Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Solar Flare-out

Another green government favorite goes belly up.


Another day, another stimulus burnout. On Wednesday, solar panel maker and White House favorite Solyndra announced plans to suspend business and file for bankruptcy. Its demise is a reminder of the perils of politically directed investment.

This wasn't supposed to be the storyline. In March 2009, Solyndra was the first company to get an Energy Department loan guarantee, worth $535 million. Vice President Joe Biden spoke via closed circuit TV at the groundbreaking of the company's Fremont, California plant, and President Obama touted the thousands of jobs the stimulus money would create. Such investments were all the better, Mr. Obama said at a visit to the plant last spring, because "The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra." You know, "green jobs."

Lots of venture capital companies bought into the hype, investing in green technology to piggyback their own capital on federal favoritism. Solyndra's relationship with the White House came under special scrutiny because of Solyndra backer and Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser's history as an Obama fundraiser. In a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February, the House Energy and Commerce Committee raised concerns about the loan, noting that the company had suffered "financial setbacks," and asking for information about "whether Solyndra was the right candidate" for the loan guarantee.

The Department of Energy marched on anyway, and yesterday it said it has "always recognized that not every one of the innovative companies supported by our loans and loan guarantees would succeed." Well, sure, businesses fail, but most failures don't saddle taxpayers with as much as $535 million in potential losses.

Solyndra's story is more evidence that trendy, politically directed investments don't make for efficient allocation of capital. Beyond the immediate losses, they mean the money wasn't available for market-directed investment with a better chance to succeed. This is how you get a 1% recovery.

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