Solyndra was banking on energy bill, emails show

Solyndra could still be in business had Congress passed a comprehensive energy bill last year, recently released emails indicate.

A May 2010 email exchange between senior Energy Department advisers Matt Rogers and Rod O'Connor show Solyndra's executives were "counting on" Congress passing an energy bill that would have included major policies promoting renewable energy nationwide.

In September 2009, when the Energy Department awarded a $535 million loan guarantee to the solar-power start-up, the administration and Democratic leaders in Congress were confident they could deliver on President Obama's campaign promise to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions that causes climate change.

The House narrowly passed a bill to do just that in June 2009, legislation that also included a national renewable energy standard that would have mandated an increasing percentage of the nation's energy come from renewable resources. The Senate seemed poised to take on the challenge of corralling 60 votes in the upper chamber to pass its own climate bill. But it never did.

In a May 24, 2010, email, Rogers wrote to O'Connor that Solyndra executives "have been counting on an energy bill to pass, including a renewable energy standard to ensure adequate U.S. market size." At the time, Rogers was overseeing the Energy Department's stimulus package funds, and O'Connor was Energy Secretary Steven Chu's chief of staff. Both men have since left the administration.

"The good news is that the loans that we made are allowing [Solyndra] to increase revenues and reduce production costs significantly, helping them remain competitive in a tough market," Rogers continued. "If Europe goes south and we don't see an energy bill here, they will face issues in the 18-24 month window, but the company should be strong going into the fall with their new facilities on line."

The emails were released this week by Democrats on the House Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, the congressional panel leading Washington's probe into Solyndra.

On Aug. 31, Solyndra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off 1,100 workers. It is now under federal investigation.

Rogers also mentioned in his email to O'Connor that the price of silicon solar panels had dropped significantly. That made Solyndra's photovoltaic cylinder-shaped solar panels, which did not use silicon, even more expensive when compared to conventional solar panels.

The email exchanges between O'Connor and Rogers occurred two days before President Obama visited Solyndra's California headquarters. At the time, Senate Democratic leaders were still fighting to pass a scaled-back climate and energy bill.

"I'm going to keep fighting to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation in Washington," Obama said at Solyndra's headquarters on May 26, 2010. "We're going to try to get it done this year, because what we want to do is create incentives that will fully unleash the potential for jobs and growth in this sector."

Almost two months after Obama visited Solyndra, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., abandoned an effort to pass a comprehensive climate bill.

This January, in his State of the Union address, Obama tried a different tack, calling on Congress to pass a "clean energy standard" that would require the country to use an increasing percentage of its energy from renewable sources, natural gas and nuclear power. That also has gone nowhere on Capitol Hill.

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