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POLITICS: PennAve

Few GOP fireworks over Energy Department push for clean energy loans

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Energy Department,Climate Change,EPA,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Budgets and Deficits,Zack Colman,Ernest Moniz

There was sound, but little fury, from House Republicans on Thursday after the Energy Department announced it would reopen a clean energy loan program derided by conservatives.

During the 2012 election, "Solyndra," the failed solar panel-maker that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee from the Energy Department, became a GOP byword for many things: misplaced government intervention in the free market; the folly of believing renewable energy was ready to take off at mass scale; an underwhelming performance on green jobs touted by the Obama administration.

Now, after the department revived and expanded a loan program for electric vehicles and hinted at new loans for renewable energy Wednesday, it appears "Solyndra" is just a word like any other.

A Thursday hearing that put Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that skewered his predecessor, Steven Chu, over Solyndra stayed away from the loan program.

To be sure, many Republicans still don't like the program: The GOP-controlled House will soon vote on, and likely pass, a fiscal 2015 budget proposal from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would essentially dissolve the loan program.

And at the Thursday hearing, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the panel's Energy and Power Subcommittee, both expressed concern about the DOE's moves to reopen the auto loan program.

"I remain highly skeptical of the federal government playing venture capitalist," Upton said in a hearing about DOE's proposed fiscal 2015 budget. "The revival of the loan guarantee program that backed Solyndra ... is of serious concern."

Instead, the loan program might fit inside a more prominent GOP box -- slamming the Environmental Protection Agency's emissions rules for new and existing power plants.

The DOE has little to do with those rules. But Republicans on Thursday said the agency should spend more research dollars on fossil fuel energy rather than clean energy technology, which Republicans see as diverting resources to a climate agenda they oppose.

Whitfield, similarly, opened the hearing by juxtaposing the loan program with the Obama administration's climate strategy.

"We've seen the Obama administration waste too much money on green energy projects that have failed," he said. "That is why I am disappointed to see yet another DOE budget pursuing the same failed policies in pursuit of a climate agenda that has repeatedly been rejected."

Moniz views his charge as developing energy technology that can help combat climate change. As such, he has big plans for the loan program, which remained relatively dormant after the Solyndra debacle.

The Wednesday announcement that DOE would rev up the idled Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program, which has more than $16 billion left to disburse, was the most recent development on that front.

In February, Moniz announced the closing of $6.5 billion worth of loan guarantees awarded to Georgia Power to support development of next-generation nuclear reactors at its Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga.

The DOE also is soliciting applications for up to $8 billion of loan guarantees for carbon capture and sequestration technologies and other potential advancements to limit the carbon intensity of excavating and burning coal.

Moniz also hinted at a Wednesday House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee hearing that the DOE would soon offer new renewable-energy and energy-efficiency loans.

He noted to reporters after the Appropriations Committee hearing that despite the criticism the loan guarantee program received from Capitol Hill Republicans, it has experienced fewer losses than Congress anticipated. The DOE says the loan program's losses amount to 2 percent of the $30 billion portfolio, compared with the 10 percent in losses Congress set aside when creating it.

"The portfolio has done extremely well. It's done what it's supposed to do," Moniz said, adding in a tongue-in-cheek manner, "So maybe I'm worried that the arguments will change — that we're not taking enough risk."

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Zack Colman

Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner