WASHINGTON -- A host of industry experts, including a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, are urging lawmakers not to stigmatize either green energy or the government's role in promoting it after the abrupt downfall of Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar equipment manufacturer.
"People ought to resist [demonizing alternative energy] because it's really stupid to blame solar in general for some people not managing a corporation well," said R. James Woolsey, chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the former CIA director under Bill Clinton. "Solar ... keeps getting cheaper and more efficient all the time, and steadily. And I think the folks you see going after solar as a result of all of this, some of them probably have quite a substantial interest in maybe coal or whatever. I think that anybody who follows solar closely realizes how the changes are coming."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Woolsey, who advised McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, offered a deal for those critics arguing that loan guarantees for alternative energy companies should be eliminated following Solyndra's downfall.
"I would be willing to make this trade," said Woolsey, who has long been an outspoken champion of alternative energy source development. "We won't have subsidies for solar and wind if we pull out every single penny of subsidies to coal and oil, including all of the tax subsidies. Every penny. Take it away, and then let solar and wind do it on their own."
Far from absolving the Obama White House's political management of the Solyndra crisis, Woolsey's comments are simply meant to add a bit of sobriety to the current energy policy debate. At a time when America needs to encourage a diverse set of sources, it's retreating back to the norm.
"'Drill, baby, drill' does nothing to break the oil cartel," said Woolsey.
It's unclear just how much damage Solyndra's scandal has done to the alternative and green energy movements that were built, in part, on the promise to wean America off its oil dependence. In the wake of Solyndra's bankruptcy, small-government conservatives and like-minded lawmakers have suggested scrapping the loan guarantee program that originated under George W. Bush. The more pointed critiques have been directed at the Obama administration for failing to heed recurring warnings about that company's specific standing. On Monday, The New York Times reported on more emails revealing that the White House was concerned Solyndra would collapse even before the president visited its headquarters in May 2010 to tout the $535 million loan guarantee it had received.
Confronted with these internal communications in the past, the administration has chosen a two-pronged pushback, noting the longstanding tradition of Republican lawmakers championing loan guarantees for green-sector companies in their own districts and insisting that, among all companies on which to bet, a solar equipment manufacturer was a morally solid pick.
"No, I don't," President Barack Obama said on Monday when asked by ABC News whether he regretted the loan. "Not every business is going to succeed."
That appeared to be the thinking of the Bush administration as well when the loan guarantee program was established. And on Monday, a top Department of Energy official from that administration acknowledged that he too would have signed off on the Solyndra project, had the choice been up to him.
“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," said Walter Streight Howes in an interview with Platts Energy Week. The loan guarantee, he added, was a "good gamble."
In hindsight, the gamble wasn't good; it was a bust. And for those who champion alternative and green energy, it has produced the anxiety-inducing prospect that years of public relations work and political persuasion have been undone by the missteps of a single company.
"We may be at a white-hot political moment, but I'm not sure that it will last that long," said an optimistic Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser with the Bipartisan Policy Center, an influential think tank that works on energy-related policy, among other issues. "Companies fail all the time ... especially in new technologies. I think the more people examine the details here, the more they are going to want to better structure our existing approaches. The opportunity is to examine our current subsidies and find a way to make them work better for less money."
Bledsoe's hope of realigning taxpayer incentives for energy production lies with the congressional super committee tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Reform that eliminates some tax code expenditures or government subsidies could help level a playing field in which, in FY2010 alone, $2.82 billion went to natural gas and petroleum interests (through direct expenditures, tax expenditures, research and development funds, and loan guarantees), $2.49 billion to nuclear energy interests and $1.13 billion to solar interests.
Leveling the playing field won't be easy, as a horde of industry-financed lobbyists stand ready to protect the carve-outs their clients have long enjoyed. But the larger task facing Woolsey and even some environmentally conscious Republicans may be to persuade voters that the government has a role to play in creating a new energy economy at all.
"Probably the biggest setback is that neither conservatives nor liberals, Republicans nor Democrats, at a very senior policy-making level are dealing with the problem. They're dealing with other problems, but they're not dealing with the key one, I think, which is our oil dependence," said the former CIA director.
Pivoting to solutions, Woolsey noted that the government could "bring antitrust cases and break up cartels" as a way of limiting the stranglehold of foreign oil. But, he added, "there are some things that will have a big advantage over the long run that are worth subsidizing in the near term."
Earlier on HuffPost: