Green ‘Gate: Solyndra Bankruptcy Puts Microscope on Green Investments

The “Solyndra scandal” is not, at its core, a political scandal, and it should not be con­sidered a signal that the government should halt funding for renewable energy companies and research.

Much of Washington, D.C. is in uproar about the bankruptcy of a California-based solar energy company named Solyndra. The company, which manufactures solar panels, was given $527 million in federal loans as part of the 2009 stimulus package by President Obama. Yet this August, the company declared bankruptcy, which will cost taxpayers an estimated half a billion dollars.

The company went under primarily because of the changing state of the solar equip­ment market in the last year or so. Solyndra’s solar panels are manufactured without silicon, but as the price of silicon dropped within the last few years, China began to produce more and more solar panels with silicon at a much cheaper price. Solyndra’s product was too expensive to compete against products from China. At the same time, the demand for solar equipment fell within the last year, especially in Europe, making it a poor market to try to sell solar panels in.

Many politicians in D.C., primarily Republicans, are trying to paint the Solyndra story as a scandal, claiming that Democrats ignored warnings early on that the company would fail and that the loan was only given out in the first place because of political influence within the capital.

But this case should be considered a mix of poor judgment and random misfortune, not a scandal. The claims that this case is partially the result of poor judgment should not be refuted; e-mails released this week are evidence that the decision to fund Solyndra was rushed in 2009. It is clear that Democrats tried to push the loan as part of the stimu­lus package without taking enough time to realize what a financial mess the company was internally.

But it was also a case of misfortune. Who could have predicted the massive change in the solar equipment industry within the last few years, especially the dramatic drop in price of solar panels?

There is also no evidence that the company was chosen for the loan because of politi­cal influence, other than the fact that the company hired lobbyists while it was trying to attain the loan. Republicans are currently making an investigation, but is unlikely that anything scandalous will be revealed. Although the government choosing Solyndra for a loan without more inspection was not a smart decision, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Solyndra case a scandal.

But even more importantly, many are claiming that this is evidence that govern­ment funds should not be given to renewable energy companies and research. Yes, one of the government’s primary investments in solar panels has failed, and this doesn’t look good for the Democratic Party and Obama. But one failed investment should not be a sign that all investments in renewable energies will be unsuccessful. Solyndra only accounted for two percent of the loan guarantees for innovative com­panies made by Obama in 2009. Of course, not all of these investments were going to be success stories.

“The failure of a single company – and anyone who knows anything about transfor­mative technologies know there will be failures – is no reason to stop our efforts to catch up [with China and Germany],” the New York Times wrote in an editorial on September 24, 2011.

The case of Solyndra’s bankruptcy is unfortunate, and it is a warning signal that the government needs to investigate the finances of companies before rushing into doling out loans. But Solyndra should be considered neither a political scandal nor proof that funding renewable energy is a bad investment.

Contact Cassidy Holahan at [email protected].