WaPo Laments How 'Solyndra Fallout' Places Obama's Energy Secretary 'at Center of Policy Storm'

October 28th, 2011 3:42 PM

Poor Steven Chu. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist and Obama's Energy Secretary stands "at [the] center of [the] Solyndra policy storm," where he's learning "lessons in political science" according to Washington Post staffer Steven Mufson's 45-paragraph front-page article in the October 28 paper.

Although the Post has done a decent job thus far in following the Solyndra scandal and reporting on the unfolding revelations of damning emails from administration officials who questioned the wisdom and legality of the Solyndra loan, Mufson's piece was focused on defending Chu as a well-meaning career scientist and political neophyte who's been caught up in an unfortunate political firestorm (emphases mine):

Ever since Solyndra, a California manufacturer of solar panels, went bankrupt Sept. 5 with $535 million of federal loan guarantees, Chu and his Energy Department have been the focus of some unwanted attention. The department has been hammered by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has unearthed reams of Obama administration e-mails about internal rifts over the Solyndra loan guarantee. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), head of the panel’s oversight subcommittee, has gotten Chu to agree to testify Nov. 17. And GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for Chu to be fired for “grossly mismanaging federal dollars.”

“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart devoted eight minutes to the Solyndra affair and addressed lawmakers’ charges that the loan was based on politics, not merit.

“Maybe their hearts were in the right place and they bet on the wrong horse,” said Stewart of the Energy Department officials. “It’s not like there’s any damning evidence they knew in advance this horse was, in fact, a donkey.”

For Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, it has been a demonstration that the laws of politics are more important in Washington than the laws of physics.


On Oct. 1, the dreary weather seemed to be a metaphor when Chu spoke to the college teams that had competed in the Solar Decathlon, a biannual event sponsored by the Energy Department. For six of the previous nine days, Washington’s skies had been overcast and rainy while the teams showed off innovative solar-powered homes temporarily erected between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River.

“Sun, sun, sun, here it comes,” a recording blared hopefully as the closing ceremony began.

It should have been a sunny moment for Chu, but the Solyndra flap over the previous month had cast its own shadow. So Chu made a spirited defense of the much-maligned loan guarantee program.

“Just as there is a fierce competition happening here, there is also a fierce competition happening around the world,” Chu said. “The United States faces a choice today: Will we sit on the sidelines and fall behind, or will we play to win the clean-energy race?”

“I say we can’t afford not to,” Chu added. “It’s not enough for our country to invent clean-energy technologies. We have to make them, and we have to use them. Made in America, invented in America and sold round the world. That’s how we’ll compete in the 21st century.”

Will that be Chu’s legacy?

Many say he will leave things such as science hubs, new labs and new agendas for old national labs. Then there is the advanced vehicle technology portfolio of federal loan guarantees and the renewable-energy loan guarantee program, which in addition to Solyndra included $16 billion in guarantees to 27 other projects, such as big solar power generation plants, a giant wind farm and two of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants.

While these initiatives have won Chu devoted fans, others question Chu’s management of the department and his lack of political skills.

“To be energy secretary, it is not necessary to be able to explain how a nuclear plant works,” said Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist at the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani. “We need someone to talk about what policy should be, which may be more complicated.”