Intelligent Energy

Solyndra roundtable: future renewable energy investment is at risk

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SmartPlanet assembled some of the leading political analysts in the United States to determine what impact Solyndra's bankruptcy will have on future government investment into renewable energy and on the White House.

Green jobs were a centerpiece of President Obama’s economic agenda, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 famously financed Department of Energy loan guarantees for renewable energy start-ups. Arguments for and against green subsidies fell along partisan political lines.

The bankruptcy of Solyndra, a manufacturer of thin-film solar panels, brought renewed scrutiny onto the Energy Department - ultimately leading to an investigation spearheaded by House Republicans. Republicans saw the birth pangs of a scandal; Democrats accused the GOP of political grandstanding.

Energy Secretary Dr. Stephen Chu appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee last Thursday to defend the administration’s US $535-million investment in Solyndra. Chu remained unflappable under fierce questioning, but the matter is by no means resolved.

SmartPlanet assembled a virtual roundtable of leading political analysts to determine what impact Solyndra’s failure will have on future investments into renewable energy in the U.S. and what the political ramifications might be.

Dr. Larry Sabato

SmartPlanet: Will Solyndra’s bankruptcy make it more difficult for President Obama (or the next administration) to draft a comprehensive energy policy that includes subsidies for renewables?

Dr. Larry Sabato: Absolutely. A loss to the taxpayers of $535 million is no minor matter, and there are questions about improper political considerations here as well. Fairly or not, when an administration makes a costly mistake like Solyndra that wastes a ton of tax money, there are consequences. In this case, one of the consequences will be critical questioning of every dollar spent on subsidies for renewable energy projects.

SP: Will energy be an important topic during the 2012 election season?

LS: Jobs and the economy will take center stage in 2012, but energy directly connects to jobs and the economy. Both parties want to propose fixes to economic problems from their ideological perspective, and energy policy has to be a part of the conversation. It will be, inevitably.

SP: How long might Stephen Chu remain in his position?

LS: One person determines Chu's tenure, the President, but Chu's performance on Solyndra and in the congressional hearings has not been impressive. The choice for the administration is whether letting him go will reinforce the controversy, or help to tamp it down by affixing blame and giving critics a needed pound of flesh. I'm sure they are still trying to determine that.

Dr. Larry Sabato is a staff member of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and lead contributor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” He correctly projected the 2008 election within a single electoral vote, as well as accurately forecasting 98 percent of Senate, House, and Governor winners in, 2006, 2008, and 2010.

Dr. Barbara Perry

SmartPlanet: Will Solyndra’s bankruptcy make it more difficult for President Obama (or the next administration) to draft a comprehensive energy policy that includes subsidies for renewables?

Dr. Barbara Perry: Yes, if Obama is re-elected, the Solyndra scandal will taint his attempts to support subsidies for renewables.  And, if the Democrats lose their slim Senate majority, and remain in the House minority, he will have even less support on Capitol Hill for such policies.  In the unlikely event that the Democrats "run the table," giving them the White House, Senate, and House, Obama would simply have less political capital as a second-term, lame-duck president, making a comprehensive energy policy DOA.

SP: Will energy be an important topic during the 2012 election season?

BP: Energy will be an important but not THE issue of 2012.  Jobs and the economy will hold the #1 spot on the political agenda until the unemployment rate drops.  Unfortunately for the president, "green jobs in renewable resources" will now ring hollow on the hustings. Solyndra is currently the only scandal with any purchase that the GOP can pin on the Obama administration, so the party will raise it at every opportunity.  Republicans will focus on traditional energy sources, leaving the president to make the case to an increasingly skeptical electorate that renewables are a key part of a CEP.  Of course, they are, but government largesse for them is now a politically unattractive option.  Moreover, to the extent that renewable energy is linked to the climate-change debate, it has become another fault line in our bitter partisan divide.

SP: How long might Stephen Chu remain in his position?

Secretary Chu will be "spending more time with his family" soon.  Someone will have to take the fall for the government's epic failure to conduct due diligence on this failing company, and the Energy Secretary is the most likely candidate.  He is a political liability for the president, heading into 2012.

Dr. Perry is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia, Miller Center of Public Affairs. She is a noted expert on the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Presidency, as well as a biographer of the Kennedys. She is currently researching books on the role of Catholics and the Supreme Court and on the life of Rose Kennedy.

SmartPlanet: Will Solyndra’s bankruptcy make it more difficult for President Obama (or the next administration) to draft a comprehensive energy policy that includes subsidies for renewables?

Dr. Rogers M. Smith

Dr. Rogers M. Smith: Unfortunately, even if the administration makes an effective case that Solyndra was a reasonable investment that fell afoul of bad broader economic circumstances, the Solyndra affair is likely to remain a rhetorically potent symbol of how government affairs to aid green industries can go awry. It will definitely make it more difficult to reach agreement on any comprehensive energy possible, and certainly one that includes subsidies for renewables.

SP: Will energy be an important topic during the 2012 election season?

RS: Will energy be an important topic in the 2012 election season?  It will be a subordinate theme. The election will be about job creation and spurring economic growth more broadly. President Obama will contend that promoting renewable energy and other forms of environmentally friendly industrial development is a key part of those efforts.  Republicans will deny that. But the centerpiece of the debates will be over taxes on the rich and Obamacare.

SP: How long might Stephen Chu remain in his position?

RS: How long might Stephen Chu remain in his position?  If Obama is re-elected, Chu is certainly likely to move on when the second administration cabinet is put together.  If reporting of the Solyndra affair is sharply negative as the campaign season proceeds, he may leave sooner; but it will not help Obama if Chu is perceived to leave in disgrace.  These jobs are grueling, Chu is an extraordinarily gifted scientist who has much he can pursue, so he probably wishes to leave sooner rather than later. But the President and his political advisers will want the departure to be timed to minimize negative political consequences, and what that means depends on how events unfold.

According to the University of Pennsylvania Web site, “Professor Smith centers his research on constitutional law, American political thought, and modern legal and political theory, with special interests in questions of citizenship, race, ethnicity and gender.  He was elected as an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow in 2004.”

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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure