As the $344 million factory went up just down the road from the company’s leased plant in Fremont, Calif., workers watched as pallets of unsold solar panels stacked up in storage. Many wondered: Was the factory needed?
“After we got the loan guarantee, they were just spending money left and right,” said former Solyndra engineer Lindsey Eastburn. “Because we were doing well, nobody cared. Because of that infusion of money, it made people sloppy.”
Solyndra’s ability to secure federal backing also made the company eager for more assistance, interviews and records show. Company executives ramped up their Washington lobbying efforts, hiring a former Senate aide to work with the White House and the Energy Department. Within a week of getting a loan guarantee commitment from the Energy Department, Solyndra applied for another, worth $400 million. It never won final approval.
On Friday, company executives are scheduled to appear before a House committee investigating how Solyndra obtained its loan and whether the Obama White House rushed its approval for political reasons. Chief Executive Officer Brian Harrison and Chief Financial Officer Bill Stover were supposed to face a grilling about the company’s spending and collapse, but they announced Tuesday that they would assert their Fifth Amendment rights because of a criminal probe of the company by the Justice Department.
A key question for lawmakers is whether Solyndra executives misled Congress about the financial state of the company as late as July, when questions about the loan surfaced on Capitol Hill. Solyndra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Aug. 31, laying off 1,100 workers and leaving taxpayers on the hook for repayment of the guaranteed loan made through the Federal Financing Bank.
Solyndra was once touted by President Obama as the flagship of his administration’s effort to spur the clean-energy industry. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that e-mails showed that White House officials pushed federal reviewers for a decision on the Solyndra loan as they sought to schedule a press announcement with the company and Vice President Biden.
An Energy Department spokesman said the agency was unaware that Solyndra sales projections, part of the justification for the new factory, had been too rosy. Spokesman Damien LaVera declined to comment on the employees’ accounts of company spending.
Solyndra, founded by enterpreneur Chris Gronet in 2004, pushed the Obama administration to support its niche solar technology — efficient cylindrical solar panels that were relatively expensive to make but cheaper and easier to install on the roofs of “big box” stores and other commercial buildings. The new administration awarded the company its first loan guarantee under the stimulus program.