Not to pile on Solyndra but…Where Was that Junior Engineer?!

The caretakers of taxpayer dollars apparently mistook a paper blizzard for real analysis and common sense. A rookie engineer could have done better.

So far the Administration has released 85, 000 pages related to the $535 million of government (AKA ‘taxpayer’) backed loan guarantees to the now bankrupt Solyndra. What blows my mind isn’t the wasted taxpayer dollars- I’m no longer shocked by that. It’s the 85,000 pages! And there’s more to come. I don’t know how many DOE staff and their litany of consultants were typing away or over what time this literary phenom was born. But, man, that’s a lot of words – particularly when a junior engineer with some PV technology knowledge paired with a market analyst could have done the technical due diligence and predicted Solyndra’s demise early on.

They could have explained their conclusions in a 2 page memo easily understood even by a non-technical government bureaucrat.

At one time, Solyndra's thin film technology looked like a market winner, particularly since it didn't rely on high-priced polycrystalline silicon. However, falling silicon prices, China’s subsidy of its own conventional panel manufacturers (using silicon), uncertain global PV sales and Solyndra’s admittedly high production costs (including a fancy plant in one of the most expensive regions in the US) – all of this spelled doom for Solyndra. And that’s why private investors (who actually have to be accountable for their investment choices) weren’t jumping in without Uncle Sam cosigning.

Ever helped investor capitalists kick around due diligence issues when considering a potential IPO? I have. I literally kicked around boxes at start-up facilities to see if they were actually full of inventory ready for shipping or if the owners were just blowing smoke and setting up empty boxes to get the next tier financing. Even when the financing was approved there were strings attached – reorganization, executive change-out, some layoffs – whatever it took to keep the start-up lean and healthy.

Incentives were usually in the form of stock options and based on future success. No one got $60,000 executive bonuses like in the case of Solyndra, as it went down the tubes!

The government, regardless of which political party holds power, never seems to have the ability to make sensible investment choices or provide business oversight. Even more annoying, to those of us down in the trenches, there’s an  endemic arrogance that's peculiar to Washington, a “we know best” attitude, a self-delusion that a government job title implies competence.

Remember Carol Brower’s statements when she was Energy and Climate Change ‘Czar’ during the Gulf oil leak? She announced that the government was taking care of the disaster with its own ‘experts’ – “we have experts who are in charge.” Apparently even Steven Chu –the Nobel Prize winning head of DOE- was on the gulf scene at times looking at data. But, I think Dr. Chu would be the first to admit that he’s no expert on leaking oil wells. In fact a junior engineer with oil field experience could probably have done a better job there also.

Of course, things got worse and then the government quickly quit bragging about its experts and resumed pointing fingers at the oil company.

We can continue to debate whether we need more, or less government intervention in technology development. But I gotta say, the track record of the recent investments of public funds isn’t good, except for maybe being a windfall for the mob of consultants hanging out around the Capital Beltway.

Speaking of which, I just read that Washington D.C. has the highest income level of any U.S. metro area. No surprise - drafting,writing and editing over 85,000 pages (on the Solyndra project alone) takes a lot of creative manpower.


A Junior Engineer Project

Solyndra may have done the typical corporate "Two Big for Its Britches" tango so emblematic of the last decade, but it is tough to make a case that the technology was fraudulent. For example,

Maybe, it was too much before its time. Maybe, its niche is too small. And maybe the folks running it dined on more caviar than bologna, but my prediction is that it will rise from its ashes, just as Motorola's Iridium constellation is finally turning a buck. Solyndra is not Enron.

Lead? Follow?? GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!!

This is a classic disproof by counterexample of the propositions that the US government can lead OR follow. Certainly the ability to analyze Solyndra's prospects was, as Paul points out, within the capabilities of a COMPETENT follower. Yet that same government purports to lead? Maybe it should just get out of the way.