Southern California environment news and trends

You takes your chances: betting rules for the energy racetrack

136th Running of the Preakness Stakes

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Some of these horses are solar technologies, and some of them we have bet on, in my metaphorical world.

Like some of my other public radio colleagues here in LA, I'm a fan of former local TV guy John Schwada, and so I've been glad to see his writing over at LA Observed. But the other day, he looked at the amount of loan guarantees the Department of Energy made in California, through the prism of political rhetoric and a Brookings report, and seems to have concluded that the program's too risky for the public. "It all adds up to a huge taxpayer bet on the ability of a handful of companies to turn California's sunlight into green energy. That could be a big windfall for the state's environment but - as the numbers point out - the long-term outlook is that these green power projects will create only a handful of permanent jobs."

There's another way of looking at the DOE loan program in specific and renewable energy and jobs in general. In conversation with Matt Debord, who has spent a couple weeks figuring out Solyndra and loan guarantees, I've lately been thinking about loan guarantees as bets. The federal government, like venture capital companies, has been betting on emerging technology. I have a friend who writes for the Daily Racing Form, and I enjoy a day at Santa Anita (or the Fairgrounds Racetrack in New Orleans, or Keeneland) as much as anyone, so in that spirit, here's four things to remember at the track when you're watching this metaphorical horse race that everyone's desperate to handicap.  


Will Solar City's SolarStrong be Solyndra's casualty?

In these pages, in Debord Report, and elsewhere, the Solyndra bankruptcy and investigation have ran debate rampant over the question of what this whole fiasco does to other California companies. We have at least one answer, and it's not pretty. 

A few weeks back San Mateo-based SolarCity announced it got a $275 million loan guarantee for SolarStrong, a project to install residential rooftop solar at up to 124 military bases in 33 states. SolarCity says this project "has the potential to be the largest single residential solar electricity project in the world and would nearly double" the total number of residential solar installations in the US. 

Today it doesn't look like that loan's coming through. 

SolarCity says the Department of Energy has now told them that it won't be able to finalize approval for the loan guarantee before the program ends on September 30 "due to the increased documentation requirements that are the result of the current congressional investigation into the Solyndra bankruptcy."


Solyndra won't talk DOE energy loan at House hearing on Wednesday

In Washington tomorrow, an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Solyndra and loan guarantees by the Department of Energy. Those loans have been critical to development of a few projects here in California, including others we've covered underway from Solar City and Brightsource Energy.  Department of Energy loans program director Jonathan Silver is slated to appear. So were two members of Solyndra's executive team, Brian Harrison and Bill Stover, who, the committee reasoned, would have some answers about how the company went from doubling its expectations to having few at all.

Except Solyndra won't be there. Solyndra's media contact, David Miller, cited "the timing for the hearing, legal complexities arising from last week's activities and the urgency of the Bankruptcy proceedings" as reasons why Harrison and Stover won't be appearing. "The Company is in direct communication with the committee staff and working with them on a future date" for appearances. "Given that it is in the best interest of all creditors, including the U.S. government, to attempt to gain maximum value for the Solyndra assets, either via sale of the whole company or in parts, including its intellectual property, it is in the best interest of all interested parties for them to remain in California to engage with potential purchasers."


How baseball explains Solyndra's bankruptcy and Energy's loan guarantees

For renewables boosters at the National Clean Energy Summit, the news yesterday that Bay Area-based Solyndra is going under stretched out the discussion about the value of government loan guarantees and other incentives for another day. Perhaps not in the way the most avid cheerleaders would have desired.

Solyndra's bankruptcy announcement put me in mind of the tortured and extended metaphor Energy Secretary Steven Chu used in Vegas Monday as he extolled the virtues of going big or going home in funding energy innovation. Chu talked about the kinds of projects in which the federal government invested as recently as 5 years ago. "We weren't swinging from the heels enough," Chu said. "We were investing in incremental things - singles - but a home run could really change the whole landscape of energy technology. It's really too early to tell whether we actually have home runs, but we see a number of people rounding second base."