Solyndra as lousy political theater

September 15, 2011, 7:33 PM UTC

Solyndra’s bankruptcy raises some serious questions. Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t seem interested in asking them.

Yesterday I spent more than two hours watching, and live-blogging, the Congressional oversight committee hearing on bankrupt solar start-up Solyndra. When it was over, I felt as if I had wasted two hours on a Jersey Shore marathon: Dirty, unfulfilled and angry (both at myself for watching, and at those who gave me something to watch).

To be sure, I had expected lots of self-serving statements that could have been entered into the record without being verbalized (gotta get that sound bite). And of course there would be talk of whether only one president (Obama) or two presidents (Obama and Bush) were to blame for loaning Solyndra $535 million of taxpayer money, plus questions of political pressure (most of which seemed to revolve around the timing of the loan’s close, rather than its approval).

But I also had hoped for a detailed analysis of Solyndra itself – particularly its business model. Was the company, as it has argued, a victim of collapsing global solar prices (spurred by Chinese subsidies and the European financial crisis)? Or was it the victim of its own hubris – believing that customers would pay massive up-front costs for long-term savings? Or a combination of both? And, whatever the resolution – was such an outcome foreseeable?

Finally, why did VCs keep investing in the company in late 2008 – considering that Silver claimed the company would have failed without the early 2009 loan? Did they have good reason to believe DoE had come around, or was it evidence that lots of bad money followed honest intentions?

Unfortunately, virtually none of the substantive issues were discussed.

DoE loan program chair Jonathan Silver — an ex-VC, even though it seems few committee members cared to read his resume — pressed the solar price case, which was echoed by certain Democratic committee members, but never was asked to talk much about Solyndra specifically. Most of the Republicans simply wanted to make speeches and insinuations. The worst offender was chair Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who kept preventing Silver from answering what Stearn apparently felt were rhetorical questions.

At least Phil Gingrey (R-GA) had some queries about the legality of DoE restructuring the Solyndra loan with a private debt investor who got seniority – it had been approved by DoE and OMB counsel — although he only did so for the purpose of arguing its illegality (again, sound bite).

My takeaway: This committee – both sides — is not serious about finding out what really went wrong with Solyndra, thus perhaps improving the DoE loan program going forward. Its primary concern is scoring political points. And it didn’t even do that very well…

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