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Feds guarantee $1 billion in new solar loans

Projects ‘carefully vetted’ in wake of Solyndra failure

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Days before the expiration of its loan program, the Department of Energy, under fire for backing more than a half-billion dollars in loans to now-bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra LLC, announced Wednesday more than $1 billion in new loan guarantees for other solar projects in Nevada and Arizona.

Citing a need to invest in "innovative technologies," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said a $737 million loan guarantee to Tonopah Solar Energy for a first-of-its kind solar tower in Nevada — to be taller than the Washington Monument — would produce electricity for about 43,000 homes.

"If we want to be a player in the global clean energy race, we must continue to invest in innovative technologies that enable commercial-scale deployment of clean, renewable power like solar," Mr. Chu said. The Energy Department also announced a $337 million loan guarantee to Sempra Energy for a solar generation project in Arizona.

The awards come eight days after Republican lawmakers wrote to Mr. Chu expressing concern about whether a rush to meet deadlines would result in officials approving loan guarantee deals before they have been fully vetted.

"The administration's flagship project Solyndra is bankrupt and being investigated by the FBI, the promised jobs never materialized, and now DOE is preparing to rush out nearly $5 billion in loans in the final 48 hours before stimulus funds expire — that's nearly $105 million every hour that must be finalized until the deadline," Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, said Wednesday. Mr. Stearns is chairman of the investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Last week, Mr. Stearns and Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote to Mr. Chu expressing concern that the Energy Department was rushing through approvals.

Though critics of the loan program in the wake of the Solyndra collapse and subsequent raid by the FBI this month, Mr. Upton and Mr. Stearns had supported other clean-energy projects in the past, records show.

Mr. Stearns was one of eight lawmakers who wrote Mr. Chu in 2009 supporting a biorefinery project in Florida. And Mr. Upton, along with other members of the Michigan delegation, wrote Mr. Chu last year to support loan applications of several companies for Michigan-based automakers and suppliers.

Neither project announced Wednesday is affiliated with Solyndra but they both are being funded through the same Energy Department loan program. Energy officials have come under sharp scrutiny for approving the Solyndra loan package in 2009 despite signs of its shaky finances.

Energy spokesman Damien LaVera said both projects announced Wednesday were fully scrutinized.

"These are carefully vetted applications that have undergone many months of due diligence and typically have bipartisan support," Mr. LaVera said, noting that the Tonopah project has the support of Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican.

"We evaluate the technical aspects of an application to make sure the technology is feasible, work to ensure that projects can be built to scale, do extensive market analysis to ensure there is a place in the market for the product, and evaluate the finances of the project to ensure it is commercially viable," he said.

The Nevada project is sponsored by Los Angeles-based SolarReserve LLC, whose investors include Citigroup, U.S. Renewables Group, Good Energies, Credit Suisse, Nazarian Enterprises and Argonaut Private Equity, which had a major stake in Solyndra.

PCG Asset Management also is listed as one of the company's investors. That company's board of directors includes Ronald Pelosi, the brother-in-law of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Kevin Smith, chief executive for SolarReserve, said PCG's investment in SolarReserve is about one-percent. He said Mr. Pelosi was not involved in the project. Mr. Smith said that, unlike Solyndra, the project had a long-term revenue source locked up through a contract to sell power to the Nevada Power Company.

The project, a 110 megawatt concentrating solar power generating facility, will be the first of its kind in the U.S., using molten salt as the primary heat transfer and storage, according to the Energy Department. At 640 feet, it will be the tallest molten salt tower in the world, and more than 80 feet taller than the Washington Monument.

"Everybody's talking about solar like it's one thing," Mr. Smith said. "It's a completely different animal than the Solyndra story."

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