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Energy Secretary Chu Defends How Administration Handled Solyndra

Energy Secretary Steven Chu gives a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.
Charles Dharapak
Energy Secretary Steven Chu gives a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.
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In an interview with NPR, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu vigorously defended the actions of the Department of Energy with regards $528 million in loans it gave the now-bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra.

Chu told All Things Considered's Melissa Block that neither he nor any of his staff working on DOE loans program was swayed by politics and that even in hindsight there was no way to know that Solyndra would fail.

President Obama's administration has been engulfed by the Solyndra scandal for weeks. At issue is whether the White House pressured the Department of Energy to guarantee loans for Solyndra because the company had connections with at least one big Obama donor. Another question is whether the White House and the DOE ignored red flags about the company.

Chu denied all those claims and said his department did their due diligence on Solyndra.

"We improved the [loan] process," said Chu. "We did no cut corners. We made it more thorough and diligent... We were very thorough in the application of the loan."

Chu said the loan application was processed by professionals and the department asked "outside people" to look at market conditions; they asked for "second and third opinions about what the landscape was." Chu added that one thing that none of their analysts anticipated was that the price of solar modules would "plummet."

Melissa pressed Chu. She asked him how could the DOE continue issuing payments to the company even after the firm Price Waterhouse Coopers audited it and found serious issues with its finances.

Chu said that a startup that's trying to build a new factory "would be burning through money" and have cash-flow issues.

Melissa pressed him further. As late as February of this year, just months before it filed for bankruptcy, she told him, the federal government was still dolling out money to Solyndra.

Chu said the government was aware that Solyndra was in deep trouble, but they made a calculation based on "what would protect taxpayers the most." Chu said they weighed pulling the plug right away and ending up with a half-finished factory or continuing the loan program, which would finish the factory and if the company went belly up they could liquidate and get more money back.

Melissa also asked him about the billionaire George Kaiser, an investor in Solyndra and a Democratic donor. Emails released earlier this month, appear to show that Kaiser attempted to influence the White House on Solyndra.

Chu denied that Kaiser had any effect on his decisions.

"Certainly no decision we made in the loan program had anything to do with who was investing in the company," Chu said.

Chu is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee on Thursday.

We'll post the as-aired version of the interview, here, a bit later tonight.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.