Remember the Solyndra loan controversy?
U.S. Department of Energy officials wish you wouldn’t.
They were in Austin recently, looking to make new loans for technology that is too innovative to be backed totally by bankers — and to remind folks that 98 percent of their taxpayer-funded loans are performing as hoped.
“Some say we’re not being risky enough,” said Peter Davidson, executive director of the federal agency’s loan programs office.
The latest round of loan guarantees would leverage $4 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.
Startups need not apply.
It is for technology that’s already out of the lab, proven by a pilot project and ready to go to market, but remains too risky for bankers to go it alone.
Cue the government to enter with taxpayer dollars.
“Our mission is to get new technology deployed,” Davidson said.
The program, with a $32.4 billion loan portfolio, is perceived as President Barack Obama’s, but its roots date to a bipartisan law passed in 2005 during President George W. Bush’s administration.
Obama gets the credit — or the blame — because the program was widely used as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or the “stimulus” response to the recession.
If you have already forgotten, it seemed as if every business of every stripe was calling on the federal government for help during the recession.
Brendan Bell, a special adviser in the energy department, recalled the rush to get projects funded by a 2011 deadline. He said the government got proposals written on the back of napkins and one for an inflatable car.
They didn’t float. Bell said the vast majority of the submissions weren’t accepted.
Solyndra Inc., a solar panel manufacturer, and Fisker Automotive are the most noteworthy bankruptcies on the government’s books. Together, their loans topped $1 billion.
But the agency’s website also boasts of financing one of the world’s largest wind farms, the largest utility-scale photovoltaic generation facility, the largest concentrated solar power plants in the world and advanced vehicle manufacturing plants for Nissan, Ford and Tesla.
Other household names getting loans are NRG Energy Inc. and Google.
You might not think such industry giants would have trouble getting financing, but Davidson noted the loans were for large technology projects coming out of a recession when banks had little appetite for risk.
As recently as 2010, Davidson said, it was impossible to get financing to scale up solar facilities beyond the small 30 or 40 megawatt pilot project.
“All these projects hit a wall,” Davidson said.
But after the federal government financed five projects in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona with 1,510 megawatts, the private sector followed with 10 projects totaling 2,488 megawatts.
That’s how the program is supposed to work.
While the energy department’s portfolio has a lot of wind and solar, Davidson said the agency is following Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy. It has a $8 billion solicitation for advanced fossil fuel technology and nuclear is on the drawing board.
At the University of Texas last month, Davidson was laying out the particulars of the $4 billion renewable energy and energy efficiency effort.
These are not grants.
Investors need to put up the money for 25 percent or 30 percent of the project.
The federal government, sometimes with bankers, would finance the rest.
“We like commercial bankers involved so they’ll learn the industries,” Davidson said.
You pay $50,000 just to apply. Once you are beyond the preliminary round, fees range from $150,000 to $350,000, depending on the size of the loan.
Add the expense of experts and Davidson estimated that a developer could spend $1.5 million for a $15 million loan.
Davidson said the agency is looking for etiher new technology or technology that hasn’t been deployed in the U.S.
The basic criteria is an innovative technology with greenhouse gas benefits that is located in the U.S. (but can be foreign owned) and has a reasonable prospect of repayment.
For this round, the feds are particularly interested in advanced grid integration and storage, drop-in biofuels and waste-to-energy projects.
Efficiency improvements or enhancement of existing facilities — think of a 20-year-old wind farm getting updated equipment — are also a focus.
To learn more, go to lpo.energy.gov.
“We are looking for things that are unfinanceable,” Davidson said.
That’s something you won’t hear from your banker.
©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas