Solyndra and the US Election: is solar still a campaign issue for Republicans?

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Felicity Carus
Felicity Carus
Felicity Carus is the only UK journalist to be regularly reporting on clean energy policy and finance from California for a global audience. Before arriving in San Francisco in 2010, Felicity was on the Guardian's environment desk in London after stints at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and Interfax in Russia. She first "broke" into the renewables industry with a commission in the mid-90s to write a book on how to install a solar water heating system with a rusty old radiator. The industry has come a long way since then, thankfully…

Republicans may have attempted to capitalize on the failure of Solyndra. A Congressional investigation into the US$535m Department of Energy loan is still ongoing and the US Oversight and Investigations Committee has expanded its inquiry to loans awarded to First Solar.

But has Solyndra's collapse earned valuable political capital for the party's presidential candidate in this November's elections?

Solyndra's failure may be an attempt to win votes, seems to be the answer from pollsters on both sides of the aisle, but from Republicans opposed to Barack Obama's administration rather than opponents of clean energy.

David Metz, partner at Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) in Oakland, California and Lori Weigel, partner at Public Opinion Strategies in Golden, Colorado, worked together on a national survey that asked how members of the public recalled the failure of the solar company.

In some cases, those polled couldn't even recall Solyndra's name until prompted, said Weigel.

"We had done a survey of renewable energy a few weeks before and wanted to get a very clean read on how much had people seen or heard about Solyndra.

"In focus groups people often refer to it but they often get the name wrong or they know there's something out there but not exactly sure what it was."

The survey found that the Solyndra story had "fairly concentrated recall" among Republicans. Of the 800 people surveyed, 41% who said that they had "heard a great deal" were Republican, 21% independent and 16% Democrat.

Reactions to the Solyndra disaster would generally match the preferences of primary news sources such as Fox News and MSNBC, said Weigel. But it would be difficult to determine to what extent the bias of news coverage formulated viewer opinions or merely reinforced it in a self-selecting audience, she added.

"You have a significant section of Republicans who are more likely to watch Fox News as their primary source of information. We definitely see heightened awareness based on that news coverage.

"It's hard to say are they changing their views because of what they see on TV or that they're watching news that corresponds to their political views."

However, the survey conducted in February included a twist that might give hope to Democrat strategists and the renewables industry alike when it found that "American voters are nearly twice as likely to say that we should continue to invest in clean energy in the wake of Solyndra."

Some 62% agreed with the statement: "The failure of one California company should not stop us from continuing to make targeted public investments to help create American clean energy jobs."

And only 32% agreed with the statement: "The collapse of Solyndra shows that investing taxpayer dollars in so-called green jobs is a waste of money."
Neither Weigel nor Metz said they were surprised by the results based on past research when they surveyed voters in Ohio on clean energy last autumn, shortly after Solyndra filed for bankruptcy.

"We got numbers in Ohio at the time that were essentially identical to what we see here," said Metz. "If we go to the broader geography and accept the fact that it's been a year the Republicans have been flogging this issue and bringing public attention to it, are the numbers any different? The numbers in Ohio then and the numbers nationally now are statistically identical.

"What seems to have happened is that for a set of conservative voters who are really cynical about government and particularly the Obama administration this is an example of what they see as a broader pattern of misguided spending that's politically influenced and ineffective in stimulating the economy."

Republicans kept Solyndra in the media spotlight not because it was a solar company, but because of concerns over misspending in the Obama administration, said Weigel.

"In some ways, the broader context for this is a big deal, but it just happened to be a solar company," she said. "Any time anyone screws up there's a congressional hearing. I don't know that it's particular to a solar energy company.

"We see in the data that there are clearly more Republicans who paid attention to it and not because it was reinforced some terrible thing they thought about solar energy but it was an example of cronyism and corruption in government that they felt in relation to the administration."

Weigel, a Republican, and Metz, a Democrat, both agree that support for the clean energy industry does not always split uniformly down partisan lines even after Solyndra.

"There's an important distinction that we need to draw between the attitudes of Republican primary voters and the attitudes of Republican voters more broadly," said Metz.

"About 35% of the population identifies as Republican. About 17–18% will be Republicans who also vote in primary elections and they are much more conservative on issues relating to clean energy and the environment. They're much more negative about Solyndra and government involvement in developing these industries and more supportive of fossil fuels. When you look at the rest of the Republican party who are not active primary voters, they tend to be supportive much like the rest of the population on issues relating to energy."

Weigel said: "What we hear is very consistent across the country that when people think about renewable energy they equate that with the future of energy.

They think that this is honestly a no-brainer.

"[Support for] transitioning to clean energy is very strong everywhere we talk to people and across the political spectrum from those who identify with the Tea party to environmental base voters."

Tax credits for renewable energy companies were regarded as a good idea even though voters had most often been previously unaware of them, said Weigel.

"I could say with fairly strong confidence that people are still supportive of tax credits although they don't understand loan guarantees. But they are supportive of government investments in clean energy companies and energy efficiency. We clearly see that."

In recent comments, Weigel also told attendees at the PV America West conference in San Jose that solar companies generally polled as very credible with the American public.

But if the attempt to use the Solyndra story to political advantage has failed to achieve the effect some Republicans desired, will solar still be a campaign issue?

"You will see fewer Republicans in the general election once we get out of the primary season talking about Solyndra as a major campaign issue," said Metz. "You're going to see them talking about much more low hanging fruit which is the state of the economy, jobs, cynicism about government more broadly and maybe Solyndra plays into that a little bit. But I don't think this is going to be the issue that is going to swing a lot of voters negatively. Clean energy moves voters positively."

But how much Barack Obama will sell his clean energy credentials to the electorate will depend on his opposition. After the Etch A Sketch comment from Mitt Romney's aide, a flip back to advocating clean energy would be very difficult.

Donnie Fowler, founder and chief executive of Dogpatch Strategies, said that the Republican frontrunner has flip flopped on clean energy so many times that to turn out as an advocate for solar and wind during a general election campaign would only harm him.

"It's a very difficult narrative for Romney and it would be easier for him to change back to an advocate for clean energy as president rather than candidate," he said.

Whatever the outcome of the oversight committee inquiry under chairman Darrell Issa that is investigating alleged links between the Obama administration and the bankrupt thin-film solar company, Solyndra has taught the solar industry a valuable lesson as it reaches maturation, he said.

"Republican criticism of Solyndra is primarily an attack on the president, an attempt to portray the Obama administration as corrupt rather than portraying solar as a stupid idea. The anti-war movement did the same to Bush and Cheney when large contracts were awarded to their associates such as Halliburton. Solyndra has merely flipped this political strategy.

"It's a new industry compared with oil and gas and coal companies. They're busy building their technology and getting it to market, so they don't have as much money to spend on PR. Many of its Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors have come into a highly regulated industry from the largely unregulated tech sector that built the internet. Google and Apple were built without having to ask the government for permission to move its bits and bytes. But now the industry is having to work with regulators to push its electrons through wires.

"There's a presumption that the industry will succeed on its merits alone, but it is competing against those [in the fossil fuel industry] who have mastered the public sector over more than a century."

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