Marc Thiessen Distorts Success Rate Of Clean Energy Investments

In his latest Washington Post column, Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute suggested that President Obama is being hypocritical when he points out Mitt Romney's jobs record at Bain Capital because some clean energy companies have struggled after receiving government loans or grants from the Obama administration. In fact, the failure rate for federal green energy investments is far lower than that of private venture capital investments in clean energy, and the majority of the loan guarantees are low-risk.

As evidence of President Obama's “massive public equity failures,” Thiessen cherry-picked clean energy companies that have faced any sort of financial difficulty after receiving Department of Energy loan guarantees or other federal support. But these companies represent a small fraction of loan guarantee recipients, many of which are paying back the loans ahead of schedule.

An independent review of the loan guarantee program by a former Bush administration official concluded that the risk to taxpayers is far lower than the Department of Energy had planned for. The report echoed a Bloomberg Government analysis which found that 87 percent of the loans are low-risk, and that even if all 10 of the higher risk projects defaulted, DOE would still have nearly half a billion dollars left in the fund set aside by Congress to cover losses.

By contrast, CleanTechnica noted in October that private venture capitalists take far greater risks when investing in clean energy:

With just 1.4% of its Recovery Act clean tech investments in “losers”, it looks like the Obama administration is batting a much better average in “picking winners and losers” than the private Venture Capital (VC) market itself.

The US government guarantee of a private loan to Solyndra, at $535 million, represented a minuscule 1.4% of the Department of Energy investment in all renewable technologies. By contrast - VCs (who were out $1 billion to Solyndra, for example) expect much higher failure rates. Richard Stuebi, who advises VCs on expected green energy failure rates, says that just 3 in 10 successes represents a successful VC investment strategy. That is 70% losers - not 1.4%.

Since then, another loan recipient, Beacon Power, went bankrupt, but while Thiessen implied that Beacon's bankruptcy is costing taxpayers $43 million, it was actually sold to a private equity firm that will repay most of the loan. Even though only 2 out of 26 loan guarantee recipients have filed for bankruptcy, Rush Limbaugh seized on Thiessen's column to claim that “the vast majority” of clean energy companies that received federal support have “gone bankrupt.”

In addition to misrepresenting the success rate of the loan guarantee program, Theissen also got his facts wrong on some of the loan recipients. He reported:

A company called SunPower got a $1.2 billion loan guarantee from the Obama administration, and as of January, the company owed more than it was worth.

But as we have previously pointed out, NRG Energy bought the project -- the California Valley Solar Ranch -- shortly before the DOE loan guarantee was finalized and is responsible for paying back the loan. Furthermore, the loan is considered very low-risk because Pacific, Gas and Electric Co. has already signed a long-term contract to buy the power generated by the project.

Thiessen made a similar omission regarding First Solar:

The Obama administration provided First Solar with more than $3 billion in loan guarantees for power plants in Arizona and California. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report last week, the company “fell to a record low in Nasdaq Stock Market trading May 4 after reporting $401 million in restructuring costs tied to firing 30 percent of its workforce.”

Like SunPower, First Solar has sold its DOE-backed projects, which means that “the utilities are on the hook to repay the loans.” And all of its projects have power purchase agreements with California utilities, which significantly decreases the risk to taxpayers.

Thiessen concludes by accusing the Obama administration of “cronyism and corruption,” citing debunked claims by the Hoover Institution's Peter Schweizer that DOE awarded grants and loans guarantees almost solely to Obama campaign donors. In fact, several of the companies on Schweizer's list did not even receive federal funding, and many of those that did employed both Democratic and Republican donors.