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Solyndra Scandal A PR Nightmare For Solar Energy & Green Subsidies

Renewable energy backers are sporting a big black eye courtesy of the bankruptcy filing and FBI raid of a high-profile California solar company widely trumpeted by the Obama administration.

Solar and wind industry officials insist Solyndra — the recipient of $535 million in federal loan guarantees and a personal visit from President Barack Obama — is just a bad egg with a bad business plan.

But the company’s unraveling has caused a PR nightmare for clean energy advocates who have been struggling for years to win new federal mandates and extensions on valuable tax credits. And industry officials worry their good news about recent growth spurts could be overshadowed by the drip-drip nature of the Solyndra mess.

“To have a negative story come out about solar and for it to receive so much press when there’s so much positive news in the industry is a little bit distressing,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, citing polls that show a 90 percent public approval rating for the industry.

Solyndra’s problems, Resch said, stem from global competition and rapidly falling prices, all normal parts of a fast-growing market. “This is what happens when you scale up an industry; you have winners and losers,” he said. “There will be others.”

Tim Greeff, policy director at the Clean Economy Network, a coalition of clean-technology businesses, said the wind and solar companies have been handed excessive political baggage that they didn’t ask for. Environmentalists and political officials are to blame for making economic predictions about green jobs that were never possible, he said.

“They made promises they had no role in delivering on,” Greeff said. “Sometimes we get sucked into the fray when we’re not willing participants.”

Republicans are looking to milk Solyndra’s demise for all it’s worth. Last month, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and laid off 1,100 workers. This month, the FBI executed search warrants as part of an investigation with the Energy Department’s inspector general. House lawmakers have been investigating the company and links to the Obama administration, and it’s a tailor-made issue for opponents of the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

“It’s got all the right catnip to make it interesting for different parties for a long time,” said Matt McDonald, a former George W. Bush White House official who tracks economic data for Hamilton Place Strategies.

Republicans don’t necessarily have it in for all solar and wind companies. Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were among the GOP presidential candidates eager to sign a wind turbine blade last month stationed outside a debate hall in Ames, Iowa.

Still, GOP officials are more than happy to keep twisting the knife when it comes to Obama’s role with Solyndra.

On Monday, the Republican National Committee released a 15-page research memo that contrasted media reports on Solyndra’s financial problems with glowing quotes from the president, who visited the company’s Fremont, Calif., headquarters in May 2010.

More grist will come Wednesday during a hearing oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been spending months investigating the loan guarantees for Solyndra.

“By making them the pillar of the green jobs argument, when the pillar collapses, for whatever reason it does, it certainly undermines your messaging,” said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

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