The shiny photo Ops long ago became a blur: President Obama posing on one gleaming factory floor after another, often in shirtsleeves or protective glasses, with newfangled green-energy gizmos funded by his policies. He lifted high-efficiency light fixtures in Wisconsin, touched windmill blades in Iowa, drove an electric car in Detroit and admired steam turbines in New York. "It's happening right now," he said after examining solar panels at a California company called Solyndra in May 2010. "The future is here."
His message strategists loved the visuals: Obama, far from Washington, pointing the way to a bright, clean future for America. But those images also brought risk, some of it for taxpayers--about $80 billion went to clean-energy projects in the 2009 stimulus alone--and some for the President's image. Obama's aides worried that one day he might tour a factory destined to go under. "Everyone knew," said one former senior Administration official, "when one of these things didn't pay back, there would be unhappiness."
The future is now the past for Solyndra. The solar-array manufacturer declared bankruptcy on Sept. 6, an event whose fallout now threatens the President's entire green-energy agenda. Solyndra was not just any solar company, either. It was the first project approved for an Energy Department loan, just two months into Obama's presidency. Now its sudden demise has become a page-turning political scandal with FBI raids, congressional hearings and leaked e-mails showing that Obama officials rushed a half-billion-dollar loan for Solyndra and then missed signs that the company was foundering. Adding intrigue, a key Solyndra investor, George Kaiser, was also a top Obama fundraiser who enjoyed easy access to senior officials in the West Wing (though he claims never to have discussed the company there).
Solyndra's federally funded venture--with a price tag of $527 million, or about $1.68 for every man, woman and child in America--was supposed to be the litmus test of the Administration's ability to fund "good projects quickly," according to a 2009 Energy Department e-mail. Instead, the company's insolvency has become an opening for Republicans to hammer Obama's economic policies as ineffective, overzealous and even corrupt: "crony capitalism at its worst," as Republican Representative Paul Ryan recently charged.
But the story of Solyndra's collapse is also about something more alarming than alleged political favoritism. It is a story of an American green-jobs agenda that is falling short of its grand promise; of a federal government ill equipped to address complex economic challenges; and of a reality that grows clearer by the day: in the global race to develop new commercial energy technologies, China is winning.
Lost in Paperwork
The idea behind Solyndra--founded in 2005 under the clunkier name of Gronet Technologies--was simple. The solar industry was then constrained by two cost drivers: the price of silicon, an essential ingredient of most solar panels, and the expense of installation. Solyndra's proprietary technology, both silicon-free and easier to install than other panels, seemed to solve both these problems. But neither the company's executives nor the federal bean counters who gave their approval could foresee what would happen next.