In this cauldron of stupidity we call a presidential campaign, the scandal of the minute is Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith’s description of Solyndra as “successful and innovative.” She actually said Solyndra was “widely praised as successful and innovative.” She said this not because she wanted to trend on Twitter, but because Solyndra was, in fact, widely praised as successful and innovative. And if you understand this, you can understand the entire Solyndra pseudo-scandal.
As I write in my upcoming book, The New New Deal, Solyndra was once the toast of Silicon Valley, a hot start-up whose product was not only innovative but revolutionary. It was one of the most successful fund-raisers in the history of clean-tech finance, attracting an astonishing $1 billion from elite investors like British mogul Richard Branson, whose Virgin Green Fund selected Solyndra from a pool of 117 solar companies. When the Bush Administration wanted to complete its first clean-energy loan guarantee before leaving office, it chose Solyndra from 143 applicants. The Energy Department’s civil servants objected to the rush job in January 2009, but suggested the loan had merit; when Obama took over, Solyndra’s application was already at the top of the pile.
Solyndra’s slogan, “The New Shape of Solar,” was more than marketing fluff. Most silicon panels look like tinted windows. Solyndra’s looked like horizontal ladders for lizards. Most panels harvest sunlight with silicon wafers. Solyndra’s relied on a metal mixture called CIGS etched onto elongated glass cylinders. They were more expensive than traditional panels, but they were easy to install, which drove down installation costs; they clicked together like Legos, so they didn’t require elaborate mounting devices, or even tools. The company was burning through cash, and its financials evoked the old joke about losing money on every sale but making it up on volume. But its executives believed a more efficient factory and new economies of scale would slice their production costs, at a time when sky-high silicon prices were brutalizing their competitors.
That’s why the Obama Administration (like the Bush Administration before it) was so eager to finance Solyndra’s state-of-the-art factory in Fremont, California. The company felt like a classic American story of innovation, founded by a Silicon Valley scientist with a background in semiconductors, improving technology originally developed by a national lab, aiming to reinvigorate a U.S.-born manufacturing industry that had fled overseas. Its new factory would create 6,000 construction jobs and 1,800 permanent jobs, while producing enough solar panels to replace a medium-sized coal plant every year. Sure enough, Solyndra’s revenues soared from $6 million in 2008 to $140 million in 2010, and were on track to double again in 2011. Some of us thought the company had a good chance to survive.
Of course, it didn’t, which made some of us look stupid. Silicon prices plummeted, so Solyndra’s business plan imploded, and the company defaulted on its $585 million loan. It spent too much silly money and made too many arrogant mistakes, but it probably would have been doomed no matter what it did in an era of cheap solar. And remember, cheap solar is a good thing.
There has never been the slightest bit of evidence that political influence had anything to do with Solyndra getting its money. Even Darrell Issa, the top Republican investigator in the House, has admitted that. Every lender makes bad loans, and overall, the federal clean-energy loan portfolio is doing fine. But the idea of the feds giving half a billion dollars to a company that goes bankrupt sounds so shocking that people naturally assume there must be a corrupt explanation. So Republicans have seized on the fact that one major Solyndra investor, George Kaiser, was an Obama fundraiser, ignoring the fact that the Republican donors in the Walton family were also major investors, and that the Bush team was just as gung-ho about the loan. Solyndra has become the centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s “crony capitalism” attacks on the Obama White House.
Skepticism is understandable, in the absence of an alternative explanation. But there is an alternative explanation: Solyndra was a potentially transformative company, “widely praised as successful and innovative.” It was a calculated risk that went sour. That’s a shame, but it’s not a scandal.