This Week in Clean Economy: New Report Puts Solyndra Media Coverage in Spotlight

Did the media make too much of the Solyndra bankruptcy? Electric car fans get a mixed bag of news, while cleantech investing hits the trillion-dollar mark.

Credit: zackgrahamEE, flickr

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The question whether the media made too much of Solyndra continued to rankle this week.

Mainstream news outlets have been rebuked by advocacy groups for fixating on Solyndra’s downfall and misrepresenting the loan program that backed the California upstart, which green advocates say is working fine. Now they say they have proof.

An analysis by Bloomberg Government, a news service, describes how the program—which is partly funded by massive fees on loan applicants—was designed to absorb bankruptcy losses like Solyndra’s without harming taxpayers. The author, a former Department of Energy analyst under Presidents Bush and Obama, concludes that “the [media] focus on Solyndra is not proportional to its impact.”

The problem is that only The Hill and Huffington Post covered the analysis, lamented Media Matters, a nonprofit watchdog group. That’s in contrast to the hundreds of reports on Solyndra’s collapse and its ties to Obama by dozens of newspapers and television networks in recent months, it said. The group claims that focusing only on negative stories about the DOE program plays into the hands of House Republicans, who have used Solyndra to try and pull the plug on the loan guarantees.

The Bloomberg report tries to make it clear that Solyndra is the exception and not the norm. Its $535 million loan accounted for 3 percent of the $16 billion program, which itself covers less than two percent of the federal government’s loan guarantees across all agencies.

The chances that another DOE-backed company will go broke, the analysis says, is slim. Since Solyndra’s bankruptcy in September, Beacon Power, another loan winner, defaulted on its debt. But 18 other projects, mainly solar plants and wind farms (nearly 90 percent of the projects in the loan program), are much less likely to default because of the terms of their loans. The DOE requires owners of power projects to sign agreements with utilities beforehand, guaranteeing buyers for their clean power. The ensured revenue stream reduces the risk that recipients will go belly-up if trouble strikes.

The remaining eight manufacturing, biofuels and storage projects are considered higher risk because—like Solyndra and Beacon Power—they aren’t required to line up buyers as a condition for loan approval. But even if they default, the report said, Congress has a $2.5 billion insurance fund to cover the losses. Meaning, all eight projects could flop and lose their assets, and the DOE would still have $450 million left in the fund. Apart from that, the study found that applicant fees have covered the costs of running the loan guarantee scheme.

Scrapping the program “would have no budgetary impact,” the report said.

Politico, which has borne the brunt of criticisms for its allegedly disproportionate level of Solyndra coverage, has called the attacks on its reporting a “desperate” attempt by liberals to turn off the spotlight on Solyndra, in part for fear “the barrage of negative stories … will drive away future investments in clean energy.”

E.V. Companies Still Suffering from Low Consumer Interest

Electric car companies and advanced battery makers continue to be hit with problems as consumer interest in the costlier alternative vehicles remains low. Analysts told the Washington Post this week that Obama’s goal to put one million E.V.’s on the road by 2015 is a long shot because of underwhelming sales and low production. 

Some firms are taking the bad news in stride.

A123 Systems, a Massachusetts lithium-ion battery maker, says weak demand for E.V. batteries isn’t a permanent problem. The company laid off 125 employees late last month after its main client, Fisker Automotive, forced A123 to cut production due to declining orders for its Karma electric car.

“We’re humbled but not beaten,” David Vieau, the firm’s chief executive, said about the layoffs in the Washington Post. “It’s not surprising you’ve seen some bumps and challenges. These are things to be expected in a brand-new space.”

Another A123 spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal this week the company has contracts for 21 different vehicles, including a BMW model, which should provide enough demand to keep its existing production lines working for at least seven more years.

Ener1, a struggling E.V. battery maker backed by a DOE loan, told the Journal the firm is working to find bus and truck makers to buy its batteries after its biggest customer, Norwegian electric carmaker Think, went bankrupt in June. This fall, Ener1’s shares were delisted from Nasdaq and the DOE began “closely monitoring” its status.

General Motors was trying to deflect mounting criticism this week after a series of Chevy Volt battery fires following crash tests raised questions about the safety of its plug-in gas-electric hybrid.

GM said only 24 of its nearly 6,200 Volt customers have taken the auto giant up on its offer to buy back the vehicles, and “less than 100” drivers opted to borrow another GM car while the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration investigates.

More than 230 Volt owners, including former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, championed their cars in an open letter, saying, “We are keeping the keys to our Volts. We love our Volts and we feel safe driving our Volts,” the Detroit News reported.

The liquid coolant used to stop the Volt’s battery from overheating is the likely culprit of the fires, though welded parts near the battery pack are also being studied. Reuters reported that the carmaker is close to proposing fixes that would require relatively quick repairs at GM dealerships.

But politics might complicate things for the company.

On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)., who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government, accused Obama officials of covering up the Volt battery fires for the past five months in order to advance the administration’s clean vehicles agenda. Issa, along with Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), sent a letter to the NHTSA seeking documents related to its inspection of the Volt.

Their investigation will precede a January hearing by a subcommittee of the House oversight committee, where GM and NHTSA will be asked to present their findings, the New York Times reported.

In Potential Boon for E.V.’s, Calif. Charges Ahead with Clean Vehicles Plan

In brighter news for the E.V. industry, a set of sweeping new rules proposed in California is likely to stoke the market for clean-burning cars.

The state’s air quality regulator, the Air Resources Board, said Wednesday it aims to ensure that 1.4 million all-electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen vehicles are sold in the state by 2025, about 15 percent all new car sales from now until then.

It also wants to mandate that California study and install E.V. charging infrastructure across the state, as well as force oil companies to install hydrogen refueling spots for fuel cell vehicles.

The board will consider adopting the rules at a meeting on Jan. 26, 2012, Reuters reported.

The rules represent the biggest overhaul in the 20-year history of the state’s Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEV) program, which aims to reduce air pollution and greenhouse emissions in metropolitan areas.

Zero-emissions cars are a key part of California’s goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and double fuel efficiency in cars by 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, a fuel economy standard also proposed at the national level.

The state’s clean car commitment is already spurring innovation. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, California’s electric car industry brings in more venture capital than its competitors in any other state or country.

In the first half of 2011, California developers of plug-ins, advanced hybrids and E.V. charging equipment attracted $467 million in V.C. money—or 69 percent of worldwide investments and 74 percent of the U.S. share, according to a new report from the Next 10 public policy group.

The state’s new policies should translate into new jobs. Next 10 counted just 1,800 E.V. industry jobs in the state using data that’s nearly two years old, but the Air Resources Board estimates its zero-emissions plan could create 21,000 new jobs across the economy as consumers spend less money on gas and more in other areas of the economy.

World Reaches ‘Trillionth-Dollar Milestone’ in Cleantech Investments

Global investments in clean energy and energy efficiency reached $1 trillion this fall, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a research group—up from $243 billion last year and $52 billion in 2004.

Analysts attribute the jump to huge investments in U.S. solar thermal projects, European offshore wind farms and ambitious renewable energy programs in China, Germany and, most recently, India, BusinessGreen reported.

China looks poised to lead the world’s future investments over the next decade. The nation has been the world’s largest investor since 2009, when it surpassed the United States for the top spot.

The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based group that advises western oil-consuming nations on energy policy, estimates that China will add 180 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity by 2020—the same amount as the entire world built during the past 40 years, Reuters reported.

The BNEF analysis comes as delegates from 194 countries struggle to forge a legally binding deal on carbon emissions cuts at UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

For BNEF’s chief executive Michael Liebreich, the “trillionth-dollar milestone” in cleantech investments is a signal to global leaders to “stop obsessing about a binding deal to cap carbon emissions, and to think much harder about how to speed up investment in the solutions.”