The more sun that shines on the Obama administration's handling of $535 million in government loans to California solar-panel maker Solyndra, the more shadows land on the White House. It appears the rush in the early days of the administration to spend stimulus funds truncated the approval process at the Department of Energy and that no one in government, possibly blinded by the cadre of high-priced lobbyists Solyndra employed, took heed of dramatic changes afoot in the global marketplace. Critics can fairly use the episode to question the wisdom of government policy that picks individual winners and losers in an industry. But they must not also be able to use it to repudiate alternative energy.
America is already behind in the solar-energy race. That likely contributed to Solyndra's appeal in Washington when the company first filed its loan application under the George W. Bush administration. Solyndra's product departed from the industry's standard flat panels that used silicon — the cost of which had skyrocketed in the past decade as China and other countries entered the industry. Solyndra's panels were collections of tubes whose cylindrical shape could collect energy throughout the day starting with early morning light. They cost more to produce but were cheaper to install.
But in the months running up to the actual loan disbursement, the global market began a dramatic change. The price of silicon started to plummet, dramatically reducing the cost of producing traditional panels. Then came a glut: The European crisis stalled demand on that continent just as China's government launched an aggressive subsidy for its industry that ramped up production and lowered consumer costs.
Just how aware the DOE was of these developments and their impact on the marketplace is among the questions before Congress. And the FBI is investigating whether the company misled the government about its viability. Republicans have questioned whether the White House was seeking to appease a fundraiser, George Kaiser, who was also a private Solyndra investor — a scenario both the White House and Kaiser deny. But e-mails show the White House did exert pressure to make things happen.
None of that looks good, leading critics to turn "SolyndraGate" into an indictment of alternative energy. The fact is America still needs solar power in its portfolio going forward. Whether government should support that endeavor through large, direct loans to individual companies with new technologies is fair game for debate. But most important, the Obama administration owes the American people a full vetting of what happened with Solyndra and a commitment not to cut so many corners and be so easily misled again.