Not many Republicans in Congress can say that liberal comedian Jon Stewart has complimented them on The Daily Show. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R., Calif.) is one of the few. The seven-term congressman was praised on the show for his well-informed grilling of a Department of Energy executive at last week’s House committee hearing into the Solyndra loan fiasco. “I have no idea what the f**k that congressman from California was talking about,” Stewart said. “But here’s the thing — he does.”
Indeed, Bilbray served up some of the most compelling lines of questioning to Jonathan Silver, executive director of the DOE loans program office. To start, why did the government choose to invest in Solyndra’s “thin-film” solar-panel technology in the first place, when it has historically proven to be one of the most complex, and therefore riskiest, forms of solar technology? Silver, as he did throughout the hearing, ducked and dodged, saying, “I’m not a solar technical analyst.” Neither is Bilbray, but when it comes to solar panels, he knows what he’s talking about.
“Not all solar technology is created equal,” Bilbray tells National Review Online as we chat in his Capitol Hill office. “They started off with a technological choice that was high-risk to begin with.” Modern solar-panel technology, he explains, is based almost entirely on either monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicone cells. So-called “thin-film” technology is much rarer and still in the early stages of development, making it a far riskier investment. But that didn’t stop administration officials from putting taxpayer dollars on the line. “Part of the selling of this was: We have figured out all of the shortfalls of this technology that has always had problems,” Bilbray says. But clearly that wasn’t the case.
Silver and Democrats at last week’s hearing repeatedly argued that the United States needs to invest more in solar energy in order to “keep up with China,” a country that subsidizes its own solar industry at a rate of about $30 billion per year. But almost none of that Chinese funding goes to thin-film technology, Bilbray pointed out. Rather, China is “betting the farm” on the polycrystalline variety, which is not as efficient as thin-film but is less risky and vastly cheaper to produce. In other words, a far safer bet, especially if taxpayer dollars are at stake.
Then there is the question of location. As a native Californian, Bilbray knows a thing or two about Solyndra’s backyard — in particular, the subpar business climate (12 percent unemployment) and onerous regulatory regime in which the company proposed to build a brand-new manufacturing facility, paid for by a $535 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan. Bilbray expounds on the litany of reasons why the decision was ill-advised. For one, electricity costs in California, at 22 cents per kilowatt-hour, are twice as high as in Midwestern states like Ohio, and nearly four times as expensive as in China.
On top of that, California has some of the strictest state and local regulatory regimes in the country in regard to air quality, water quality, storm runoff, occupational safety, hazardous-waste generation, and so on. Regardless, Solyndra proposed to build on 30 acres of virgin farmland in Fremont, Calif. (in the Bay area), on a site that was classified by the EPA as a “non-attainment zone,” meaning that air quality did not meet certain federal standards. That would require Solyndra to present and enact a plan to meet those standards or risk losing some forms of federal assistance.
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.