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)

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
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
Plastics industry's recycling deception
Credit: MPCA Photos/Flickr

Plastics industry's recycling deception exposed

A new report uncovers decades of misleading claims by plastic producers about the viability of recycling, revealing it as a flawed solution for waste management.

Dharna Noor reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
highway expansion climate concerns
Credit: Storm Crypt/Flickr

Rethinking highway expansion in the face of climate concerns

As the U.S. grapples with climate change, activists are challenging the traditional expansion of highways, highlighting the environmental and community impacts.

Shannon Osaka reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Youth activists demand climate action at Biden's campaign headquarters

Young climate activists from the Sunrise Movement confront Biden's campaign team, demanding decisive climate action and a ceasefire in Gaza.

Keerti Gopal for Inside Climate News.

Keep reading...Show less
Plastics industry misinformation campaign
Credit: Louis Vest/Flickr

Plastics and education: a critical conversation unfolds in schools

Petrochemical conglomerates take to the classroom in a concerted effort to focus responsibility for plastic waste on the consumer while absolving industry.

Evan Halper reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Rally for safer work conditions in Queensland

In Brisbane, thousands of construction workers demand improved safety measures following a colleague's tragic death.

Michael Rennie and Antonia O'Flaherty report for ABC News.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

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