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GOP Tries to Turn Solyndra into a Climategate, But It Can't Hide Clean Energy's Success

In the absence of a real jobs plan of their own, GOP leaders continue using Solyndra’s demise to attack the Obama Administration’s clean energy and green jobs policies. One bad company, they say, means the whole enterprise is doomed.

That would surprise the more than 5,500 companies and 100,000 Americans who currently work in the solar industry. It would shock the analysts who say the clean energy sector grew nearly twice as fast as the overall economy between 2003 and 2010. And it would baffle the 2.7 million people who the Brookings Institution says have jobs in the clean economy as a whole.

Assessing an industry by the performance of one company would mean social media was dead after MySpace and commercial airlines were hopeless after Pan Am.

Exaggerated political discourse is nothing new these days, but the degree to which the posturing over Solyndra departs from the facts is truly alarming.

As Dave Roberts wrote, Solyndra could turn into the next Climategate. During that manufactured scandal, GOP lawmakers used the email musings of a few climate scientists to cast uncertainty over the entire field of climatology. Five separate investigations cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing, but the shadow of a doubt remained in many people’s minds.

I do not know if Solyndra will be similarly cleared, but I do know that turning the clean energy sector into a political theater could thwart one of the most promising engines for economic growth America has right now and one of the best ways to protect our families from dangerous pollution.

This is matter of national interest. Expanding America’s clean energy resources will provide a hedge against rising energy demand, volatile oil prices, and climate change.

The stakes are too high for lawmakers to leave behind the facts and descend into pure ideology. If nothing else, they should at least be consistent in their arguments.

If they were genuinely concerned about taxpayers’ money, they wouldn’t subsidize oil and nuclear companies: Numerous GOP lawmakers say that because the Department of Energy made a bad bet on Solyndra, it proves the loan guarantee program as a whole puts taxpayers’ money at risk. Yet in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Markey (D-MA) pointed out that Southern Company has received a federal loan guarantee 15 times higher than Solyndra’s to develop new nuclear power units.

“If we are going to reexamine whether that is a good investment after Fukushima, after the earthquake near the North Anna plant, let’s have that hearing,” Markey said. “Because I think the money is in jeopardy, if you are really concerned.” He also reminded lawmakers that in the midst of record profits, oil companies are still receiving $41 billion in taxpayer subsidies. “We know we will never have a hearing on the oil industry or the nuclear industry in this committee. This is all part of an agenda here that deals with the solar industry, the wind industry.”

If they were really skeptical of clean energy prospects, they wouldn’t have asked for their own clean energy loans: Since Solyndra’s meltdown, GOP lawmakers have been quick to criticize the DOE’s loan guarantee program for clean energy. Yet before the company’s failure, many of today’s critiques were asking for those very same loans to benefit their own districts. The New York Times reported, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “made two personal appeals in 2009, asking Energy Secretary Steven Chu to approve as much as $235 million in federal loans for a plant to build electric vehicles in Franklin, Ky.”

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), Representative Fred of Upton (R-MI), Representative Cliff Stearns (R-FL), and Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) also requested federal loan guarantees for clean energy projects. I applaud them. They were smart to nurture projects that will generate jobs, slash pollution, reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, and spark innovation in their home districts. But they should have the courage of their conviction, instead of bending with the political winds.  

If they were truly worried about the budget, they would fund solutions for easing extreme weather: In last week’s budget battles, House Republicans wisely included $3.65 billion to help victims of several recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee that pounded the Atlantic Coast. Yet at the same time, they demanded $1.5 billion of the emergency relief come from the loan guarantee program for fuel efficient vehicles.

Extreme weather events—like the ones decimating municipal budgets from Vermont to Texas—are the hallmark of climate change. If we don’t start reducing our carbon pollution, these costly storms, fires, and floods will only intensify, consuming more and more emergency funding. Clean cars, meanwhile, are one of our most potent weapons for slashing carbon emissions. Robbing the fuel-efficient-vehicle program to pay for weather cleanup may score quick political points today, but it will leave our children with a heavy debt tomorrow.  

If they were actually opposed to government investments in technology, they would get off the Internet: GOP critics of the clean energy loan programs say government has no business “picking winners” or paying to develop new technologies. But from the Internet to GPS to commercial airplanes, our nation thrives when government and private funding work together to unleash innovation. Finding was to secure America’s energy future is worth the investment.

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