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Administration officials grilled over Solyndra bankruptcy

US lawmakers have grilled two Obama Administration officials over federal support for bankrupt PV manufacturer Solyndra, putting the solar industry in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations had tough questions for Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Department of Energy Loan Programs Office, and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), at a hearing on Wednesday.

Executives from the company are to appear before the subcommittee next week.

Republicans in particular probed for signs that the administration tried to speed a review of Solyndra, which received support of $535m under the DOE Loan Guarantee Program and whose largest investor is a fund connected to George Kaiser, a major Obama donor.

A story in the Washington Post quoted 2009 e-mails suggesting that the White House pressured the OMB to sign-off on the Solyndra financing before the agency was ready. A White House spokesman says the loan was made on the merits and that questions about the OMB’s progress were for scheduling purposes.

At the time, the Loan Guarantee Program was criticized for being too slow to close deals, and observers pointed to a bottleneck in finalizing deals at the OMB, tasked with reviewing federal agency programmes, among other things.

Republicans also questioned a financial restructuring the DOE agreed to earlier this year that subordinated the taxpayer debt to that of the company’s private lenders.

The hearing is just the latest solar industry public relations catastrophe to arise from the bankrupt company, which President Obama touted during a personal visit last year.

Last week, on the day the President gave a speech to Congress outlining his job creation proposals, Solyndra facilities were searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, is calling for an investigation into the trading practices of government-subsidized Chinese PV manufacturers, suggesting that they have been flooding the US market with product. Indeed, Solyndra and other US manufacturers to go bankrupt recently have cited their inability to keep up with plummeting PV prices caused by a global oversupply.

The administration continues to argue that for the US to be competitive in solar manufacturing, government support must continue.

Silver made that argument again at the hearing. “We invented this technology, and we should produce it here. The question is whether we are willing to take on this challenge, or whether we will simply cede leadership in this vital sector to other nations, and watch as tens of thousands of jobs are created overseas. The Administration believes this is a battle we must fight and win," he said.

Benjamin Romano, Seattle



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