Solyndra solar

Solyndra, 10 years later

Critics called it solar energy's Watergate, and it's become a bogeyman as President Biden pursues a clean energy agenda. But how many "Solyndras" have we spent to prop up fossil fuels?

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Solyndra scandal.


What was already a failure of a government-backed solar panel firm became a story about cronyism in the Obama White House in late May 2011. On Sept. 4, 2009, the Obama Administration announced a $535 million loan guarantee to the up-and-coming photovoltaic maker Solyndra.

Who made the announcement?

It was...wait for it…then-Vice President Joe Biden, point man for Obama's recovery plan from the 2008 crash.

"We are not only creating jobs today, but laying the foundation for long-term growth in the 21st-century economy," he said.

Seeing nothing but prosperity ahead, the sky was the limit for Solyndra. They took the government's half billion and $700 million in private investment and built a shiny new factory in Fremont, California, just as the bottom fell out of the domestic market. Chinese solar firms flooded the U.S. market with cheaper panels.

Solyndra's new $733 million factory opened in September 2010 to a business in freefall. In November, just seven weeks after the new factory opened, the company shuttered its original plant and bid farewell to nearly 200 full-time and temp workers.

When nonprofit news organization The Center for Public Integrity revealed in May 2011 that the White House failed to conduct due diligence in approving the loan as a possible favor to an Obama fundraiser, critics of clean energy had a field day. They upped the volume when Solyndra filed for bankruptcy in September.

(In case you're missing your daily dose of Rush Limbaugh, here's a sample of the late talkshow host's frequent Solyndra tirades in 2011. Here's another.)

To be sure, a half-billion loss on a crony-tainted failure is nothing to sneeze at. But as DC-based scandals go, it's small potatoes.

As a comparative tool, I'm fond of using of using the contrived measure of the Solyndra (One Solyndra= $535,000,000 US).

  • The non-government Environmental and Energy Study Institute's "conservative" estimate on U.S. subsidies to fossil fuel operations is $20 billion a year. That's about 38 Solyndras each and every year.
  • The Energy Department sunk an estimated $5 billion into failed carbon capture projects as a last-ditch effort to save the beleaguered coal industry. That's 9½ Solyndras, folks.
  • A 2019 DOE report estimated that remaining cleanup costs at just one of its nuclear weapons production sites would be at least $323 billion and last until at least 2079. But DOE says those costs at Hanford, Washington, could double to over 1,200 Solyndras.
Senator Barasso

Senator John Barasso (R-WY) has warned of "The Solyndra Syndrome" in the Biden recovery plan. (Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr)

Less than three years after Solyndra died, the DOE reported that its clean energy loan program was turning a modest profit while spawning multiple successful startups. President Trump ended the loan program, but President Biden has re-started it.

Nevertheless, 10 years later, Solyndra lives on as a stalking horse against clean energy. Earlier this month, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso warned of "The Solyndra Syndrome" in the Biden recovery plan. Conservative economist and ubiquitous TV pundit Stephen Moore warned that Biden's push for clean energy infrastructure would unleash a plague of Solyndras upon the land.

Data from the Solar Energy Industries Association suggest that solar is poised to be a major energy player, growing its generating capacity by 43 percent from 2019 to 2020 alone – despite COVID-19's downward pull on all aspects of the economy. But solar still only represents 3 percent of U.S. electricity, according to DOE.

The success or failure of Biden's ambitious vision for clean energy will have much to say about solar's future.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Shuttered Solyndra plant in Fremont, California. (Credit: Jack/flickr)

Climate change becomes a pivot point for Robert Kennedy Jr. in his presidential run

Robert Kennedy Jr., historically an environmental advocate, shifts gears in his presidential campaign, blending environmental concerns with anti-establishment rhetoric.

Scott Waldman reports for POLITICO.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Disaster restoration workers face health risks from exposure to toxins

Workers in the disaster restoration industry are reporting significant health issues from exposure to dangerous substances while cleaning up after natural disasters.

María Inés Zamudio, Nour Saudi, and Roxana Aguirre report for The Center forPublic Integrity, Futuro Investigates and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Keep reading...Show less

Fracking changes the landscape near Ohio's Salt Fork State Park

Residents near Ohio's largest state park face changes as fracking expands, altering the region's character.

Megan Henry reports for Ohio Capital Journal.

Keep reading...Show less

Indigenous leaders call for a halt to carbon markets at a UN forum

Indigenous activists at the UN Permanent Forum urge a stop to carbon markets, citing detrimental effects on native communities.

Maria Parazo Rose reports for Grist.

Keep reading...Show less

Wind-powered sails modernize cargo shipping to reduce emissions

Cargo ships are increasingly adopting advanced sail technologies to decrease fuel consumption and carbon emissions, leveraging designs inspired by airplane wings and enhanced with artificial intelligence.

Nicolás Rivero reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Earth Day reflections from the next generation

HOUSTON — In honor of Earth Day 2024, EHN is publishing letters from eighth grade students at YES Prep Northbrook Middle School in the Houston-area neighborhood of Spring Branch, Texas.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
New EPA regulations mean a closer eye on the nation’s petrochemical hub

New EPA regulations mean a closer eye on the nation’s petrochemical hub

Houston’s fenceline communities welcome stricter federal rules on chemical plant emissions but worry about state compliance.

plastic composting

Bioplastics create a composting conundrum

Biodegradable food packaging is a step in the right direction, experts say, but when composted carries risks of microplastic and chemical contamination.

plastic treaty

Groups push Biden administration to take leadership role at upcoming plastic treaty talks

The US has taken a “middle of the road position” so far, environmental groups say.

chemical recycling Youngstown

Listen: Why communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are fighting chemical recycling plants

EHN reporter Kristina Marusic discusses her new three-part series on the controversies surrounding chemical recycling.

chemical recycling

Latest chemical recycling plant closing spurs concern over the industry’s viability

Oregon’s Regenyx plant announced its closing in late February, with those involved calling it a success, despite never reaching planned capacity and millions of dollars lost.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.