The Solyndra debacle is no surprise to this cleantech venture capitalist. The inherent conflict between trying to get money out of the U.S. Treasury as quickly as possible to stimulate the economy and, at the same time, have government agencies that are ill-suited at making business decisions do just that was nothing other than a recipe for disaster.
Anytime a government program is giving money to the private sector with the intent of getting the money back, the program is doomed to failure. Bureaucracies, politics and the lack of a profit motive simply don’t allow government to succeed in business. Anyone who was surprised that politics played a role in the loan decision for Solyndra (and almost certainly other awardees) is very naïve.
Even if, by some miracle, the government could make good business decisions void of political influence, such programs are still doomed to failure because the public and media won’t allow for even one loan or investment to fail. In venture capital we make investments that don’t succeed and we fail often. Yet, we are still successful on the whole. Our successes more than compensate for our failures. The government has no ability to operate this way. Even if a program like the DOE loan guarantee could operate with an overall effective return (which I find unlikely anyway), its first failure would sink it. The government can give away money, but it cannot effectively invest money in individual companies.
Solyndra won’t be the last default from the DOE loan guarantee program. The huge amounts of money that will ultimately have been wasted in the cleantech stimulus – both in terms of loans that won’t be repaid and the stimulus’ failure to create any meaningful job growth when growth was most needed – is bad for tax payers. The negative PR and the future demise of cleantech policies that otherwise may have had broader bipartisan support is bad for cleantech.
In 2009, amid the euphoria of the Obama Administration’s cleantech programs, I wrote that the Administration’s cleantech stimulus was bad policy but good politics. I was wrong… not only was the cleantech stimulus bad policy, it was bad politics too. While the politics by which the Administration pushed through these ill-thought programs may have been deft, the ultimate political impact is clearly bad for both the Administration and cleantech itself.
Ultimately, we may look back at Solyndra as the dagger that burst the cleantech bubble. The hype and euphoria are officially gone. The long, hard work that will be required to diversify our energy base and increase energy efficiency wasn’t reduced when the government sent floods of money out the door to cleantech companies, and it won’t change now that the hype of those programs is gone. The good news is that, like the Web and every other technology bubble, the real value creation comes after the bubble has burst.
So, let’s get back to work.