When President Barack Obama toured the Solyndra, Inc. plant in Fremont on May 26, 2010, any political risks of that visit were probably far from his mind. In fact, Obama's primary concern that day was the environmental impact — and potential political ramifications — of the Gulf oil spill on the far side of the nation. Sixteen months later, it's the fallout from his Solyndra association that he's struggling to cap. And, as with the BP oil disaster, it won't be easy to contain the damage.
The challenge will be amplified today, when executives from the solar panel company go before a House committee to testify about how a company with $535 million in federally backed loan guarantees, significant venture capital support and much-heralded technology could suddenly go belly up. On Sept. 6, Solyndra abruptly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and laid off all of its 1,100 employees. Two days later, the FBI and the Energy Department's inspector general raided the company's headquarters and later also searched some executives homes as part of a possible criminal investigation.
We have other questions as well, related to how the alternative energy start-up received its federal support.
E-mail messages from as far back as two years ago suggest that the Obama administration may have used political pressure to get the loan guarantees through before they had been properly vetted. This despite the fact that some accountants are waving red flags about the company's prospects. Republicans are already blaming this on Obama's reckless resolve to bolster green economy jobs.
Reports that Solyndra had received venture capital funds from one of Obama's major campaign donors also requires further inquiry.
But neither House members nor the public are likely to get many answers to their questions today. Solyndra Chief Executive Officer Brian Harrison and Chief Financial Officer W.G. Stover have already indicated that while they plan to appear at the hearing, they will invoke their Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer questions.
Given how Solyndra lobbyists were so readily available in talking up their company through the halls of the Capitol not long ago, members of Congress have reason to be angry about their newfound quiescence. But taxpayers have the most reason to be irate, given that they are on the hook for the $535 million in loans. Instead of creating jobs and new technology, the investment has fueled suspicion and doubt about the government's ability to properly invest public funds as a means to stimulate the economy.
The first obligation is to get answers about this rupture of public trust. <NO1><NO>What's not in question, however, is the continued importance and urgency of weaning the nation from fossil fuels and investing in research and development of alternative energies — including solar- and wind-powered systems. The White House may deserve a black eye for this, but not all of green energy.