Monday, September 26, 2011

Drawing Conclusions from Solyndra

When the energy portions of the 2009 stimulus were announced I remarked to a colleague that I wouldn't be surprised if its billions in incentives led to a future scandal or two. In fact, I was thinking more along the lines of fraudulent diversions from the Treasury's renewable energy grant program, which has handed out $8.7 billion since its inception. That program had its own day in the spotlight when it turned out that a significant portion of the initial disbursements were going either to non-US companies or to pay for equipment made outside the US, undermining its green jobs rationale. However, I wouldn't have guessed that the biggest scandal would erupt from the ostensibly lower-risk loan guarantee program of the Department of Energy. The prospect that a tussle over a small cut to that program, for which eligibility is due to end in a few days, nearly set up another government shutdown crisis seems even stranger.

Whatever happens to the loan guarantee program, the decision to lend over $500 million to Solyndra looks bad, and not just in retrospect, with the firm in bankruptcy. The market environment that Solyndra was betting on was already shifting in late 2008--months before its loan was approved. The global bottleneck in the supply of polysilicon, the key raw material for the crystalline silicon photovoltaic modules with which Solyndra's unique CIGS modules competed, was easing as new polysilicon capacity was coming on line, more was under construction, and polysilicon prices were falling. Someone at the DOE should accept responsibility--and the consequences--for ignoring or missing that signal and concluding that it was a good time for Solyndra to double its capacity and fixed costs.

As tempting as it might be to dwell on Solyndra's failure, that should not be our primary concern right now. If laws are found to have been broken or influence improperly used, there will be ample time to address that. Nor should we dwell on the fate of the other projects for which $10 billion in loans or loan guarantees have already been concluded. Many of those projects involve generating renewable power and selling it under long-term agreements that will ensure a profit, with little additional risk. Instead, oversight should focus urgently on those projects that are still under consideration or have received only conditional approvals to date.

One of the applications that apparently got caught in the fallout from Solyndra was a project of Solar City Corp. to install up to 371 MW of rooftop solar panels at military facilities across the US. Solar City was seeking a partial (presumably 80%) guarantee of up to $344 million in loans to carry out these projects. This is precisely the sort of initiative necessary to deliver on the military's goals to increase its use of renewable energy. I heard a lot more about that at an Air Force energy briefing at the Pentagon earlier this month and will write about that session when I receive the responses to the follow-up questions I sent in.

The military faces two major obstacles in achieving its energy objectives, and projects like Solar City's would help overcome both. First, energy generation assets are expensive and would compete with military hardware procurement and other budget priorities. Having someone else make those investments and charge the services for power that they'd otherwise have to buy from a utility is as useful for the military as it is for homeowners who can't afford the up-front costs of rooftop solar. The other aspect with which the project helps is that the economics of rooftop solar still depend on federal and state incentives that the Department of Defense can't access directly. In this case, Solar City would buy and install the hardware and collects the tax credits and other incentives that allow them to charge the military a competitive price for power. With time running out on its application, the company has apparently decided to pursue a scaled-down version of the project with only commercial financing.

As for any remaining applications, if the DOE can't convince itself that they are sound before the clock runs out at the end of the month, then it must either turn them down or ask the Congress for more time. Whatever call the DOE makes it had better be prepared for the scrutiny and second-guessing they are bound to receive. The Solyndra debacle has arguably done as much harm to US renewable energy policy as the Enron scandal did to energy trading. Another Solyndra might just put an end to the whole proposition of financing green energy with public funds in the US.

Note: Posting updated to reflect the current status of Solar City's project.