Former US DOE official defends loan guarantee for solar’s Solyndra: Platts

Washington - October 3, 2011

The US Department of Energy (DOE) exercised proper oversight and due diligence in approving a $535 million loan guarantee to solar panel maker Solyndra, said a former senior official in the agency during the Clinton and Bush administrations who helped create its now-embattled loan guarantee program.

“If you look at DOE, best I can determine they have done nothing illegal, wrong, incorrect,” said Walter Streight Howes, the first director of the DOE loan guarantee program under President George W. Bush. “I think they actually put a huge amount of time and due diligence here.” Howes made his comments Sunday on Platts Energy Week, the all-energy news and talk television program.

Howes is currently a managing partner of Verdigris Capital who works closely with companies applying for loan guarantees. He said he was not directly involved in reviewing now-bankrupt Solyndra’s application when it was first filed with DOE in 2006.

As for the controversial March restructuring of Solyndra’s financing that Republicans have said may have violated the law, Howes said he probably would have done the same thing given what he knows.

“I am glad I was not in that chair to get that call, because from what I know of the facts right now, I probably would have made the same decision,” he said.

The Obama administration has come under fire from Republicans for approving a $535 million loan guarantee in 2009 to Solyndra, which last month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shut down operations.

The company used the loan guarantee to build a state-of-the-art factory in California to make its unique cylindrical solar panels.

Republicans have said the administration rushed through the company’s loan guarantee application without proper oversight, and they have also said that DOE’s restructuring of Solyndra’s loan guarantee in March may have been illegal, by putting taxpayers subordinate to two large private investors in case of a default.

But Howes backed administration claims that the restructuring gave the company a fighting chance at staving off bankruptcy, and he noted that the restructuring was done without DOE giving the company any more taxpayer-backed financing.

“It was probably a good gamble and it didn't put the government at a diminished position,” he said.

He said restructuring Solyndra’s debt allowed the company, which was burning cash trying to compete against cheaper Chinese-made solar panels, to complete its new manufacturing facility, giving it a solid asset that could recover some money in a bankruptcy auction, which a federal bankruptcy judge has set for October 27.

“Rule No. 1 of project finance and restructuring is, if you are going to restructure, it takes something of value, and they hadn’t finished the facility,” Howes said. “So now they at least have a facility that is up and running, so in the [bankruptcy reorganization], they have a facility they may be able to use.”

Howes said that despite what difficulties the loan guarantee program may have had this past year in navigating the politics of Capitol Hill and in underwriting challenging loans, it is worth preserving.

He noted that the loan guarantee program got significantly ramped up under the Obama administration after the Bush administration had essentially put it on ice for ideological reasons. While that rush may have opened up the Obama administration to criticism, Howes said the US needs to keep up with rivals, like China, that are significantly investing in clean energy technology.

“The Obama administration said, ‘Whoops we've inherited this bad economy,’ so they partnered the loan guarantee program with the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] stimulus act, put it on steroids, if you will,” Howes said. “I think it is vital that we continue this type of a program. Look at our competitors; they are doing this in spades. We have to evolve from industrial-age fuels to the next era. It is vitally important we do this.”

In other discussions, program host Bill Loveless spoke with David Vieau, the CEO of battery maker A123 Systems, about the challenges to building a robust but inexpensive battery to better facilitate the mass production of electric vehicles. Vieau’s firm is the largest lithium ion battery maker in North America for heavy-duty commercial vehicles and for grid-scale energy storage systems.

On the topic of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act and what it means to global energy trading and pending Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) actions, Platts Energy Week featured the views of Michael Greenberger, a former CFTC trading director. He discussed the challenges of developing and implementing energy reform actions in the United States when it is unclear what actions global regulators will be taking. The US energy industry is concerned that certain actions in the US, if significantly different from global policies, could drive trading action outside US borders.

This week’s Market Spotlight highlighted Europe’s natural gas challenges. Paul Whitehead, Platts managing editor for European energy policy, discussed Europe’s search for supply sources beyond Russia.

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