Solyndra was a startup solar-power equipment manufacturer based in Fremont, California that went bankrupt at the end of August. The company's solar collectors used a special tubular internal design that let it collect light from all directions, and were made with a copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) thin film that avoided using then-expensive silicon. It was one of several companies that received assistance from the government, in an attempt to push back on China's strategic targeting of green-energy manufacturing.
The company, partly backed by the conservative Walton family had received a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The loan, which was originally pushed by the Bush administration, was 1.3% of the DOE portfolio.
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The economy tanked and cut demand, and at the same time Solyndra could not compete with subsidized companies located in China as they rapidly scaled up. So Solyndra ran out of money. Conservatives and oil interests are using the bankruptcy as a platform to attack green energy and the idea of green jobs in general, solar power in particular, President Obama as always, stimulus funding and the idea of developing a national strategic industrial policy to push back on China and others who have their own national policies to win this key industry of the future.
Conservative are accusing the Obama administration of corruption in choosing Solyndra to receive a government loan guarantee. The typical conservative-outlet story follows a template of Glenn-Beckian accusations that someone “connected to” Obama has “ties” to something. When you hear the phrasing “has ties to” you should understand this as code-speak for “has nothing to do with but can be made to appear to have some sinister involvement if you twist the wording a certain way.”
Example template story: Bankrupt solar company with fed backing has cozy ties to Obama admin,
A solar energy company that intends to file for bankruptcy received $535 million in backing from the federal government and has a cozy history with Democrats and the Obama administration, campaign finance records show.
Shareholders and executives of Solyndra, a green energy company producing solar panels, fundraised for and donated to the Obama administration to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser, a key Obama backer who raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for the president’s election campaign, is one of Solyndra’s primary investors. Kaiser himself donated $53,500 to Obama’s 2008 election campaign, split between the DSCC and Obama For America. Kaiser also made several visits to the White House and appeared at some White House events next to Obama officials.
Campaign finance records show Kaiser and Solyndra executives and board members donated $87,050 total to Obama’s election campaign.
And now, just two years after securing a half-billion-dollar federal loan, Solyndra has said that it will declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
(Hold on to this part about Tulsa billionaire Kaiser as an investor for later.)
Another: Big Government, Sweethearts: Bankrupt Solar Power Firm Well Connected to White House, “Obama’s stimulus money handouts carry the stench of political favoritism.”
Another: Hot Air: How did Solyndra get a sweetheart interest rate?
FOX News has been promoting this “scandal” story heavily. (It should be noted here that Fox's parent company News Corp's 2nd-largest shareholder is oil billionaire Saudi Prince al-Waleed – an “oil interest” if ever there was one.) For example, FOX News, a template story with the ever-hopeful conservative headline: Obama's Pet Billionaire at Solyndra May Take White House Down,
A high profile, politically well-connected California solar energy company that had won a $535 million loan guarantee from the Obama Administration declared bankruptcy earlier this month and closed its doors sending 1100 workers to the unemployment line. The demise of Solyndra has already sparked an FBI investigation, congressional hearings, and raised numerous questions of political cronyism and corruption connected to the highest levels of the Obama Administration.
… One of the company's largest investors, George B. Kaiser of Tulsa, reportedly contributed $53,500 personally and bundled large amounts more for Obama in 2008. Kaiser is a billionaire with banking and oil and gas interests that rank him among the wealthiest people in the world. Kaiser also visited the White House 16 times between 2009 and 2011.
Etc., the story is repeated with various twists and added allegations throughout the conservative misinformation engine.
Jumps To “Mainstream”
As so often happens with the conservative machine, the story as spun by the right is jumping to “mainstream” news outlets. For example, this ABC story by Mathew Mosk, formerly of the Washington Times, and others, Emails: Obama White House Monitored Huge Loan to 'Connected' Firm pushes the conservative line, calling the firm “politically connected” and, reminiscent of Clinton-era Whitewater reporting, uses “investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee” — in other words, conservative operatives — as a source. The story claims the White House “closely monitored” Solyndra but offers no evidence of “close monitoring,” says the company is the “subject of a criminal investigation” without explaining that the investigation is into whether the company misled the government about its financial status which would mean that administration officials did not knowingly provide a loan to a failing company, claims that a prominent Obama donor is “an investor” even though the donor's family foundation is the investor, which means the donor had nothing to gain, and to further the appearance of a sinister scheme by the Obama administration to hand money to political allies leaves out the financial involvement of the conservative Walton family. From ABC,
Newly uncovered emails show the White House closely monitored the Energy Department's deliberations over a $535 million government loan to Solyndra, the politically-connected solar energy firm that recently went bankrupt and is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
The company's solar panel factory was heralded as a centerpiece of the president's green energy plan — billed as a way to jump start a promising new industry. And internal emails uncovered by investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee that were shared exclusively with ABC News show the Obama administration was keenly monitoring the progress of the loan, even as analysts were voicing serious concerns about the risk involved.
Background Of Corruption Allegations
Before looking at whether the Obama administration really had “ties to” people who had “ties to” Solyndra who somehow “benefited from” government loan guarantees, let's have a bit of a refresher on our recent history.
Under President Bush, conservative movement partners as well as companies and people with financial ties to Bush administration figures regularly received lucrative contracts under less-than-transparent circumstances that had every direct appearance of (forget “ties to”) of corruption and cronyism. For example, Koch Submits Winning Bid To Supply Additional Oil to Strategic Reserve,
Koch Supply & Trading, LP, one of the world's largest crude oil trading companies, will become the newest supplier of crude oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) under President Bush's plan, announced last November, to fill the nation's emergency oil stockpile to its full capacity by 2005.
Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse, the former chief oversight official of contracts at the Army Corps of Engineers, has reached a $970,000 settlement six years after she was demoted for publicly criticizing a multi-billion-dollar, no-bid contract to Halliburton—the company formerly headed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Greenhouse had accused the Pentagon of unfairly awarding the contract to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root. Testifying before Congress in June 2005, she called the contract the worst case of government abuse she had ever witnessed in her 20-year career.
Example, Bush's Housing Secretary was caught awarding contracts based on party affiliation: Probe Finds Jackson Urged Favoritism in HUD Contracts,
An inspector general's report charges that top U.S. housing official Alphonso Jackson urged staff members to favor friends of President Bush when awarding Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts.
Attacking Green Manufacturing
The Solyndra accusations are really just one part of an ongoing conservative and oil-interests-funded anti-green-manufacturing campaign drumbeat. Long before Solyndra's bankruptcy the Heritage Foundation was running stories like 2008's Green Jobs Are Con Jobs, 2009's The Green Job Myth Exposed, and this year's Obama’s “Green Jobs” Pipe Dream, The Green Jobs Story Obama Doesn’t Want You to Hear, Are “Green Jobs” the Answer?, Are Green Jobs ‘Gone with the Wind’?…
Media Matters had previously exposed the nature of this ongoing effort, in Heritage Foundation Green Jobs Panel – Bought and Paid For By ExxonMobil,
Instead of showcasing the views of unbiased academics and economists, the Heritage Foundation put forth a panel of individuals financially connected to ExxonMobil.
… The ENTIRE PANEL Received Money From ExxonMobil.
More conservative-outlet examples include the ever-malignant Fox News: Solyndra Investigation Begins Critical Look at Federally Funded Green Ventures.
Other conservative outlets continue the drumbeat, Obama’s green dream hurting U.S. taxpayers by Linda Chavez.
Obama has become tiresome. He is over-exposed. He has overstayed his welcome. We can hear the clichés that will be laced through his speech even before he speaks — the opposite of an echo. The promises will be there — what else can he sell? Certainly not his record on the economy.
He has always been a snake oil salesman; such people always tempt the needy with promises of great things to come. So we will once more hear him tout his policies as creating legions of new “green jobs” while making America the world leader in green energy. We have heard it before. He must either think we are stuck on stupid or he is the one stuck on stupid. This policy has clearly been one giant Green Jobs Con Job.
NewsMax: Green Jobs Spending Is a Waste of Greenbacks, “If the congressional “supercommittee” wants to cut wasteful spending, the green-jobs agenda is a great place to start.”
And more and more and more and more…
What Really Happened
A very good summary of the whole story, as well as a look into the details of the investment can be found in the Time/Swampland Michael Grunwald story, Big Name Investors Behind Obama’s Failed Green Tech Bet First in Line to Recoup Losses, summary: (read the whole thing)
This is sure to play out as a scandal, but based on what we know so far, it shouldn’t be. Private loans go south all the time. … The Obama administration has made bets on hundreds of clean-energy companies in dozens of clean-energy sectors; some of those bets in its portfolio are bound to go bad, just as Richard Branson picks an occasional lemon. It’s legitimate to question whether the government should have made this particular bet, or whether it overplayed a weak hand, or whether it should be making bets in the first place. But if we’re going to have a clean energy industry in this country, this kind of thing is going to happen. It doesn’t mean anyone cheated.
Background of the company's failure, from the Swampland piece,
Solyndra’s loan, the first approved under a clean-energy program that was launched during the Bush administration and expanded by Obama’s stimulus bill, was supposed to finance a new state-of-the-art factory for the company’s unique cylindrical solar cells. At the time, Solyndra was an exciting startup; according to the public filings, it attracted big money from bigtime financiers, including $35 million from Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund, $57 million from U.S. Venture Partners, and even $2 million from affiliates of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.
… [later] The biggest problem was obvious; in an industry where prices were plummeting, Solyndra’s product was too expensive. It desperately needed to finish its new factory, which would increase volume and decrease costs. And it needed more sales.
By last November, the company was running out of cash; according to a January 2011 government document, it had “a very high probability” of bankruptcy and liquidation. This was a big problem, not only because the company had drawn down $460 million of its loan, but because its new factory wasn’t even completed, which meant liquidation would be a fire sale. …
The other option was restructuring. Kaiser’s Argonaut Ventures and the Walton family’s Madrone Partners would put up an additional $75 million, which would take the first position in case of a liquidation; the government would still be paid first if the company managed to emerge from bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy … ultimately concluded it did have a potentially viable business. The new factory was on time and on budget. Sales were increasing steadily. And even if Solyndra failed, it would be much more valuable with a completed high-tech plant than with an empty box in Fremont, California.
… “The restructuring gave Solyndra a fighting chance for success,” that same official says. “But then everything fell off a cliff.”
In the summer of 2011, solar panel prices plummeted again. The investors had been poised to inject another $75 million, but this time, they decided not to throw good money after bad. Solyndra shut down and laid off its 1,100 employees.
The conservatives make the accusation that an Obama donor named George Kaiser is a major investor in Solyndra, and Solyndra received the loan guarantee as a result of Kaiser's (and others) campaign contributions, in order to personally profit. The problem with this is that George Kaiser was not an investor in Solyndra, the Kaiser Family Foundation was. According to Tulsa World,
In an emailed statement to the Tulsa World, a representative of the George Kaiser Family Foundation said the organization made the investment through Argonaut.
“George Kaiser is not an investor in Solyndra and did not participate in any discussions with the U.S. government regarding the loan,” the statement said. “GKFF invests in a globally diversified portfolio across many different asset classes.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation is a philanthropic organization, which means Kaiser (or anyone else) could not personally profit from a successful investment by the foundation. One of the areas of focus of the foundation is the National Energy Policy Institute, so Solyndra was a natural investment for the Foundation:
National Energy Policy Institute (NEPI) is a GKFF effort to establish a rational energy policy that will effectively reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. American political leaders have espoused energy independence for decades. NEPI's goal is to move beyond total oil dependence and to supplant consumption of imported oil through increased domestic energy supply, reduced foreign oil and gas demand and lower carbon emissions to include enhancement of traditional sources of domestic oil, gas and coal.
The conservative Wal-Mart Walton Family, however, were private investors through their Madrone Capital, and at the time that the Bush administration started pushing the Solyndra loan were in a position to peronally profit from this investment. If any accusation of an expectation of personal enrichment obtained from political connections should be investigated, it is this one. Will the Republican House look into the connections between the Walton family and Bush administration officials, and the Bush administrations efforts to provide loans to Solyndra?
The Government Didn't Lose
Even though Solyndra went into bankruptcy the government didn't “lose.” The purpose of the government's involvement was to help trigger the development of green-energy manufacturing in the United States, not to help individual companies. This was not a direct investment in a company with the expectation of a profit for the government. In the bigger picture of promoting American leadership in the emerging green-energy industry the government's loan guarantee was a success. Even though Solyndra's investors lost out our country retains the trained skilled employees, the intellectual property, the innovators funded, the suppliers, and the factory. As components of a national effort to trigger a key strategic industry, those are all still there and in the US.
It isn't the government's job to make sure the investors make money, the government's job is to work to keep all of these components of an industry here and to grow new ones here, and this is what has been accomplished. When a VC makes an investment, a company failing just goes on the books as a loss. But our government has succeeded even if Solyndra's investors lost money because the country as a whole benefits. All these employees are trained, all the researchers can take what they know to other solar companies, the IP is going to be sold — and it should be part of the conditions that it be sold to an American company. So while Solyndra's for-profit investors lost money, America's larger effort to nurture a solar-power industry continues toward its goal with assets enabled by this loan guarantee.
The loan program started under President Bush (note – see above, Walton family.) From the San Jose Mercury News, October, 2008:
In late 2007, Solyndra was one of 16 clean-tech companies deemed eligible for $4 billion worth of loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy. Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley electric carmaker, and Oakland's BrightSource Energy, a builder of solar-thermal plants, also made that list.
The effort to fund Solyndra in particular started under Bush (note – see above, Walton family.) DOE: A Competition Worth Winning, (PS look at the chart in this post to understand why loan guarantees and other government assistance are so important!!!)
This loan guarantee was pursued by both the Bush and Obama Administrations. Private sector investors – who put more than $1 billion of their own money on the line – also saw great potential in the company.
Also, from the DOE post, the reason it is important for government to do this:
Our loan program catalyzes American innovation and private sector investment behind promising companies — so that American workers have a chance to compete against China and other countries that much more heavily subsidize clean energy companies.
The loan was 1.3% of the DOE portfolio.
One day after the federal government refused to bail out Solyndra, the Fremont-based solar company announced it was filing for bankruptcy and shedding most of its 1,100 workers.
According to a memo released Monday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, officials with the Department of Energy and Solyndra entered into negotiations “in the first few weeks of August” over a proposed financial restructuring agreement, but were never able to reach an agreement.
Think Progress has an excellent timeline of the Solyndra loan guarantee: Exclusive Timeline: Bush Administration Advanced Solyndra Loan Guarantee for Two Years, Media Blow the Story
Grist has a good story laying out how conservatives are attacking green energy. See The conservative game plan on energy subsidies
Grist also looks into the Bush adminsitration's efforts on behalf of Solyndra, in,Bush admin pushed Solyndra loan guarantee for two years.