We have seen the future, and it went bankrupt.
If the praises of high-ranking Obama-administration officials were a viable business plan, the solar-panel maker Solyndra would be an industrial juggernaut. Vice President Biden insisted that the jobs created by the California-based firm would “allow America to compete and to lead like we did in the 20th century.”
In a visit to Solyndra in May 2010, President Obama called it “a testament to American ingenuity and dynamism.” He all but redefined the traditional statement of Americanness to encompass motherhood, apple pie, and the conversion of sunlight into electricity through cylindrical thin-film solar cells, the specialty of Solyndra.
Obama and Biden were literally invested in Solyndra’s success. The company got a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee, the first in a highly vaunted Department of Energy green-jobs program, as part of the stimulus. This was supposed to be the new economic model: government and its favored industries cooperating to lead the country into a green, politically approved recovery.
The showcase firm is now filing for Chapter 11 in an embarrassing blow to the premises of Obamanomics. At least the Obama administration can’t be accused of practicing industrial policy the old-fashioned way and picking winners. It is evidently quite ready to pick losers, too.
A Department of Energy spokesman explained wanly, “The company was considered extraordinarily innovative as recently as 2010.” Innovative, maybe; profitable, no. It had never turned a profit since its founding in 2005. In the still “extraordinarily innovative” year of 2010, it canceled an attempted IPO and axed its CEO.
Plenty of venture capitalists made foolish bets on Solyndra, but the federal government was the most reckless. The Obama administration wanted to throw money at the likes of Solyndra without due diligence, or much diligence at all. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office warned that the Energy Department loan program — created in a 2005 energy bill — had inadequate safeguards.
Nonetheless, within 60 days of becoming energy secretary, Steven Chu put Uncle Sam on the hook for Solyndra. According to the Wall Street Journal, $527 million of the $535 million federal loan has been drawn down, with a bankruptcy court set to determine how much the feds will recover. Chu is fortunate that taxpayers can’t bring shareholder lawsuits against the federal government.
President Bush was flayed for the Enron bankruptcy, based on his tenuous ties to the firm. If the same media rules applied, Solyndra would be Obama’s Enron, given his active promotion of the company and his lavish funding of it. A prodigious Obama-Biden fundraiser is a major backer of the failed concern.
Solyndra’s crash comes during a wave of solar bankruptcies. The government’s enthusiasm for solar power far outstripped that of consumers. Spain provided something of a precursor. It massively subsidized a solar-power industry that collapsed when the government realized its generosity was unsustainable and cut back. One Spanish newspaper had a headline, “Spain admits that the green economy sold to Obama is a ruin.”
China is picking up the pieces. Not only does China coddle solar firms, it inherently is a lower-cost manufacturing environment. Its cheap, simple solar panels are more marketable than the more sophisticated version attempted by Solyndra. Our subsidies for the purchase of solar panels are often used to buy Chinese products. Inevitably, the U.S. solar industry will seek to score the trifecta of government support already achieved by the boondoggle fuel ethanol — subsidizing its production, mandating its use, and barring its foreign competitors.
The stakes in the battle to manufacture solar panels are exceedingly small. Solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of the electricity generated in the United States. The Obama administration’s fervency for it has more to do with the romance of its clean, postindustrial image than with economics. Obama said last year, “The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra.” If that were so, it never would have needed half a billion of our dollars in the first place.
— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.