Journalism in the Public Interest

What’s Happening With That Solar Company Scandal? Here’s Our Guide on Solyndra.


Pres. Obama lifts a solar panel with Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet during a tour of Solyndra's solar panel manufacturing facility, May 26, 2010. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

Once hailed by the Obama administration as a key example of its commitment to green technology driving growth and creating jobs, solar company Solyndra has lost a good deal of its shine. It’s bankrupt and the target of a federal criminal investigation.

Scrutiny—particularly from House Republicans—quickly shifted to the Obama administration, which has been accused of rushing to approve a $535-million loan to the company in 2009 for political reasons and without carefully weighing the risks.

So, what’s the situation, who’s the focus of the investigations and how big a deal is this Solyndra storyline? We sort through what it does—and doesn’t—mean.

What was the investment to begin with?

The government first began considering Solyndra for a loan as part of a loan-guarantee program that began under the Bush administration. The Obama administration expanded the loan guarantee program by way of the stimulus and approved the half-billion-dollar loan to the California-based solar company.

As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog notes, Solyndra makes up just 1.3 percent of the $38 billion in loans extended as part of the loan-guarantee program, and it’s the only loan to go bad so far.

Now that Solyndra has filed for bankruptcy protection, how much taxpayers will actually recoup depends on how things shake out in bankruptcy court and whether any money is left. Bloomberg and Time recently reported that at least some private investors are in line to be repaid before U.S. taxpayers.

What’s the government’s investigation about?  

It depends on which investigation you’re wondering about. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI’s criminal investigation focuses on “whether Solyndra executives knowingly misled the government to secure more than $500 million in loan guarantees.” (A Solyndra spokesman said the company is “fully cooperating” with the investigation.)

Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released findings yesterday from a seven-month investigation into the government’s role in approving the loan. The memo, titled “The Solyndra Story” [PDF], blames the Department of Energy and the White House Office of Management and Budget for ignoring red flags “in their rush to spend stimulus dollars.”

Did the Obama administration do anything wrong?

Well, government shouldn’t approve the use of taxpayer money without doing its due diligence first. A 2010 report [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Energy “treated applicants inconsistently, favoring some and disadvantaging others.”

Solyndra wasn’t the only one that got fast-tracked. The GAO also found that in at least four other cases, the government agreed to back companies before obtaining final reports assessing their risk of failure.

But so far, there’s no evidence that the Obama administration approved the loan in order to curry favor with supporters, as some have speculated.

Ultimately, Solyndra was a failed investment decision on the part of the government, which, unfortunately for taxpayers, isn’t unusual. Consider the billions in bailout dollars that were lent to banks that, like Solyndra, ended up bankrupt.

Was the urgency for the loan politically motivated?

That’s what Republicans have speculated and some reports have suggested. Noting that one of Solyndra’s major investors was a venture-capital fund linked to George Kaiser, a bundler for Obama’s 2008 campaign, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote a letter requesting any communications that the White House had with Solyndra or Solyndra investors about the loan guarantee.

[Update, 9/19: As we previously noted, one of Solyndra’s major investors was a venture-capital fund linked to George Kaiser, a bundler for Obama’s 2008 campaign. To be more specific, the investor was Argonaut Private Equity, an investment arm of the George Kaiser Family Foundation—an anti-poverty charity funded by George Kaiser.

George Kaiser has made 16 visits to the president’s aides since 2009, as Bloomberg and others have pointed out. Kaiser, who is based in Tulsa, was also in D.C. the week before the Obama administration awarded Solyndra its loan guarantee. As the The Daily Caller notes, he logged four visits with White House officials in two days.

Kaiser’s charity told the Washington Post that George Kaiser is not personally invested in Solyndra and “did not participate in any discussions with the U.S. Government regarding the loan.”]

Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed out that Solyndra’s second-biggest private investor was a fund tied to the Walton family, which has typically funded Republicans. The San Jose Mercury News also reported that Solyndra’s CEO is registered as a Republican in California.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the email messages showed “there was urgency to make a decision about a scheduling matter,” referring to a press event. But he pushed back against implications that there had been any wrongdoing or special favors.

“It had nothing to do with—and there is no evidence to the contrary—nothing to do with anything besides the need to get an answer to make a scheduling decision,” Carney said.

Was lending to Solyndra a bad idea?

It was certainly a risky decision, and one that ended badly.

As iWatch News notes, the credit rating agency Fitch had assigned Solyndra a B+ credit rating back in 2008, which is below investment grade. iWatch also noted that the Obama administration approved the loan despite early warnings:

“If you guys think this is a bad idea, I need to unwind the WW [West Wing] QUICKLY,” wrote Ronald A. Klain, then chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, in an email sent March 7, 2009.

Three days later, an analyst at the Office of Management and Budget cautioned against moving too quickly. “This deal is NOT ready for prime time,” the analyst wrote in a March 10, 2009, email.

Only 10 days later, the Department of Energy formally announced its commitment to guarantee the loan, which the administration had fast-tracked as the first green-energy project backed by stimulus dollars.

On the other hand, a lot of private investors saw potential in Solyndra, and there was plenty of media buzz about the company.

In 2010, a story in the Wall Street Journal’s small-business section listed Solyndra as the “top clean-tech company,” citing the $535-million government loan in addition to $286 million in venture capital. The Journal also ranked Solyndra fifth on its “Next Big Thing” list for top venture-backed companies.

Still, when red flags continued to crop up, the Obama administration didn’t abandon its signature project. After a March 2010 audit noted Solyndra’s "recurring losses from operations, negative cash flows since inception” and “a net stockholders' deficit,” President Obama still toured the plant and touted its success at job creation and innovation.

“The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra, will always be America’s businesses,” he said. (You can read about his tour on the White House blog.) And after the company later laid off nearly 180 employees, the Energy Department cast Solyndra’s financial woes as a “cash flow crisis that is very common for innovative start-up companies that are growing quickly,” iWatch noted.

Where is the latest news on Solyndra coming from?

The latest revelations stirring the pot on Solyndra have been from Republican investigators for the House Energy committee, which also held a public hearing yesterday.

Separate from the hearing, both ABC News/iWatch and the Washington Post published stories yesterday claiming exclusives on emails shared by Republican investigators. (It’s unclear whether the outlets were given the same email messages.) Here’s the Post:

The August 2009 e-mails ... show White House officials repeatedly asking OMB reviewers when they would be able to decide on the federal loan and noting a looming press event at which they planned to announce the deal. In response, OMB officials expressed concern that they were being rushed to approve the company’s project without adequate time to assess the risk to taxpayers, according to information provided by Republican congressional investigators.

Miriam Wang’s article in a nutshell:move along folks, nothing to see here

Its not that the DOE shouldn’t make loan guarantees or that it shouldn’t support innovative all be it risky technologies. The core issue here, and one that Miriam Wang does her best to obscure, is that these decisions should be made according to existing policy and political considerations should not trump them. The process for selection of companies to receive loan guarantee backing is a merit based decision made by functionaries at the DOE, not on orders from the White House. Call it crony capitalism, nepotism, corruption, or whatever you like.

Not mentioned in Wang’s latest’s Obama apologia is that George Kaiser visited the White House 16 times before the company was granted the $535 million loan guarantee. Emails released between White House officials and Office of Management and Budget make it quite clear that Solyndra received its loan guarantee prematurely and under pressure from the Obama administration.

Couple this with the news about another Obama supporter using his political influence and fundraising to gain the administration’s help on another business venture.  General William Shelton, a four-star Air Force general who oversees U.S. Space Command, gave a classified briefing in which he stated that the White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony on a proposed broadband project by LightSquared whose majority owner is an investment fund run by Democratic donor Philip Falcone. The USAF determined that LightSquared’s project would interfere with its GPS capabilities and Shelton was to testify to that end until the Obama Administration put the muscle on him to alter his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor.

But I guess Miriam Wang and ProPublica spin on this is clear: crony capitalism is only noteworthy when people we don’t like do it

Barry Schmittou

Sep. 15, 2011, 2:07 p.m.

White House spokesman Jay Carney should show us the emails and prove there is no truth to the “implications that there had been any wrongdoing or special favors”

I certainly don’t trust anything that the Obama and Bush adminsitrations have said !!

Even if there were no special favors, there is overwhelming evidence that this is one of many very stupid wastes of huge amounts of money.

AIG received 186 billion of bailout money two years after the SEC wrote this in 2006 :

“AIG will pay in excess of $1.6 billion to resolve claims related to improper accounting, bid rigging and practices involving workers’ compensation funds.”


AIG and numerous other bailed out companies have received multiple Non Prosecution agreeements for bid rigging and health care fraud !!

JP Morgan also received a non prosecution agreement for bid rigging in 32 States on July 6, 2011.

Here’s a quote from the U.S. Department of Justice :

“From 2001 to 2006, certain then-employees of JPM at its municipal derivatives desk (which was closed by the Company in 2008) and/or predecessor desks entered into unlawful agreements to manipulate the bidding process and rig bids on certain relevant municipal contracts, and made payments and engaged in other activities in connection with those agreements, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, and certain sections of Title 18 of the United States Code”


An example of certain Obama and Bush injustice includes :

According to Bloomberg :

“No big U.S. bank—Wells Fargo included—has ever been indicted for violating the Bank Secrecy Act or any other federal law.”

Another example : Obama received hundreds of thousands of dollars from MetLife and their EVP James Lipscomb, and the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and their attorney Bruce Yannett;

Yannett and Lipscomb then signed MetLife’s third Non Prosecution Agreement they received for committing multiple frauds in bid rigging to increase sales of health related policies;

No one was prosecuted, Obama’s DOL and DOJ Pocketed 13.5 Million from MetLife, and they got MetLife to repay the big businesses they ripped off in the bid rigging;

BUT at the same time Obama’s DOL Directors will not stop MetLife and Doctor’s paid by MetLife who are ignoring brain lesions, Multiple Sclerosis, cardiac conditions of many patients and much more as evidenced by quotes from numerous Federal Court Judges that I have sent to Obama’s DOL and DOJ Directors.

They are very aware patients can die while they wait for their case to get to trial. DOL Directors wrote letters from Washington telling me it is their top priority to stop violations, BUT nine months after viewing the Judges quotes Obama’s DOL/DOJ refused to take action and help very sick and dying patients who filed claims on the policies that MetLife committed multiple frauds to sell !!!!!!

Finance is a bit foreign to me.  Can someone explain to me what a “loan guarantee” is?  It sounds like we put up collateral to get them a loan, which sounds like the worst possible use of stimulus money (let it sit).

Whoa, wait.  Venture-backed!?  As in, we put up money to secure them a loan not from a bank, but from venture capitalists?  Isn’t that exactly the opposite of how venture capital works?

I’m baffled, actually.  I mean, sure, corruption, cronyism, waste of money, and so forth, but I’m used to all that, at this point.  What I’d like to know is how any of this story makes sense.

Ignoring all that, though, I’m going to float a silly-sounding idea:  Isn’t this what the stimulus was for?  Take concepts that sound promising but are risky, and help float them so that they can create jobs.

Yes, it’s stupid to hide that Obama and Kaiser, but I’m not sure (my confusion aside) there’s any wrongdoing apart from that.  It’s tacky.  It’s a failure.  But would it have been better to give the money to Apple (a “better investment”) to hire three managers and ramp up production in China?

Whoa, back up.  You say an investor was “one of Solyndra’s major investors was a venture-capital fund linked to George Kaiser”

“Linked to?”  That’s Glenn Beck talk.

In fact Kaiser doesn’t stand to gain a penny from that investment.  It was a charitable foundation that made that investment.

@ John

A loan guarantee is a promise made by the guarantor (in this case the federal government) that should the holder of the loan default, the guarantor will pay whatever portion of the loan the holder is unable to pay.

Solyndra could not get private investment for their expansion because lenders thought it was too risky. The DOE, at Obama’s insistence, came in and guarantee anyone who lent money to Solyndra that regardless of Solyndra’s performance, they would be paid back on their original terms.

Bright.  Shiny.  Look over here, media outlets.  Pay no attention to the JOBS!  JOBS! JOBS! failure of Congress.  Here Press!  Here!  SCANDALOUS!!!  CRONIES.  REPUBLICAN INVESTIGATORS! 

Bright.  Shiny.  Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle.  Ohhhh, looky, look.  Sarah Palin. 

Karl Rove is right.  This is easy.

Mike H

What you wrote is not really accurate.  The purpose of the government involvement is to help trigger an ecosystem around which an industry can grow.  That benefits everyone.

So when a new technology is promising, it might be risky to investors, but very beneficial to us as a country to pursue it.  That way we end up with a chunk of the millions of jobs and trillions of dollars that result.

THIS is why China has put more than $30 billion in a single year toward capturing this industry, which is what drove prices down and caused Solyndra to go bankrupt.

As for “Obama’s insistence” this loan originated under Bush—fo0r good reasons.  They had some conditions, and those conditions were met under the new administration.  The Bush admin was right to suggest the loan, did nothing wrong, and pushing for this loan helps the country.  Approving the loan also helps the country because that money went toward helping develop that ecosystem that creates companies.  Even though Solyndra didn’t make it, the money created jobs and leaves behind technology, equpment and facilities that other companies will use.

look at Nation of change’s article, they have a little more than you have.

Third paragraph noted that this loan matter was begun under the Bush administration, and this is place where you should have inserted the information for the reader that weeks before the end of the Bush term it had terminated their consideration of the loan because it was deemed ultimately too risky. Your author makes it sound like the Obama folks merely continued the work that the Bush administration had been doing in their review without any change. Since the Bush folks stopped their review altogether the Obama folks are the ones solely responsible for this incredible blunder, but the reader would never guess that from your reporting…..this type of convenient omission of a critical fact here and there seems to happen quite often in your reporting of the “facts.”

A unique green product. Perhaps ahead of it’s time. Many mistakes were made by the the obama administration to spur the economy, I’m sure we will hear of more. I just hope things like this don’t destroy the drive away from the use of oil and coal. ( or the usual negative politics of washington)

I’m sure we will see these on the market but being made now in china or?  somewhere other than in the USA. and made much cheaper than we can manufacture for…how sad…

Wow! a solar Panel, easy to install and retains and stors energy.

@ Dave Johnson

Actually, what I wrote is entirely accurate.

Solyndra’s bankruptcy was due to plummeting polysilicon prices, high when they began pursuing their unique process which didn’t use polysilicon but low by the time they began production. This is why the original loan application request was denied by the Bush DOE. They realized that enough new polysilicon production was coming on line to drive prices down to the point where Solyndra wouldn’t be cost competitive.  To say this drop in polysilicon price was “unforeseeable” is horse manure, it was entirely foreseeable. Based solely on press releases and surveys of polysilicon manufactures it was obvious that there were undergoing a significant expansion in production. 

The conditions that made the Bush DOE reject Solyndra loan guarantee request still existed when Obama took over and based on the released emails it has been made more than evident that the administration overruled the DOE’s objections and made them guarantee the loan.

@ TDavis

Wang’s omission is feature of her novel kind of reporting, not a flaw.

All I can say is that the US is horribly behind many countries including China and many Eastern countries in green jobs.

Were they trying to save an industry and jobs? If they lent money to a company that was trying to create or keep jobs in this country in a green energy sector and did it in a hurry - well I can understand that.

It’s sad that we seem to not make solar panels here.  And much of the steel for wind turines is being brought from China which makes no sense at all.

Was there a personal loan guarantee? WTF am I thinking? That kind of security is reserved for the surfs, the rich and connected get the moneys with no personal guarantee.
I accepted a loan to float my business, and I had to personally guarantee it.

This will be the coup de gras for alternative energy, this one little adventure turned out bad so now all things alternative will be bad, kinda like taxes and regulations.

I say Bravo to all commentors on their knowledge of the subject matter of this article! It is refreshing when we are able to converse and share ideas and opinions respectfully with one another on subjects that include differing political viewpoints - thank you all.

T Davis,

It wouldn’t be fully accurate to say that the Bush administration “terminated” its consideration of the loan. This is from the House Republicans’ account of what happened:

“On January 9, 2009, in the last days of the Bush Administration, the Credit Committee voted against offering a conditional commitment to Solyndra, and remanded the deal to the Loan Programs Office to develop further information supporting the deal.”

See here:

So essentially, they told Solyndra—we’re not ready to commit to loaning you money yet, come back with more information.


Does the GOP not want LESS REGULATIONS BY GOVT so that businesses like registered GOP CEO of Solyndra, investors like the Walton family fund and even BUSH-CHENEY 8 years of cowboy wildwest got rid of all regulations BROUGHT AMERICA TO ITS FEET achieving the GREAT RECESSION!?!?!?

Why now blame Obama for lending money to crooks and scams run by Republicans CEO and supporters of theirs!?!?!? Are they investigating a firm that is raided by FBI now too, LOL!!?!??!

Constance M Tomlin

Sep. 15, 2011, 7:11 p.m.

When do we get to hear about the executive compensation?  How do investors in a company get paid back because the company failed?  And before anybody gets real hooked on the idea of the taxpayer losing out, consider that the money didn’t just disappear into thin air-not only the loan guarantee but the alleged investment money.  I am so tired of elected officials and such blithely stating how the citizens are on the hook for these large sums of money that we had no say in dispensing and that went into somebody’s pocket.  They could at least tell us how much taxes were paid on it so that we don’t feel like complete idiots while the wealth is being redistributed their way.

For a more complete story see A few details left out in Wang’s article are that the support for Solyndra began under GWB, and a large private investment which stood to make a return for the Walton family is different from a charitable foundation investment from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Typical Obama taking a short cut to make a date with the camera on his never ending campaign trail. Typical government to rob the taxpayers to feather their own beds.Typical comments pointing out bias jounalism. Typical partisan comments on the article.
When will we taxpayers get so sick of being robbed that we hold the political thieves feet to the fire. When will we taxpayers, i mean the ones that actually pay taxes, get fed up and do something.
Tea party like it or not are people doing something, everyone just needs to sct and stop these criminals.

Thanks very much, Mike and Dave.  That clarifies a lot about the situation.  So, basically, that stimulus money was only “put to use” if you’re an accountant.  Stupid, stupid plan.

All right, let’s look at the future.  We (the taxpayers) ensured Solyndra’s funding and are paying for their failure.  Who can we approach to expire their patents?

Seriously, search Google Patents for the company name.  There’s about thirty entries for what mostly look like solid concepts.  Releasing them to the public should come close offsetting our investment in terms of accelerating the solar energy market in general, rather than sitting on them until 2030, which helps nobody.

No one questions Obama’s lack of spine, however Republicans and Tea Party prophets of doom and gloom did not hesitate to berate Obama, the poor soul!! Reagan took funds from the Social Security Surplus Fund to bailout the thieves at Savings and Loan in 1986 to the tune of 700 million dollars and no one raised an eyebrow!! (Democrats had both Houses of Congress).

The New York Times has an article

that contains the quote:

begin quote:

‘While some believe China benefits from lower labor costs, Arnold said, “in fact much of manufacturing of solar modules is automated. Really the reason that countries like China are able to sell product at lower cost is they have cheaper access to capital,” because of government investments.’

:end quote

Observe the line “they have cheaper access to capital”.

What does that mean?  Simply that China gives themselves yet another competitive advantage by ensuring that their businesses pay very low interest rates on money borrowed to start and modernize manufacturing and service facilities.

So you have to ask yourselves:  What does it say if the Fed funds rate in the United States of America this month is 0.25%, and if the Fed funds rate last month was 0.25%, and if the Fed funds rate last year was 0.25% (while the Federal discount rate was 0.75% across the same period)?  If our “state” loans money that cheap, then why can’t companies make a go of it here if “cheaper access to capital” is the only issue?

Well, to start with the PRC doesn’t have any equivalent to our “high finance” - banking and Wall Street - poisoning their economy by insisting on being the middleman (who takes an arbitrary and enormous cut) between the money of “the state” and everything else.

And secondly, that “automation” that fellow refers to?  That is almost solely restricted to final assembly; the same manufacturing technology would be and is employed here.

The truth is the cost of Chinese currency is artificially suppressed by the government of China…that is, you get way more Chinese yuan for the dollar than you should.  The dollar that would buy you a bowl of rice here would buy you six bowls of rice in China…the dollars that rent you an apartment to live in here would rent you six apartments in China…the dollars it would take to buy a solar panel made here will buy you six solar panels that are made in China (well in the case of solar panels, it would if there wasn’t this big, fat private tax called “profit” that is added on by the importing American corporation).

That is yet another artificial competitive advantage our right and our neoliberals are willing to yield to the communists in China because our right and our neoliberals are far more interested in getting richer faster while inflicting as much pain as they possibly can on “labor” in America (a.k.a. “the American people”) than they are in the prosperity, security, and longevity of the United States of America.

You see a Republican or a neoliberal/“Blue Dog” Democrat, you thank them for selling America - and your kids - out.

“The equity interest of the Kaiser family got a preference as to the right of repayment from Solyndra. Kaiser got in front of the line. He got in front of the US Government’s $528mm IOU from Solyndra. Kaiser got in front of the interests of the American taxpayer.”  In legitamate loans, this does not happen!  See complete article at:

Do any of you think about how many dollars that the big banks got in their bailout was sent to China? Is this money being used to finance new factories and equipment in china? How about The Citi Group opening over 2,000 branch offices in China? Didn’t they get 42 billion of taxpayers money? This loss is a drop in the bucket compared to what the big banks have done to the taxpayers of this country.

george a rettig

Sep. 18, 2011, 2:33 p.m.

My sister-in-law who died a few years back of brest cancer used to have a saying when you new it wasn’t the way it really was cronyism,back door deals you just visually se e 5or6 people siting arround smoking cigars like the dog picture we’ve all seen, she used to say o look there’s a chicken.

I’ve got to agree with Steve.  We could be doing exactly what China is doing, except that our money comes exclusively through private channels (the banks), which are hell-bent on sucking us dry rather than encouraging the growth that’ll ensure there’s more blood to suck next year.

As I understand it, China’s central bank is also more liberal in terms of what ideas they’ll fund:  If there’s a chance it’ll bring money into the country, you get a loan check.  If you can’t pay it back, no big deal.

(For anyone who has the time to read a dense book and can get past the conspiratorial talk of Bilderbergers and the like, I’d recommend Ellen Brown’s “Web of Debt.”  She gives a great overview on the monetary systems we’ve used and which have succeeded and failed in terms of economic growth.)

This nonstory will be remembered in the same manner people will remember the climate change e-mails that gave the imbeciles who think climate change is a left-wing hoax some temporary solace.  The ideologues who believe the government can never pick winners need look no farther then South Korea where government sponsored efforts resulted in thriving shipbuilding, auto manufactoring, and electronics industries when all of the business experts said it was impossible.

How many private investors invested because the government invested?

B+ credit rating. Friends with benefits. Plenty of insiders saying the investment was risky. OF COURSE IT WAS POLITICALLY MOTIVATED. Just as the invasion of Iraq was. The administration essentially said, “Do whatever it takes to make this deal.” ...while ignoring the people who actually had knowledge of it’s poor financial situation.

I’d personally like to know why it failed. Does it’s products suck? Or they just can’t compete with the slave labor in China that dumps its products into the US?

I’d like to know, whatever happened to all the equipment and computers that was in the offices of Solyndra???

@Reggie:  If the normal route of bankruptcy was followed, all the computers and equipment that Solyndra possessed were sold as one bulk lot, auctioned off individually or as smaller lots, or sold in bulk as scrap…

After, presumably, the hard drives and other permanent storage media were erased or destroyed - which isn’t something done for nefarious reasons, but rather to protect any intellectual property a creditor received as a part of the bankruptcy settlement.  Since Solyndra attracted so much private funding, I feel comfortable in stating that there indeed was some valuable intellectual property.

lolll…whether that intellectual property was significant enough to eventually yield practical distributed energy generation and so threaten the Republican/Big Energy grip on the system of private taxation that is centralized energy generation, I couldn’t say.

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