Friday, October 14, 2011

More Lessons from Solyndra

I'll bet that those working and investing in renewable energy are even more tired of the steady stream of headlines from the unraveling Solyndra mess than the rest of us are. Today's crop includes more evidence of the political linkages to the overall process for determining the company's suitability for federal backing and the revelation that an investor in Solyndra was advising the US Navy to sign a contract with them, even as the firm was on the verge of collapse. None of this has done either the industry or the administration any good, and there is much to be learned from this episode. That includes lessons concerning direct government support for the full-scale deployment of renewable energy and other technologies.

Start with the ethics issues. No one should be surprised that investors in Solyndra were lobbying the DOE and White House in support of the company's application for a federal loan guarantee. That was hardly unique to Solyndra or renewable energy. And I'm perfectly willing to accept, unless proven otherwise, that both the DOE advisor whose wife works for a law firm representing Solyndra, and the venture capitalist who apparently advised the Navy to buy Solyndra's technology in his capacity with the Pentagon's Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative, thought they had done everything necessary to resolve any potential conflicts of interest in this matter. Yet in both cases it seems clear that even if nothing improper was done, the appearance of impropriety is very hard to dispel after what seemed like a routine transaction turns into a front-page scandal.

Whenever I see this sort of thing I can't help recalling the early training I received as a petroleum products trader for Texaco, which took anti-trust compliance very seriously. The lawyer who advised our Supply & Distribution department on such matters always reminded us to think about how our dealings with other companies might look if we had to explain them from the witness stand in a court of law. He invariably advised going beyond mere compliance; his mantra was, "Avoid the appearance of evil." That's a lesson that it seems many of the officials involved in the Solyndra debacle either forgot or never received, even if they believed they were in full compliance with existing ethics policies.

When you step back from such details it becomes apparent that these are precisely the sorts of conflicts that result, when the government involves itself so deeply in transactions of a magnitude that would normally be handled in the commercial sector--which even when it makes mistakes does so with shareholder dollars, rather than tax dollars. And make no mistake, if Solyndra had gone broke after receiving $500,000 from Uncle Sam, rather than $535 million, none of these other issues would matter or have seen the light of day.

It's perfectly appropriate--even necessary--for the government to make modest-sized bets on new technology in key areas, particularly when they require greater patience than most corporations are capable of. And it's to be expected that many or even most such bets will turn out to be dead ends, as Solyndra did. The problem is that while a few million dollars will buy a lot of renewable energy R&D, they will buy only a negligible amount of deployment. While the government can afford to make numerous small bets that don't turn out well but advance our knowledge in the process, it can only afford to make a small number of bets on the scale of the Solyndra loan. That ought to be especially true when the deficit and debt loom as large as they do, unless you're a firm believer in the "broken windows" theory of stimulus, or Lord Keynes's suggestion that the government could productively bury bottles of money and let people dig them up.

The easy question is whether the Department of Energy should have backed Solyndra. I have concluded the answer is no, and not just based on after-the-fact information. The much harder question is whether the US government should be in the business of providing this level of support for large-scale manufacturing or deployment, rather than just R&D. And even if it should, can it develop the necessary expertise and processes, not only to make such decisions at least as well as its commercial counterparts would, but also to insulate the decision-makers from the political influence that such high stakes are bound to attract. Answering that depends on a lot more than just one's political or economic philosophy.

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