I haven’t written much about the California solar company Solyndra, which recently went bankrupt after receiving over $500 million in taxpayer money as part of the Department of Energy’s program of loan guarantees for renewable energy companies. Short story: the sudden demise of the California-based company—which went out of business on Aug. 31, costing more than 1,000 employees their jobs—raised speculation that the Obama Administration may have channeled money toward Solyndra for political reasons. Republicans in the House launched an investigation, and turned up emails that seemed to show White House staffers pushing officials at the Office of Management and Budget to sign off on the loans in time for a major public appearance by Vice-President Joe Biden at Solyndra’s headquarters. On Sept. 14 , a House subcommittee held hearings on the Solyndra affair, and Republican representatives tried to portray the Solyndra loans, and the White House’s renewable energy support policy, as an expensive, politically motivated failure.
My response: meh. TIME’s Michael Grunwald has covered this from the start, and while he’s unhappy—to say the least—with executives at Solyndra for misleading the government on its financial health, the solar industry more broadly is doing well, thanks in part to the money the Obama Administration has channeled towards more successful companies. And it’s worth noting that in addition to government loan guarantees, Solyndra also scored over $1 billion in private capital—including from GOP-friendly investors like the Walton family of Wal-Mart. Solyndra turned out to be a bad investment—the company failed in part because it made the wrong bet on solar technology, failing to foresee that silicon prices would drop drastically. Bad investments are a part of business, especially a cutting-edge industry like renewable energy, and failure is a necessary ingredient for innovation. (Just ask the famously fired Steve Jobs.) The idea that the collapse of one solar company discredits the entire solar industry is absurd.
Still, many Republicans would argue that the real question here is whether government policies like loan guarantees and subsidies can actually help support companies and create new jobs rather than simply engendering failure and waste. That’s a fair debate to have. But the haters are being hypocritical. Nosing for federal money and federal support is the name of the game in Washington—otherwise the expense accounts of lobbyists on K Street wouldn’t be so generous. Oil and gas and coal companies all spend millions in lobbying, putting former government regulators on their payrolls to ensure that policy goes their way. House Speaker John Boehner himself has received more than $1.5 million from the coal industry—money that was spent well. It’s not just Republicans—Democrats from oil or coal states know to look out for industry. And it’s not just the energy industry either—every major business sector is happy to lobby in Washington and bend legislation to their favor. That’s the way things work—or don’t, I suppose.
If Solyndra threw its weight around Washington to pull in that $500 million-plus loan guarantee, the firm was only copying its more entrenched competitors. In fact, maybe it was a sign that the renewable energy industry was finally ready for prime time. You can criticize the White House for spending public money foolishly in support of one of the President’s signature policy objectives: building green jobs. But there’s nothing here that makes the Solyndra debacle special. It’s business as usual.