Acme: The Name You Know?

Source:  Michael Grossman, Fifty Plus One, October 5, 2o11.

Look up the word “acme” in the dictionary; it means “the highest point at which someone or something is best, perfect or most successful.” Ask anyone over the age of three or with a television the definition, and they’ll tell you Acme means failure, as in the company that supplies the Wyle E. Coyote with multi-pronged gadgets that always seem to fail to catch the Roadrunner.

Over the last month there’s been a similar effort at misdirection to make the word Solyndra the new Acme for solar energy–but without the punchline.

Not in dispute is that like Acme–with a capital “A”–Solyndra’s technology wasn’t fully baked. Also not in dispute is the Obama administration’s continuing tongue tied trend of mishandling the message around mistakes.

Want to see a microcosm of why the public is frustrated with a President they generally like? It’s because he’s seemingly been the only employer in America not to have fired anyone over the last three years. Apparently a half billion in tax dollars down the tubes doesn’t rise to that level. Here’s a tip: Reminding the American public for the thousandth time that the Department of Energy is being run by a Nobel Laureate doesn’t make it any more comforting to millions of people who’ve seen their jobs, their futures and their life savings vanish in the last few years.

As political scandals go, this is a B minus or a C, unless it gets disclosed that some member of Obama’s inner circle owned a financial stake in the company, and it won’t have political legs because every Republican Congressman who wants to investigate the matter will have DOE loans and grants in their own districts that they supported.

It will, however, have lasting repercussions in the clean energy world because without a stable market in the U.S. for renewable energy, all of these industries are forced to make progress one loan guarantee at a time. This doesn’t just impact solar, which is facing the phasing out of the Treasury 1603 Grant Program, but the wind industry is also facing the sunsetting of its production tax credit, and even though they are different technologies, Solyndra’s demise doesn’t help the short-term political climate for either.

Putting aside for a moment that there has never been such a thing as a free market in the energy industry–see: tax dollars for railroads to transport coal, highways and pipelines to transport liquid fuels and $6 in government subsidies for fossil fuels for every $1 in government support for renewables over the last decade–Solyndra gives the President the opportunity to lay down the gauntlet to all of those in Congress who’ve been clamoring for government to stop picking winners and losers.

So instead of playing the adult in the room, I’d like to see the President actually be the adult in the room by pointing out this amalgam of neo-right wing orthodoxy is hypocritical to its own aims and to the nation’s future. This group has had the solar industry on the Dean Wormer equivalent of double secret probation for the last 30 years. Even the Looney Tunes writers who flattened, exploded and crushed the aforementioned and hapless coyote couldn’t have come up with more devious plot lines.

First it was “solar is too expensive,” except now worldwide prices for solar panels are falling so dramatically, the direct result were failures like Solyndra, Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt that couldn’t compete with global prices. Then the argument shifted to “government should let the market decide,” which is exactly what would have happened had all of these members of Congress adopted the most conservative, free market solution offered–cap and trade or a carbon tax–making those who pollute the most pay the most. They, of course, killed that effort.

Now, with no guaranteed market and no financing, those lining up against what should be an apolitical issue are citing massive taxpayer fraud over what amounts to a couple of LeBron James sized contracts when our own military is now the single largest customer for renewable energy because it saves lives of men and women in uniform. Solar was even the one bright spot in our perpetually imbalanced trade ledger with China, showing a $2 billion export surplus in 2010.

When the ideologically blinded shout about the failure of Solyndra, remind them of the Apollo Saturn that caught on fire before we made it to the moon–ten trips later– spawning countless patents and technological advancements that easily eclipsed the money taxpayers spent.

When they conveniently preach fiscal discipline over millions, remind them of our $649 billion defense budget, much of it based on protecting the geopolitics of our oil supplies.

When they say the industry is too risky, remind them that if we quit aerospace after the Hindenburg, we wouldn’t have won World War II and created decades of jobs for millions of Americans.

And for god-sake, fire someone! Remember, “Heckuva job, Brownie!” during Hurricane Katrina cost Bush 43 more votes than Iraq or Afghanistan ever did.

Those of you who watched the animated evolutionary struggles between Coyote and Roadrunner each Saturday will recall that all of the “can’t miss” gadgets showed up at the cave’s entrance without an invoice or a bill. They also didn’t account for “human error.” If we follow the same logic with our clean energy investments, we can expect more Acme and less acme.