Obama: Solyndra layoffs ‘heartbreaking’

Solyndra’s bankruptcy is “heartbreaking” for the 1,100 workers who lost their jobs, President Obama said Wednesday, while standing behind his administration’s clean-energy investments.

“Do I wish that Solyndra had gone bankrupt? Absolutely not. And obviously it’s heartbreaking it happened for the workers who were there,” Obama said during an interview with the public radio program “Marketplace.”

But Obama defended the Energy Department’s loan program, which has come under fire from Republicans in the aftermath of Solyndra's collapse last year. The California solar panel maker received a $535 million taxpayer-backed loan from the Obama administration in 2009.

“The understanding is that some companies are not going to succeed. Some companies will do very well,” Obama said. “But the portfolio as a whole ends up supporting the kind of innovation that helps make America successful in this innovative 21st-century economy.”

The loan program, because it backs innovative energy projects that often haven’t attracted enough private financing, involves “a lot of risk,” Obama said.

“[O]ftentimes there’s a lot of risk involved and what the loan guarantee program is designed to do is to help startup companies get to scale,” he said, noting that the program was authorized by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, first in 2005, and then expanded as part of the 2009 stimulus law.

The president blamed Solyndra’s collapse in part on China.

“Obviously, we wish Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt,” he said. “Part of the reason they did was the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry and flooding the market in ways that Solyndra could not compete.”

The Commerce Department made a preliminary finding this week that China was unfairly subsidizing its solar panels. As a result, the department imposed modest tariffs on Chinese solar panel imports.

In a speech in Nevada on Wednesday, Obama touted the Commerce Department decision.

“China wasn’t playing fair when it comes to solar power,” he said. “When the playing field is level, then American workers and American businesses always win. That’s why we’ve got to make sure that our laws are properly enforced.”

In the “Marketplace” interview, Obama also defended his plans to create jobs in the clean-energy sector. During his campaign for president, Obama promised to create 5 million “green jobs,” but has not done so.

“We haven’t gotten there, partly because we had this thing [that] interceded called the Great Recession. We had the worst financial crisis and the biggest drop in employment and the housing market, obviously the bottom fell out of it,” he said. “And so we’ve spent a lot of time digging our way out of that hole.”

But the president vowed to continue investing in clean energy, echoing the themes of his Boulder City, Nev., speech, which took place at the country’s largest solar power plant.

“Investments that are being made as we speak help to account for the kind of solar facility that we are seeing right here that is creating jobs right here in Boulder City,” he said.