Undaunted by their failure to catch so much as a single guppy, Republicans in Congress are paddling on with their fishing expedition through the Obama administration’s clean-energy initiatives. They are nothing if not dutiful.
The latest faux scandal (what are we up to now? a dozen?) has to do with the Ivanpah solar power plant, currently under construction in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California.
Here’s what we know about Ivanpah, a concentrated solar power (CSP) project being developed by BrightSource Energy. It started construction in October 2010, amid great fanfare from politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It is technically three separate, contiguous power plants, built in phases, with a total of 170,000 heliostat mirrors, spread across 3,600 acres, aiming sunlight at three solar power towers. It will have a gross capacity of around 392 megawatts and will be, when completed, the largest CSP installation in the world.
In April 2011, the project got a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (DOE), allowing it to scale up its already substantial private funding from, among others, NRG Solar and Google. A little over a year later, according to DOE, the project is about one-third completed and is employing over 1,700 people on site. When it’s finished it will “avoid 574,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to emissions of 110,000 vehicles” and “generate enough clean electricity to power approximately 87,000 homes annually.”
In other words, DOE’s investment has not failed. On the contrary, it’s kind of awesome! Everything’s going according to schedule. Jobs are being created. Barriers are being broken. If it proceeds according to plan, taxpayers won’t shell out anything, California will get tons of clean energy and jobs, and the U.S. solar industry will have a domestic success story. Plus the thing is just gorgeous to look at.
Who could possibly object to American jobs and energy? Serial car thief Darrell Issa and his merry band of fisherman (aka the House Oversight Committee), of course.
Why the concern? This Wall Street Journal piece contains the damning details. At least it contains the damning tone. The details turn out to be pretty unimpressive.
Here’s what happened: BrightSource had been scrambling for this Ivanpah loan for more than two years, since before Obama took office. All signs were positive. Problem was, a couple of deadlines were approaching. On March 31, 2011, the conditional agreement with DOE would lapse, and on April 1, “tortoise moving season” would start and delay the project for six more months, which may well have killed it. So BrightSource started sweating, hiring lobbyists, and pestering the DOE to finalize the damn thing. In early March it even proposed having its then-chairman John Bryson write his old friend, then-White House Chief of Staff William Daley, to plead with him to “quarterback loan closure.”
Is there any evidence that this last-minute volley of lobbying had anything to do with the loan guarantee being approved? No. The letter was never sent to Daley. Buried down in paragraph 20, WSJ reveals that when loan-program director Jonathan Silver caught wind of Bryson’s proposed letter, he responded within hours, telling him to tone it down, cut the “quarterback” crap, and chill out — the loan was “on track” to close before the deadline. (Like many DOE loans, it was held up by a plodding review from a passive-aggressive OMB.)
That’s it. As usual with these faux scandals, the media conspicuously fails to note that the last-minute lobbying and emails to the White House were all about hurrying up the review process, i.e., they came after the guarantees had been approved by DOE. There’s not a shred of evidence that political connections or lobbying affected any of the loan decisions made by DOE staff. Here, as with the other faux scandals, there is only dark insinuation.
Insinuation has no legal power, of course. These shows trials of individual DOE loans haven’t uncovered any wrongdoing, much less anything worthy of official censure or criminal charges. And House Republicans have been fishing for over a year now. But this is post-truth politics — they don’t need the reality of a scandal. That would be an unexpected bonus at this point. All they need is the atmospherics of scandal; they just need to keep floating broad charges and having the media cover them. The purpose is to keep DOE and Obama on the defensive, to hound them, to waste their energy, and to discredit clean energy.
If a thriving American business has to be sacrificed on that political altar, so be it.
For kicks, here’s a slideshow from DOE on their clean energy programs:
And here are links to three independent assessments of DOE’s loan program:
- Herb Allison, former national finance chairman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), led an independent review of the program.
- The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service did its own analysis [PDF].
- The research service Bloomberg Government did an analysis as well.
All these assessments found roughly the same thing: The program is making smart, low-risk investments and has cost over $2 billion less than expected. Unsurprisingly, the media has largely ignored them.