Energy Secretary Steven Chu rebuffed suggestions that the Obama administration should apologize for the $500 million in taxpayer dollars loaned to Solyndra, but expressed his disappointment that the solar panel company failed.
“It is extremely unfortunate what has happened to Solyndra, ” Chu told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations on Thursday.
“This company, and several others, got caught in a very bad tsunami if you will,” Chu said.
Chu also denied that political favoritism was a factor in the decision to issue the guaranteed government loans to Solyndra, but said he is responsible for making the decision to release the stimulus dollars to the company.
“As the secretary of Energy, the final decisions on Solyndra were mine, and I made them with the best interest of the taxpayer in mind. I want to be clear: over the course of Solyndra’s loan guarantee, I did not make any decision based on political considerations,” Chu said.
As to how much of those taxpayer dollars will ever be recovered, Chu was not optimistic.
“That remains to be seen. Not very much,” said Chu, who testified under oath during five-hours of aggressive questioning.
Chu is the highest ranking official to testify before the Republican-led panel, which has been investigating the loans for nine months—long before the company went bankrupt in August and laid-off all its workers, and a September raid by the FBI to seize documents in the California plant.
Chu told lawmakers he did not learn until this week that officials within the Obama administration asked Solyndra last year to delay layoffs planned then until after the November midterm elections. Chu also said he was not aware at the time of the loans that billionaire George Kaiser, a major contributor to Obama’s political campaign, was also a top investor in Solyndra.
Numerous emails released by the committee show Kaiser and his top officials were discussing the Solyndra loan as well as the popularity of the company among officials in the White House and vice president’s office. President Barack Obama personally toured the plant 18 months ago, and touted it as a solar power success story.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R. –Texas). “Everyone at the Department of Energy and his dog knew who (Kaiser) was.”
Solyndra spent $1 million lobbying the federal government during the years it was first awarded the loan in 2009, and the restructuring in 2010 that put private investors including Kaiser, ahead of the government for repayment if the company failed.
“We have since uncovered serious disagreements within the administration about not only the legality of this arrangement but whether it was a good deal for anyone involved but the rich hedge fund investors,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R.–Fla.) subcommittee chairman.
Chu said Solyndra was believed to be a good investment, but that it failed because of heavy investing in Chinese solar panels by the communist government, which allowed for the product to be sold for considerably less.
“Countries like China are playing to win in the solar industry. China has invested aggressively to support its companies. When it comes to the clean energy race, America faces a simple choice: compete or accept defeat. I believe we can and must compete,” Chu said.
Democrats on the panel agreed that market forces and the heavily subsidized solar panels from China were to blame.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the U.S. government should commit more tax dollars to domestic solar energy in order to compete with China, which last year propped up its industry with $30 billion.
“Jobs and manufacturing facilities are booming in China as a result,” said Waxman, adding that the U.S. “can out-compete” with that.
“It’s time for House Republicans to stop dancing on Solyndra’s grave and start getting serious about energy policy,” Waxman said. “The health of our planet will be at risk until we find a way to come together.”
Democrats accused Republicans of launching an unnecessary and unprecedented battle with the White House for partisan political purposes.
“They are trying to manufacture scandal where there is none,” Waxman said. We’ve lost a lot of money and that’s unfortunate, but there is no scandal there.”
“I think you’re on the right said of the debate and the right side of history,” Waxman told Chu. “I think Republicans are on the wrong side. I don’t see that you have done anything wrong.”
However, if the Energy Department knew then, what it knows now because of the congressional investigation, Chu said they would never have approved the loan.
“Certainly knowing what I know now, we’d say no,” Chu said.