Energy Secretary Chu defends loan program as White House report looms

Just days before the White House unveils a post-Solyndra review of the Energy Department’s loan program, Energy Secretary Steven Chu defended the program Wednesday against sustained Republican attacks.

Chu said the Energy Department made a series of changes to the program before and after the collapse of Solyndra, the California solar panel maker that received a $535 million loan guarantee in 2009.

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“Long before Solyndra became a common word, we have been looking at how, in everything we do in the Department of Energy, to constantly improve how we do these processes," he said.

Chu promised that the Energy Department will continue working to improve the program.

“Certainly, there’s a lot going forward that the Department of Energy has to be on top of and make sure that the taxpayer investments are protected as much as possible while trying to help these companies,” Chu told reporters after delivering remarks at an energy conference.

“There’s going to be a lot of work going forward with the loan program.”

The White House is slated to release a report this week on the Energy Department's loan guarantee program. Herb Allison, a former Treasury Department official who oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), conducted the review and delivered his report to the White House late last month.

The Energy Department has subjected its loans to additional review and set up “risk committees” to analyze changing market conditions that might affect a project, Chu said.

“When you have a very rapidly changing ecosystem like that, there are going to be stresses,” he said, pointing to the significant decrease in the price of solar panels in recent years. “So we watch these things very, very closely.”

While the stimulus-backed portion of the loan program expired last year, Chu said the department is still reviewing applications under other parts of the program, which was first authorized in 2005.

“It really depends on the applications and things of that nature,” he said.” We’re talking to a number of applicants still going forward.”

House Republicans have pummeled Chu in recent months over the loan program, focusing on Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy in September. Republicans have alleged that the Energy Department did not adequately vet loan recipients. They have used the incident to raise broader questions about President Obama’s investments in renewable energy.

Chu testified before a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel in November.

During the hearing, Chu took responsibility for his decisions to greenlight the Solyndra loan guarantee in 2009 and then restructure the loan in February. But he pushed back on Republican allegations that the department did not subject Solyndra to enough scrutiny and had approved the loan for political reasons.

Chu, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said he was working with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on a date to testify on the loan program.

Issa threatened this week to subpoena Chu if he does not agree to testify before the committee in the next two months.