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Weekly Roundup: Solyndra scandal, climate change denialism, and alternatives to unemployment

   /   Sep 16th, 2011Environment, News

Solyndra Green Jobs Scandal

This Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a hearing about a failed $528 million government loan to Solyndra, a solar equipment manufacturer that recently filed for bankruptcy. During the investigation, e-mails surfaced suggesting that the White House had pressured officials to expedite the loan approval process for political purposes.

The debacle has since “drawn attention” to the fifteen other renewable energy firms that are stimulus loan candidates (which ends September 30), and Wednesday night, the Treasury joined the FBI and the Department of Energy in the Solyndra investigation.

The discussion surrounding this news has taken three distinct paths.

The first, and most important to settle, is the barrage of media and political myths that have popped up surrounding the Solyndra scandal. Several media outlets have failed to mention that the Bush administration was, as TIMES Swampland’s Michael Grunwald put it, “just as hellbent to make this loan.” The media often overlooks that the Solyndra loan is about 1% of the Energy Department’s $40 billion clean-energy portfolio.

Climate Progress has created a timeline, verified by the Department of Energy, that documents the full life of the Solyndra loan. The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer also created a nice, tight explainer that dispels five of the most common myths.

The second line of conversation wrestles with the growth of solar energy and Obama’s green jobs strategy. Republicans have taken this opportunity to question the validity of Obama’s jobs creation strategy, which placed a heavy emphasis on the clean energy sector.

But environmental and energy bloggers were quick to point out that the solar industry is doing just fine. TIMES’ Ecocentric blogger Bryan Walsh responded with “meh,” noting that the solar industry is actually thriving, thanks in large part to money from the Obama administration. And Grunwald pointed out that the U.S. solar market doubled last year, and is expected to double again. “How many other industries are growing that fast in this economy?” he wrote.

“Trial and error of new approaches is the lifeblood of technological and thus economic progress,” pointed out Garvin Jabusch, cofounder of Green Alpha Advisors, LLC, in a nice overview of the solar investment space. Pointing out that solar products account for $1.8 billion net exports last year, he urged readers to remember that Solyndra is a business. “Companies fail all the time in this world,” he continued. “It doesn’t logically follow that the underlying industries are somehow fatally busted.”

But the third line of debate, regarding whether or not the government should gamble in business ventures, is, Walsh believes, “a fair debate to have.” As Jonathan Mariano argued last week on Triple Pundit, the risky realm of startups is not the place for a debt-laden government. “Is this to say that private venture capital should stop investing in clean tech start ups?  No,” he wrote. “Is this to say that the U.S. Federal Government should stop investing in clean tech start ups? Yes. It cannot afford to take the risk venture capital can.”

Several Republican representatives agreed with Mariano in a piece on the New York Times. “It seems like crony capitalism was trumping the smart decision-making,” said Louisianan Republican Representative Steve Scalise.

But meanwhile, Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist John Doerr, a high-profile investor who made his millions in early-stage Internet companies like Google and Yahoo, championed the clean energy industry and the government’s involvement. “Keeping the nation competitive in energy technology is critical,” he said. “[America] does not want to outsource energy future to the rest of the world.”

Al Gore determined to prove the inconvenient truth about climate change

If you’re reading this, you’re probably reasonably savvy about the effects of climate change, which are happening at an unbelievably fast pace. Grist recently published photos taken by climate scientists who monitored a glacier as it shrank, drastically, over the course of two (only two!) years. The difference is drastic and sobering.

But many Americans don’t believe in climate change, and studies show that disbelief is on the rise. Al Gore is one American who has had enough of this skepticism This week, he launched a 24-hour TV campaign to educated Americans about climate change. From the evening of Wednesday the 14th to the following night, “24 Hours of Reality” broadcasted a presentation by Al Gore across 24 different time zones.

Denialism of climate change does appear to be growing. But not everyone is sure that Gore is the right one to set the record straight.

As Forbes reported this week, a recent UPI survey showed that “the percentage of people saying that humans are causing global warming has reached a record low. Only 44% of Americans believe that carbon dioxide emissions are warming the Earth, down from 51% in 2009, and 71% in 2007.” The rest of the Forbes article, however, was in support of such denialism. Written by Larry Bell, it quoted several scientists saying that recent natural disasters are actually not an indication of climate change. The article did not mention prominent experts like NASA’s James Hansen, who insists that climate change is definitely occurring and that Hurricane Irene was one exemplar. The Daily Beast pointed out that this year has already seen more billion-dollar weather-related disasters than any year in U.S. history. And 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year ever recorded on planet Earth.

On Twitter, people were using hashtags #reality and #climate to share their reactions to the presentation.

Dowser tuned in to Climate Reality at 9:28 am EST, when the presentation was taking place in New Delhi. The speaker went through specific examples of all-time high temperatures in places like China and Iran. The presentation was interjected with quotes by climate skeptics like Republican U.S. Congressman John Boehner. Then the discussion shifted to solutions: windmills powering villages in the developing world, India’s plans to quadruple renewable energy generation by 2022 with wind farms and solar power plants, solar-powered laptops in Sierra Leone – one by one examples of eco-friendly energy solutions appeared on the screen.

Meanwhile Leo Hickman at the Guardian wondered if the Climate Reality campaign was just preaching to the choir rather than converting skeptics. He also pointed out that Gore is a politically polarizing figure in the U.S., which makes him less than ideal as the leader of a publicity campaign for the climate change movement.

Though climate change may be news to some, environmental organizations like Greenpeace have been advocating for solutions to global warming for decades. As Greenpeace celebrated its 40th birthday this week, Damian Carrington at the Guardian both praised the accomplishments of the environmental movement over the past few decades and suggested reasons why it is not convincing skeptics. Thanks to activists who pushed for policy change and cultural awareness, Carrington wrote, many people have changed their habits and begun to conserve fossil fuels and recycle. Until very recently, the article said, “new coal-fuelled power stations, ready to pump their carbon pollution into the sky, were seen as inevitable, while renewable energy was just science fiction. Dumping our rubbish was simply a case of digging a hole in the ground.”

But, Carrington wrote, challenges remain for the environmental movement, and for counteracting climate change that results from our previous lack of care for the planet. “By making green issues mainstream they have weakened the traction they had as pressure groups,” he wrote.

Environmentalists, said Carrington, need to be more savvy in their tactics, and show people “why it is good to live within one’s planetary means.” The green message, he said, “needs to be sold.”

SOCAP and GOOD Offer Alternatives to Rising Unemployment

A NY Times story earlier this week illustrated just how bad the economic situation is hitting regular Americans: this year about 6.7 percent of Americans have slipped below the poverty line, earning around $11,000/year – an increase of 20.5 million people. Twenty and thirty-something Americans are moving in with family instead of gaining independence by earning a living.

The cause, according to economists who the Times spoke to, was joblessness. An expert cited in the article called the last ten years a “lost decade,” echoing lamentations by writers such as George Packer who earlier this week wrote a chilling article in the New Yorker on ways the US Government has neglected to take care of its citizens at home while waging wars in the Middle East.

The Americans who have suffered most from the rise in poverty are minorities, according to the Times article. “Minorities were hit hardest. Blacks experienced the highest poverty rate, at 27 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009, and Hispanics rose to 26 percent from 25 percent. For whites, 9.9 percent lived in poverty, up from 9.4 percent in 2009. Asians were unchanged at 12.1 percent.”

GOOD’s editor, Cord Jefferson, responded critically to two recent suggestions on how to resolve unemployment, which suggested, respectively, the creation of “enterprise zones” in minority communities where minimum wage rules are not enforced, and the creation of “charter cities” in developing countries that are run as business centers by foreign, wealthier governments. Jefferson emphasized that corporations can be part of the solution as long as they are offering fair wages, but both of these proposals stank of exploitation and dominance, rather than empowerment, to him.

Meanwhile attendees from last week’s SOCAP 11 conference, which brought together leaders in the impact investment sector for the fourth time,  have been reflecting on takeaways from that event. Kathy Brozek pointed out at GreenBiz that the conference was a timely alternative to Wall Street capitalism, which operates on Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT). Unlike impact investment, which aims for social and financial benefits, MPT focuses on “economic growth, risk, and utility” as the path to profit.

Kevin Starr, executive director of the Mulago Foundation and the keynote speaker at the conference, spoke with NextBillion about creating real, scalable impact. The main ideas: have a clear goal, use appropriate metrics, and tailor your organization’s model to match the mission.

And in a SOCAP recap on SustainableIndustries, Piper Kujac shared some highlights from the conference: “We learned about polycentric philanthropic solutions to poverty through shared power and mutual responsibilities among investors and stakeholders. We learned how seed funders such as Gray Ghost Ventures & Village Capital, Invested Development, and The Eleos Foundation, help social enterprises get started and scale. We learned how to leverage social media for investment and impact, from the likes of Causes, Amazon Watch, and DBL Investors.”

Worthwhile Weekend Reads
In the Guardian, some tips for social enterprises thinking on taking on public assets.

FastCompany explains why startups looking to raise venture capital should focus on solving problems as a service.

NASCAR going green? Yes! Solar panels and recycling at the races.

One SOCAP attendee’s vision of how to achieve future sustainability.

Have the Gates Foundation’s efforts at extending banking services to their poor had an impact? An article by Johnathan Morduch of NYU’s Financial Access Initiative examines how focusing on service delivery can help in this regard.

Yahoo aims YouTube aims to revamp bookmarking site Delicious.

3 Responses

  1. [...] scandal surrounding a controversial federal loan to solar-power company Solyndra, which filed bankruptcy [...]

  2. [...] The scandal surrounding a controversial federal loan to solar-power company Solyndra, which filed bankruptcy only two years after receiving the $535 million loan, resists fading into the backdrop. Instead it has become a proxy for broader partisan debates on environmental regulation and government’s role in capital investment. [...]

  3. [...] of high-tech manufactured products.” Nevertheless, Republicans are taking the exceptional case of Solyndra (which was actually initiated during the Bush administration, not Obama’s) and using it to get [...]