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Obama Preparing the Next Solyndra?

The Obama administration has seen its share of major scandals as it approaches the end of its first term, but by far the biggest has been the Solyndra debacle, where the White House rushed over $500 million to a struggling but politically well connected solar company whose eminently predictable collapse left taxpayers holding the bag.

It’s not the kind of mistake you expect an administration to make twice, yet that’s exactly what may be about to happen. Reuters reports that a new solar startup, SoloPower, is preparing to apply for funding from the same Department of Energy pool that funded Solyndra. While there are some important differences between the two programs (SoloPower is focused on lightweight solar panels that can be used on buildings that can’t support traditional panels), the two companies may have more in common than not:

Like Solyndra, SoloPower is a Silicon Valley start-up and uses the same non-traditional raw material in its solar panels. And, like its now-defunct peer, SoloPower is one of just four U.S. panel manufacturers to clinch loan guarantees under the Department of Energy’s $35 billion program to support emerging clean energy technologies. The DOE payments to SoloPower will come on top of the $56.5 million SoloPower has collected in loans, tax credits and incentives from the state of Oregon and the city of Portland, where its first factory will be located.

And, perhaps most importantly, SoloPower is entering the market at a time of cutthroat competition from cheaper solar products made in China.

Unfortunately, Via Meadia has no solar power scientists on staff, so we can’t definitively say that this won’t work. There are, however, many questions we wish people would answer. The thing that made the Solyndra deals look so dirty was the close political connection between the company and the administration. What’s the situation here? Are the venture funds investing run by people who think they have an in with the White House?

Via Meadia doesn’t think government has no role in promoting rise of new technologies, but the Obama Administration’s record in keeping politics out of the investment process is not very encouraging. And because the green energy field as a whole is so reliant on government subsidies and mandates to create markets, the industry lends itself to crony capitalism more than most.

The administration is walking on shaky ground here; it’s already taken one bad fall in this treacherous swamp, and it should take care that it doesn’t happen again.

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