The U.S Department of Energy's (DOE) renewable energy loan guarantee program is turning a profit after weathering years of media attacks and misinformation that attempted to paint the now defunct solar energy firm Solyndra as representative of the program's failure. Media outlets from The Washington Post to CBS News spent years profiling Solyndra, wrongly suggesting its demise was illustrative of widespread waste, fraud, failure, and political corruption among DOE loan guarantee recipients -- but will the program's latest successes receive a comparable platform?
On November 13, NPR reported that the DOE loan program, designed to “accelerate the domestic commercial deployment of innovative and advanced clean energy technologies,” is now turning a profit exceeding $30 million after collecting $810 million in interest payments. NPR noted that the program was never intended to make money, making the development all the more remarkable:
Overall, the agency has loaned $34.2 billion to a variety of businesses, under a program designed to speed up development of clean-energy technology. Companies have defaulted on $780 million of that -- a loss rate of 2.28 percent. The agency also has collected $810 million in interest payments, putting the program $30 million in the black.
When Congress created the loan program under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it was never designed to be a moneymaker. In fact, Congress imagined there would be losses and set aside $10 billion to cover them.
NPR noted that previous critics of the program have remained silent on the new revelations.
The media's coverage of the DOE's loan program over the past few years has been overwhelmingly negative and often egregiously misinformed. Coverage frequently focused on Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee before going bankrupt in 2011, suggesting the company's fate was representative of the program's success as a whole.
The Washington Post gave particularly outsized coverage to the Solyndra bankruptcy, devoting an entire section of its website to the so-called “Solyndra Scandal.” The Post's reporting stated that President Obama “infused” politics into the program and suggested that Solyndra made the entire loan guarantee program a political liability:
Since the failure of [Solyndra], Obama's entire $80 billion clean-technology program has begun to look like a political liability for an administration about to enter a bruising reelection campaign.
Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama's green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials.
At CBS News, then-correspondent Sharyl Attkisson issued a report on Solyndra that was rife with factual errors. The report helped earn Attkisson an award from Accuracy In Media, a conservative organization known for pushing anti-gay misinformation and bizarre conspiracy theories. CBS subsequently pulled Attkisson from a planned appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to accept the award.
Fox News demonized DOE loan programs at every turn, criticizing even companies who received no funds at all from the guarantee program.
More recently, an April Media Matters study found that the mainstream media largely failed to mention the DOE's role in the success of the electric car company Tesla Motors and ignored that the program has a higher success rate than venture capitalists.
The Post's “Wonkblog” acknowledged on November 13 that the energy loans were making money, but after years of breathless negative coverage, it remains to be seen whether these media outlets will provide a more prominent a platform to inform media consumers of evidence that counters their previous narrative.