There is a hue and cry across the country about the bankruptcy of Solyndra, which may cost the federal government $535 million because the Department of Energy provided a loan guarantee. In some circles, this situation is being used as a pretext for attacking the solar industry, clean technology, and the green economy in general.
It’s important to separate out the issues. The Solyndra loan guarantee was the first loan guarantee as part of the stimulus, with a lot of pressure from the White House to get money out of the door. It was clearly a mistake. The Department of Energy staff were not seasoned venture investors and this decision demonstrated that fact. It was too early in Solyndra’s life to take on so much debt, which required payments that cut into shrinking and eventually non-existent cash flow. Solyndra bet on expanding markets for its innovative technology, but China cut the costs on conventional solar technology so much that Solynda’s market projections were never realized.
So, one lesson from Solyndra is that the underwriting criteria for a federal loan guarantee needed to factor in the risk profile of venture investment in general, of the solar industry, and of Solyndra in particular. A second lesson is that a federal loan guarantee is a professional investment and should only be made by investment professionals with venture loan expertise.
However, one lesson not to draw from Solyndra is the suggestion that Solyndra’s bankruptcy should call into question the solar industry in particular or clean tech in general. One of the reasons that Silicon Valley has been so successful is the culture of risk taking that has emerged among entrepreneurs there. “Fail early and often,” the slogan goes.
To suggest that Solyndra’s bankruptcy should lead to the demise of solar or clean tech is like saying that Steve Jobs should have given up after his company NEXT Computer didn’t work out. Were that to have happened, we wouldn’t have the I Pod, the I Phone, and the I Pad. His failure was one stop on his journey that has taken Apple to be company with the largest capitalization in the world.
So, let’s learn the real lessons about government investment that derive from Solyndra, but not the false lessons. Solyndra’s failure will be one stop on the journey to a thriving solar industry in a thriving clean tech cluster that makes up a central aspect of a thriving green economy.