No need to stop solar energy loan guarantees

As desperate as Republicans have been to turn Solyndra’s bankruptcy into a political scandal, there’s just no there there. The government invested in some clean-energy companies; the program enjoyed bipartisan support; some of the loan guarantees worked out; and some didn’t. Watergate it isn’t.

But the story has begun to morph a bit. GOP officials, unable to make credible accusations of corruption, have started to use Solyndra as an excuse to oppose the larger environmental agenda. As Jonathan Cohn explained overnight, “For now, then, the real questions Soyndra raises aren’t about ethics. They’re about economics — specifically, the wisdom of investment in green jobs and, more generally, industrial policy.”

In a nutshell, the case for programs like the one that funded Solyndra is that the market under-invests in worthy projects of considerable value to the public. Clean energy would seem to be a textbook case, given that the price of carbon-based fuels doesn’t capture the long-term damage they are causing the planet – what the economists call a “negative externality.” […]

Among other things, most of the loans in this program seem to have worked out. Investment inevitably involves some risk of failure. (Many of the program’s loudest critics know this, by the way; plenty of Republicans have supported such loans in the past.)

With this in mind, I was delighted to see the Obama administration ignore the political implications and approve more energy loan guarantees.

The Energy Department on Wednesday approved two loan guarantees worth more than $1 billion for solar energy projects in Nevada and Arizona, two days before the expiration date of a program that has become a rallying cry for Republican critics of the Obama administration’s green energy program.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the department has completed a $737 million loan guarantee to Tonopah Solar Energy for a 110 megawatt solar tower on federal land near Tonopah, Nev., and a $337 million guarantee for Mesquite Solar 1 to develop a 150 megawatt solar plant near Phoenix.

The loans were approved under the same program that paid for a $528 million loan to Solyndra Inc., a California solar panel maker that went bankrupt after receiving the money and laid off 1,100 workers.

It would have been easy for the Obama administration to back off, fearing partisan/media criticism, which is all the more reason to be glad the loans went forward anyway. The program is worthwhile, it advances national energy interests, and it’s good for the economy. Indeed, the Nevada project is expected to create 600 construction jobs and 45 permanent jobs, while the California project will create several hundred more.

When officials let misguided GOP talking points dictate policy, the results are always disheartening. I’m glad the administration had the good sense to ignore Republican rhetoric and do the right thing.