This week, Abound Solar, Inc., a United States manufacturer of solar panels, announced plans to suspend their manufacturing operations, lay off workers and file for bankruptcy. As Bloomberg reported, Abound struggled to sell its solar panels in a market dominated by Chinese product.
If that sounds familiar, there's a reason: It's the same obstacle the infamous Solyndra failed to surmount. And like Solyndra, Abound received a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. (The awarded guarantee was for $400 million; of which $70 million was spent.)
The obvious comparisons to Solyndra have been made -- by Bloomberg News, by The Hill's energy blog and by Politico, in an article titled "Another Solyndra? DOE: Loan recipient closing." This is potentially good news for Politico, actually. They've been trying to make "another Solyndra" happen for some time.
Way back in September, Politico reported that LightSquared was the next Solyndra. (Their story showed up in my RSS feed with the headline, "LightSquared: The next Solyndra?") In January, they wrote a story about Ener1, an Indiana company that manufactures lithium-ion batteries, giving it the headline they'd essentially recycle for Abound Solar, "Another Solyndra? Grant recipient Ener1 in bankruptcy proceedings." In April, Politico's "Morning Energy" newsletter hyped a National Review story from Robert Bryce titled "The Next ‘Next Solyndra,’" which fingered electric car battery maker A123 Systems as ... well, you get the idea.
This is not to diminish the substance of these stories. The LightSquared story is especially gripping, beginning with an accusation of crony capitalism. It was spurred on by an Eli Lake scoop that the White House tried to influence LightSquared-related testimony of government officials. The White House pushed back, offering evidence that they'd long had their foot on LightSquared's neck due to the failings of their proposed wireless broadband network. Either way, LightSquared CEO Philip Falcone, the Obama donor at the center of the crony capitalism charge, agreed to step down this past spring.
But rather than make LightSquared "another Solyndra," the case should have been presented as "the first LightSquared." LightSquared did not share the problems that made Solyndra what it was, and Politico knew this. As the news outlet reported at the time, "LightSquared has not received a loan from the government, nor has it filed for bankruptcy." Ener1, by contrast, was at least comparable in that the company received a stimulus grant recipient and filed for bankruptcy. (Ener1 also received lots of contract work during the Bush administration.)
It's just an example of the nagging tendency of the media to fall back on "this thing looks like that thing" tropes, thus losing the details of the story in the blinding light of all the shiny-shiny. Politico is far from alone in the phenomenon of seeking-Solyndra-everywhere -- just Google any of the companies named above with the word "Solyndra" and you'll see manifold evidence that the right-wing noise machine has successfully pushed these distinctions.
But what sets Politico apart is that they know better. All they have to do is read their own publication -- specifically, Alex Guillen's April 4 piece, "A $2 billion solar mistake -- from the media."
In his article, Guillen describes how lots of media organizations bought the hype that Solar Trust, an Oakland-based company that was planning to build a large solar farm in Blythe, Calif., had cost taxpayers $2.1 billion in DOE-guaranteed loans after it filed for bankruptcy. The problem is that Solar Trust had never taken the loan -- they'd actually backed out of the deal in August. Guillen very deftly picked through the wreckage:
Right-leaning blogs and websites seized on the news with headlines blaring about $2 billion of taxpayers’ money lost — even if the accompanying story correctly noted that Solar Trust never got a dime.
“One year ago this outfit got $2.1 billion in taxpayer loans,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program Tuesday. “So down the tubes. Solyndra was solar panels, and now Solar Trust of America has filed bankruptcy.”
Even The Associated Press and Reuters got it wrong.
Guillen didn't just catch the fact that the story was pushed headlong into the news cycle by the conservative hype machine, he also issued a warning about the poorly-understood complexities of the loan guarantee program, as well as the media's goofy drive to find another Solyndra in every government deal: "The misunderstanding underscores the complexities of DOE’s loan guarantee program, the uncertainty of the global solar market and the eagerness of many in the media to discover the next Solyndra."
Read Alex Guillen's piece and reflect, next-Solyndra seekers!
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