Energy Secretary Steven Chu was preparing to speak at a black-tie gala this month, and the hundreds of people milling about there were busy gabbing. Seeking to quiet the din, Chu called out “Solyndra, Solyndra, Solyndra,” and people stopped to listen.
He didn’t mention the company again.
Ever since Solyndra, a California manufacturer of solar panels, went bankrupt Sept. 5 with $535 million of federal loan guarantees, Chu and his Energy Department have been the focus of some unwanted attention. The department has been hammered by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has unearthed reams of Obama administration e-mails about internal rifts over the Solyndra loan guarantee. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), head of the panel’s oversight subcommittee, has gotten Chu to agree to testify Nov. 17. And GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for Chu to be fired for “grossly mismanaging federal dollars.”
“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart devoted eight minutes to the Solyndra affair and addressed lawmakers’ charges that the loan was based on politics, not merit.
“Maybe their hearts were in the right place and they bet on the wrong horse,” said Stewart of the Energy Department officials. “It’s not like there’s any damning evidence they knew in advance this horse was, in fact, a donkey.”
For Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, it has been a demonstration that the laws of politicsare more important in Washington than the laws of physics.
For most of Chu’s time here, those laws have been aligned. President Obama is fond of the idea of having a Nobel Prize-winning physicist in his Cabinet, say people who have been in touch with senior administration officials.
The president liked Chu’s wonkiness, intellectual authority and devotion to planting technological seeds for slowing climate change. Though the Energy Department’s grant and loan guarantee programs were less than one-tenth of the 2009 stimulus total, Obama showcased many of the projects because, unlike road repairs, they held out the promise of gee-whiz innovation and of heightened competitiveness on a global stage.
Chu personified that gee-whiz character, and as a physicist he was able to understand the bulk of the Energy Department’s more mundane but important responsibility to manage the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. On the day Obama visited Solyndra in 2010, he mentioned that Chu — “who, as you know is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist” — was then in the Gulf of Mexico personally poring over plans, pressure equations and photos in an effort to plug BP’s leaking Macondo oil exploration well.
But now Solyndra has become a financial and political blowout, and it has made Chu look naive, at best, for saying in March that with Solyndra’s sales rising and its equity investors kicking in more money, he was “confident they can repay” the federal loan.
Weeks earlier, in a Jan. 31 e-mail, an Office of Management and Budget staffer was alarmed. The staffer wrote that an upcoming senior staff meeting “might present an opportunity to flag to DOE at the highest levels the stakes involved, for the [Energy] Secretary to do as he sees fit (and be fully informed and accountable for the decision).” The staffer, whose name was redacted, said, “Although [political] optics are generally out of our lane, it may be worthwhile for the [OMB] Director to privately make this point to the Secretary.” What happened at that senior staff meeting remains unclear.
What is clear is that if the laws of physics and politics still resemble one another it is in this way: The Solyndra story, once in motion, has tended to stay in motion. And it might be hard for Chu to stop it.
Chu was an unorthodox choice for the Energy Department from the start, and not just because he bikes to work whenever possible or likes to climb the seven flights of stairs to his office. He had spent much of his life in labs. He did his Nobel-winning work at Bell Labs in New Jersey, using lasers to capture subatomic particles. Later he taught at Stanford.
But gradually he became alarmed about evidence of climate change and came to see fighting climate change as his mission. In 2004, he became director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to steer people there toward projects aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of his views were not in line with the entrenched energy establishment of oil, coal and nuclear, or with the priorities of past energy secretaries. Chu declined to comment for this article. In an interview with The Washington Post in 2007, he said that the U.S. cost of electricity was “anomalously low,” that a cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gases “is an absolutely nonpartisan issue” and that scientists had come to “realize that the climate is much more sensitive than we thought.”