The White House denied it put pressure on budget officials to approve a controversial $535m loan to Solyndra, a solar panel maker that has since filed for bankruptcy, after a congressional investigation suggested the officials were rushed to agree to the stimulus loan.
Republicans said in a House hearing that e-mails from 2009 showed that the Obama administration used political pressure to expedite the approval of the loans because they were eager to highlight their effort to create “green jobs” as part of the stimulus package approved that year, and have Joe Biden, vice-president, attend a groundbreaking event at the company.
The alleged push by the administration to have the loan approved may have contributed to the White House missing Solyndra’s financial “shortcomings”, the Republicans alleged.
The political storm over Solyndra, which recently had its office searched by federal investigators, comes at a difficult time for Barack Obama. The US president has put passage of new stimulus measures to spur job creation at the centre of his political agenda, and the Republican investigation into Solyndra is raising questions, not only about the specific circumstances surrounding the loan and the administration’s commitment to green energy, but the effectiveness of stimulus more generally.
The White House on Wednesday acknowledged that it had expressed an “interest” in when budget officials would make a decision on the loan back in 2009 but insisted that its queries to the Office of Management and Budget, which conducts due diligence on loan guarantees, was strictly a question of scheduling for Mr Biden. It reiterated that private sector investors had also seen promise in Solyndra, pumping $1bn into the company.
Jonathan Silver, head of the energy department’s loan guarantee programme, said in testimony before the House energy committee’s investigative subpanel that the decision to grant the loan had been based on merit.
But Republicans used the issue to hammer the administration on plans to distribute $10bn more in loan guarantees by the end of September.
“Was Solyndra just one bad bet …or is it the tip of the iceberg?” said Fred Upton, chairman of the House energy panel.
The company’s collapse reflects severe pressure on the solar module manufacturing industry in the US and Europe, caused by aggressive expansion by Chinese producers that has created over-capacity and plummeting prices.
Last month, two other US companies, Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt, also filed for bankruptcy protection. Calisolar, another company, said on Wednesday that it was cutting 80 jobs in California.
Analysts have also said that Solyndra’s innovative technology, using light-catching cylinders rather than the flat sheets used for conventional panels, was always a more risky bet.
The cylinders have advantages in terms of being easy to instal, but were relatively high-cost to produce compared with Chinese panels, and could not demonstrate a long record of proved performance, deterring some potential customers.
Other US solar companies have been squeezed but are surviving by adopting strategies such as relying more on project development and contracting, which is not exposed to international competition in the same way, and benefits from falling prices for solar panels.
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