THE REPUBLICAN-led attack on the federal loan program that supported the failed Solyndra solar energy plant has so paralyzed the Obama administration that it has stalled even an unrelated program: the Energy Department’s attempt to spur the private sector’s development of various clean-energy vehicles to replace today’s automobiles. Massachusetts, home to many potential beneficiaries, could be a victim. While both the administration and its critics are right to emphasize caution in distributing taxpayer money, it’s time to start making loans again.
The Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program was started by Congress under President Bush in 2007, with an authorized $25 billion in potential loans. But it has only given out $8.4 billion, and none since last fall’s bankruptcy of the federally aided Solyndra solar panel company. Companies in Michigan and Indiana, from small start-ups to Big Three titan Chrysler, have either withdrawn loan applications or were rejected, with some complaining that the Energy Department demanded more in collateral than the actual loan amounts. One casualty was start-up Bright Automotive, which shuttered its doors on its plan to produce plug-in hybrid gas-electric delivery vans that would get 85 miles per gallon.
The loan program is not the only sign that progress toward renewable energy is threatened. Not long ago, the Senate also rejected extensions for tax credit and grant programs for wind and solar industries. The tremors of these developments are being felt in New England, a national incubator of clean technologies.
Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, argues that these technologies are on a path to compete without subsidy in 10 to 15 years, but political uncertainties are costing the United States its competitive advantage. No one doubts the need for better oversight of loan recipients, as the White House’s own audit has urged, but there are vital reasons for bipartisan cooperation on renewable energy. It is remarkable that even in the face of polarized politics and partially paralyzed policy that the Solar Energy Industries Association recently reported a record doubling of installations around the nation last year and cited Massachusetts as among five states “which could be near-term growth markets.’’
The cause of renewable energy needs more energy from the Obama administration. Despite having awarded no money since Solyndra, Energy Secretary Steven Chu praised the ATVM program at the Detroit Economic Club in January for “promoting US leadership across an array of innovative technologies.’’ The administration must find a way to plug that innovation back into the socket.