A congressional investigative committee on Wednesday grilled officials from two agencies that backed a $535 million loan package to failed solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra Inc.
Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations said they want to know why the Energy Department approved the Solyndra loans in 2009 and then restructured the loan this February despite evidence that the company was struggling financially.
Solyndra, which was hailed by President Barack Obama in 2010 as an innovative company that would use stimulus money to create jobs and lead the economic recovery, laid off most of its 1,100 workers Aug. 31 and announced it would cease operations. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Sept. 6.
Two days later, agents with the FBI and Energy Department's inspector general served a search warrant at Solyndra's Fremont, Calif., headquarters. The Solyndra bankruptcy and the criminal investigation have raised questions about the administration's decision to pour billions of dollars into clean-energy programs.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the subcommittee's chairman, pressed Energy Department loans director Jonathan Silver on Wednesday to explain how the agency could approve more than half a billion dollars in loans despite questions about the company's financial health.
"You should have protected the taxpayers and made some forceful actions here," Stearns said.
Silver noted that Solyndra had first applied for the loan in 2006, under President George W. Bush's watch. He said the loan was tentatively approved in March 2009 "on the exact schedule that had been developed by the Bush administration."
He said federal loans are vital to allowing U.S. companies to compete in the alternative energy field. Financing innovative technology is a risky business, but a risk worth taking, Silver said.
"The rest of the world takes the industry enormously seriously," Silver said. "It's a multi-trillion-dollar market that will create tens of thousands of jobs.
"We invented this technology, and we should produce it here. ... This is a battle we must fight and win."
Solyndra officials cited foreign competition, particularly from China, as a significant cause of the company's failure. Chinese companies, which receive billions of dollars in government funding, are producing similar products at a fraction of the cost that Solyndra could, the company said.
Two Solyndra executives, including Chief Executive Brian Harrison, declined to attend the hearing, saying they were focused on dealing with a potential sale of the company and time commitments related to the bankruptcy and investigation.
The hearing, which lasted more than four hours, focused significant attention on emails showing the White House encouraging the Energy Department and budget officials to approve the Solyndra loans quickly.
Silver and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of Office of Management and Budget, said the loans were approved on merit and not influence from the White House. They said the Solyndra failure should not discourage continued U.S. investment in alternative energy.
"It's a disappointing outcome but it comes with the terrain of backing innovative technology," Zients told the committee.
Silver told the committee that he was not aware of what the FBI is investigating. He told the committee that he does not believe Solyndra misled the government in order to receive the loans.