”
  • Markey accused the GOP of trying to “politicize” the Solyndra bankruptcy in an effort to “discredit” the entire clean-energy industry. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) claimed that Republicans are “science deniers” at that explains their opposition to “green” energy.
  • Both witnesses claimed to be “surprised” by the FBI’s decision to search the Solyndra offices, and could think of no reason why the FBI would be investigating the company.
  • Solydra executives Brian Harrison (CEO) and W. G. Stover Jr. (CFO) were both invited to testify at today’s hearing but did not show. According to committee staff, they have agreed to appear before the committee next Friday, September 23, and will not plead the fifth amendment, despite being under investigation.
  • After the hearing, subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (R., Fla.) told reporters that, based on the evidence the committee has received, Energy Secretary Steven Chu should also testify at the hearing next week. “I think at some point you’re going to have to go to the top people and say why did this happen?” Stearns said. “You can’t lose this kind of money, and have the FBI indicate there is criminal activity here and not have somebody fired.” Whether or not that “somebody” is Secretary Chu, the chairman declined to say. Either way, Stearns said the Obama administration ought to launch their own investigation into the matter.
  • Stearns said the committee is “still looking” into whether outside investors like major Democratic donor George Kaiser exerted any undue influence over the loan and/or loan restructuring process. He has sent a letter to the White House asking for additional documents, but has yet to receive a response, he said. Republicans are hoping that next week’s hearing will provide “more concrete evidence of what tie-in there was between the White House and Solyndra and the investors.”


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