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Solyndra crash puts heat on energy secretary

Washington – Republicans are using the Solyndra debacle to take aim at Energy Secretary Steven Chu, arguing that the Nobel laureate and UC Berkeley physicist’s enthusiasm for green energy led him to ignore warning signs that the Fremont solar-power firm was about to default on more than half-a-billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loans.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee plan to call Chu to testify this month on the failure of one of the Obama administration’s premier stimulus projects. Solyndra built a gleaming new factory in the pricey Bay Area to manufacture an innovative solar collector that soon was priced out by cheaper alternatives.

Chu’s selection was a departure from previous energy secretaries, who had political careers. President Obama plucked Chu from the directorship of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an Energy Department agency and one of the nation’s pre-eminent scientific labs. Chu brought to the job sterling scientific credentials and a reputation as an outspoken advocate of clean energy.

Washington politics and bureaucracy were never his specialty. At his Senate confirmation hearing, he had to temper his past remarks calling coal his “worst nightmare” and his support for steep gasoline taxes to curb oil use.

Those who worked with Chu in California described him as a visionary who left details to staff.

Former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who worked with Chu on AB32, California’s landmark climate change law, said: “This is a man who really is a big-picture guy. He is not a details person. He is a person who really understands how to set an objective and reach for big things and try to achieve them.”

Núñez said that when he heard about the Solyndra failure a month ago, “the first thing that came to my mind was that this clearly wasn’t him directly engaged in the details of this company. … He’s a scientist and a visionary. He relies on other people to cross the T’s and dot the I’s.”
Defending Chu

The White House this week stepped up its defense of Chu, sending Obama into the fray on Monday. In an interview with ABC News, Obama said he had no regrets about the loan because some failure was to be expected on risky projects.

On Tuesday, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer attacked Rep. Cliff Stearns, the Florida Republican leading the Solyndra investigation, for saying the United States “can’t compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines.”

“This comment reflects exactly the sort of counterproductive defeatism that Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned against this weekend,” Pfeiffer said in a White House blog.

While Chu has kept quiet since Solyndra declared bankruptcy a month ago and so far has refused a barrage of media requests for interviews, he spoke Saturday at an event in Washington in defense of the loan-guarantee program, comparing it to federal investments in the transcontinental railroad and land grant colleges under President Abraham Lincoln as the Civil War raged.

Chu argued that solar power will become a global market worth trillions of dollars and that the United States is in a race with China and other nations providing much more support.

Republicans are using the bankruptcy to discredit Obama’s 2009 stimulus and clean-energy subsidies. They have not investigated long-quixotic efforts to make coal “clean,” or nuclear subsidies that in the wake of Japan’s reactor meltdown look dubious.

Solyndra has become a symbol of a larger debate over how the United States can wean itself from imported oil and whether it should try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
‘Good lab director’

Daniel Kammen, a professor at UC Berkeley and director of the university’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, said Chu was “a very good lab director” but added that the Energy Department is “a different animal.”

“The logic of having a secretary of energy who has real scientific chops is quite valid,” Kammen said. But unlike Europe, where energy and climate policy are integrated, the United States is “still more in the political stage than one where a science leader can transform this massive part of the U.S. government.”

The administration’s failure to enact climate change legislation in 2009 was a critical setback to its overall green-energy strategy. The legislation foundered on GOP opposition but also on regional resistance from coal-producing states.

The idea was that a cap-and-trade climate law would put a price on carbon, creating a huge market for alternative fuels. When that failed, the administration was left with what Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, called third-best alternatives, such as loan guarantees.

A better choice, Borenstein said, would be heavier investment in basic scientific research that can lead to breakthroughs. Borenstein added that Solyndra lost twice as much federal money as the entire annual budget of Arpa-E, the Energy Department’s main energy research project.

“Just funding alternative energy companies without a market for them is a problematic strategy,” Borenstein said of the administration. “That’s obviously not what they thought would happen. They thought they’d have a price on carbon that would create a market.”