Romney fires up a solar storm with own ‘failed Solyndra’

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As predicted in this PV Tech blog a couple of months ago, Republican presidential campaigners could not resist dragging the Solyndra saga back into the political spotlight.

Predictable though it is, Mitt Romney supporters cannot have been listening to what the voters would make of this strategy.

Richard Caperton, director for clean energy investment at the Center for American Progress, said, “We've had more than a dozen hearings in Congress, 100,000s of pages of evidence have been submitted and nobody has found anything. So there's no scandal to Solyndra – voters get that and are a little bit tired of hearing about it.”

But Romney's supporters and campaign advisers have decided to pursue a high-risk strategy which could potentially backfire given the presidential candidate's own “failed” solar investments.

The Republican presidential hopeful last week took a dramatic and aggressive step by making a “top-secret” flying visit to the shuttered Solyndra plant in Fremont, California, to not only attack the Obama administration's US$535m loan, but the effects of government stimulus on the solar industry at large.

“Two years ago, President Obama was here to tout this building and this business as a symbol of the success of his stimulus,” said Romney under the Solyndra logo.

“It's a symbol of something very different today. It's a symbol not of success, but of failure. The president fails to understand the basic nature of free enterprise in America. Twenty-three million American families out of work, stopped looking for work or underemployed is unacceptable and crony capitalism did not help.”

To coincide with Romney's Fremont appearance, his campaign released a TV advertisement listing Solyndra, First Solar, ECOtality and SunPower as poor investments of federal tax dollars.

“More than US$16 billion have gone to companies like Solyndra that are linked to big Obama and Democrat donors,” said the voiceover. “The inspector general said contracts were steered to 'friends and family'. Obama is giving taxpayer money to big donors. And then watching them lose it. Good for them. Bad for us.” has debunked many of the claims in the Romney ad. Its US$16bn figure is way out – by nearly US$6 billion – and that the inspector general, Gregory Friedman, never said that contracts were steered towards “friends and family”.

An independent review of the DoE Loan programme led by Herb Allison and inquiries launched by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee have also found no evidence of wrongdoing within the Obama administration.

All that has come to light are emails from a former Obama fundraiser who pushed for Solyndra's loans even though he should have continued to recuse himself, as he said he would because his wife worked at the law firm used by the solar company.

As you might expect most viewers who can stomach more than five minutes of Fox News to be Republicans, chances are that entrepreneurs in the “alternative energy” sector might have Democratic sympathies.

Buying political influence is not a crime in the US, where the lines between corporate interest and public interest are blurred. Lobbying is an acceptable way to influence Congress – lobbyists after all routinely write legislation.

Meanwhile, financial contributions would land the donor and recipient a lengthy jail term anywhere else in the world.

Republicans see close connections between industry and politics – a business-as-usual scenario for the world's greatest economy. But when it suits them, those same Republicans call it “crony capitalism” in their Democratic counterparts.

Rhetoric trips off the tongue because of its powers of reduction and over-simplification, but the truth is harder to convey in America's complex and “messy” system of democracy. While the first amendment protects freedom of speech, it also defends dissemblers from adequate and appropriate challenge on both sides. points out that Romney's ad manages to stretch the truth because of the complex financing of DoE loans. First Solar secured federal loan guarantees of more than US$3 billion, but its projects have since been sold to NextEra Energy and Exelon who now have long-term Power Purchase Agreements with California's investor-owned utilities. First Solar's Topaz solar farm project failed to secure a DoE loan before last year's deadline.

First Solar's project finance is designed to de-risk investments – whether from private or public purses. If First Solar goes bust, Desert Sunlight, Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One should still go ahead as planned and taxpayers will be paid with interest.

In April, First Solar announced that it would lay off 2,000 workers. That much of the ad is true. But 90% of those job cuts would happen outside the US and none of them were related to the company's two DoE-funded projects. Although, since the ad was made, 244 workers have been “furloughed” from First Solar’s Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One.

But this ad joins a growing number of attacks from Romney's supportive “super-PACS” such as American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove and funded by donors who earned enormous wealth in the fossil fuel industry.

Although Romney isn't permitted to interact directly with sympathetic super-PACS, some of the messages carried by his supporters will use much stronger language and more extreme messages than the Republican candidate would use himself.

“The reason this won't go away is that there are many fossil fuel investors who are predominantly oil billionaires who support the Romney campaign,” said Caperton.

“They are going to make independent expenditures and most of those are going to be attacking renewable energy. We're seeing a lot of that already and will continue to do so.”

In April, Americans for Prosperity, a group politically aligned with Tea party activists and funded by the Koch brothers, launched a similar TV ad that alleged SunPower took US$1.2bn in tax credits from the US Treasury to open a manufacturing plant in Mexico.

After just a few phone calls, a Tampa Bay Times reporter established that the company received a US$1.2bn loan guarantee which has to be repaid with interest, unlike tax credits. The loan was also for its California Valley Solar Ranch. Like First Solar, SunPower had sold the project to a third party, NRG Energy making that company liable to repay the loan.

Political spin during election campaigns brings out the worst in would-be presidents, for sure. Were he in the White House come November, it is predicted that Romney would feel safe enough to revive his support for renewable energy.

But this week, the “Etch-a-Sketch” candidate faced a solar storm over his own “failed Solyndra” while Governor of Massachusetts.

During his single term Romney allocated US$15 million into a fund to provide loans for clean energy investments. Some US$9m was allocated to direct state funding in five clean energy companies – not all of them succeeded, such as Konarka Technologies.

When it filed for bankruptcy last week, Konarka had debts of up to US$50 million but assets of only US$500,000.

“It's hard for Romney to make this argument with a straight face that Obama is the only person that invests in new technologies and he's the only person to have failed at it when Romney does the exact same thing,” said Caperton. “At Bain Capital, Romney said he had an 80% success rate. The DoE loan guarantee programme currently has around a 92% success rate. They've only had two companies go bankrupt out of the 26 that they supported.”

Massachusetts now has a flourishing clean energy industry that rivals California's, thanks partly to Romney's policies as governor. Although the state aims to increase its solar installed capacity to a modest 250MW, that represents a more than doubling of present capacity.

Not everyone can get it 100% right all of the time – not even the president of the US, or the former Governor of Massachusetts.

But this so-called “lemon-picking” strategy, i.e. choosing sour examples to create a bitter and distorted vision of reality could backfire for Romney.

For Caperton, Republican tactics to turn Solyndra into a dirty word could have had even more serious consequences for the taxpayer and the industry.

“I'm concerned that scapegoating of Solyndra and making it a dirty word made it very unlikely that any purchasers would come forward for Solyndra's manufacturing facility. They damaged the brand so heavily that it made it very hard for the government to recover any of its assets or investments there.

“The right-wing attacks on Solyndra and making it a campaign issue has cost the government money.”

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