Opinion: A green energy loss in perspective
Jan. 8, 2013
As Congress resumes work on the budget, energy subsidies – and the Solyndra fiasco – will again play a part in the debate.
Let's put the failed solar tech company’s losses in context with other energy investments.
By Peter Dykstra
The Daily Climate
How do you measure whether an energy investment is wise or unwise? Honest or scandalous?
With budget work consuming our new Congress, the only policy discussion on climate change likely from the Capitol near term will consist of debate over energy tax breaks and subsidies.
An equally safe bet: The Solyndra debacle will continue to be invoked as reason to stem investment in green technologies.
The California-based solar manufacturer went belly up after receiving $535 million in government-backed green-energy loans and being hyped by President Obama as proof that such investments are the hope for our future.
Republicans spent last fall trying to inject the issue into the campaign, with House investigators amassing more than 300,000 pages of documents on the failed company. The 18-month probe ultimately went nowhere.
But round off the solar-funding fiasco to a cool half-billion dollars and you have a handy yardstick for measuring all kinds of energy investments, failed or successful, public or private, forward-thinking or remedial.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our newest standard of measure: The Solyndra.
28 Solyndras: Georgia's nuclear revival
Southern Co.’s proposed new nuclear reactors near Augusta are behind schedule and already 1.8 Solyndras over budget, an amount that will be tacked on to the 28-Solyndra price tag the plants will already cost the utility's ratepayers.
5.6 Solyndras: FutureGen and FutureGen 2.0
Uncle Sam's two clean-coal research efforts never locked away so much as a ton of carbon dioxide. The paltry return on 3.6 Solyndras' worth of industry and government investment in the original 2003 edition didn't stop the Obama administration from doubling down with two more Solyndras in 2010.
40 Solyndras: Ethanol subsidies
In a rare bipartisan show last year, members of Congress from across the political spectrum (but not from the Corn Belt) let a federal subsidy for ethanol expire. The tax break cost at least 40 Solyndras over its 30-year history. Ethanol had been criticized on multiple levels, from its diversion of farmland to its contributions to water pollution to its inefficiency as a fuel source. In the "fiscal cliff" drama, ethanol subsidies were extended into 2013.
8 Solyndras: Federal oil and gas subsidies
Speaking of hard-to-cut programs, the oil and gas industry’s annual largesse from American taxpayers is still about eight Solyndras per year. On the campaign trail, Obama promised to bring this to an end.
2.1 Solyndras: Kingston, Tenn. coal ash spill
What's the cost of our appetite for coal power? Residents of Kingston, Tenn. woke up to a nightmare three days before Christmas in 2008. Some 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry – a noxious, toxic flow from the Tennessee Valley Authority's nearby coal-fired plant – ran like a "black wave" through the tiny Emory River after a holding pond dike collapsed.
More than four years later, TVA and local authorities are still dealing with cleanup and arguing over damages. The spill brought national attention to coal-fired power's waste stream. Federal officials estimate that there are 47 “high-hazard” coal ash ponds across the United States.
180 Solyndras: Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository
This one is a tad unfair, if only because the costs are still rising. The Nevada site will likely never open – even after running up a 180-Solyndra price tag. Utilities have been paying into a project fund for years while managing their nuke waste on-site, and both they and state agencies have sued the feds to recover their 60-Solyndra stake.
58 Solyndras: LUST and clean air
Leaking Underground Storage Tanks have given us both the Environmental Protection Agency's kinkiest acronym and widespread water contamination from the gasoline additive Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, known as MTBE, used to clean the air.
MTBE contaminates groundwater in minute concentrations – as low as two parts per billion – and some 1,800 water systems have detected the additive in their tap water. In 2007, the American Water Works Association estimated the cleanup costs at 58 Solyndras.
9 Solyndras: BP's Deepwater Horizon penalty
BP just settled with the U.S. Justice Department to pay nine Solyndras in criminal penalty, on top of the vast sum they’ve spent attempting clean up the Gulf of Mexico and compensate the 2010 spill’s economic victims. The company hoped to recoup its losses via an 80-Solyndra lawsuit against its former drilling partner, Transocean. Last week Transocean settled with the feds for a 2.8 Solyndra payout.
35 Solyndras a year: Department of Energy's non-energy work
A reasonable person could ask why would Congress – or any overseer of the Department of Energy – even worry about Solyndra, let alone the agency's green energy program. It's a rounding error compared to the task that gets two-thirds of the department's budget: Maintaining and cleaning up after America’s nuclear weapons inventory.
224 Solyndras: Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup
This tab comes for a Department of Energy site that’s already amassed a multi-Solyndra cleanup tab every year for two decades. The agency's cleanup plan calls for at least four Solyndras annually until at least 2065.
44 Solyndras: America's spending on salty snacks
Well, OK, it’s not a subsidy or a cleanup cost – not until it puts you in the hospital. But Americans spent 44 Solyndras on potato chips, corn chips and other salty snacks last year. Maybe if we just put some of that tangy safety-vest-orange Doritos powder on wind turbines and solar panels, we could calm down a bit and get serious about our energy future.
There's one lesson from all this. Americans love scandals. And at $535 million, Solyndra would appear to be the most cost-effective energy scandal Americans have ever paid for.
Peter Dykstra is publisher of The Daily Climate and its sister site, Environmental Health News. The Daily Climate is an independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org
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