Acting Commerce Secretary: Despite Failures, ‘U.S. Can’t Afford’ Not to Subsidize Green Tech

Matt Cover | September 29, 2011 | 12:48pm EDT
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Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. (AP Photo)

( – Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said that in a global race for green technology, the United States “can’t afford” not to spend taxpayer money on such projects, and that the price of that spending is an occasional failure. One of those failures was a $535-million federal loan guarantee to the Solyndra company that makes solar panels but which recently filed for bankruptcy.

“The U.S. can’t afford to not be a major winner in this race,” Blank said Thursday on a conference call with reporters. “That necessarily means that there’s going to be some capital investment by the U.S. government. But it is new technology and that means that there is sometimes risks.”

Blank said that because green technology can sometimes be untested, the risk of failure will always be there when government subsidizes green companies.

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“Make no mistake, that when you’re in a new innovation race of the sort that we are with every other advanced country in the world you are always out there on the cutting edge,” she said, “and that involves both big returns but sometimes involves some risks [of failure] as well.”

President Obama is given a tour of the Solyndra plant by executive vice-president Ben Bierman, right, and CEO Chris Gronet in May 2010. (AP Photo)

Blank had been asked if the new green technology innovation grants her department was announcing had been subject to greater scrutiny than the loan guarantees the Department of Energy – which is one of the federal partners in this program – had given to the failed green energy firm Solyndra.

Blank explained that the $12 million in grants -- between $1 million and $3 million for each of six new green technology Proof of Concept Centers -- had been subject to the same high level of scrutiny that all federal awards receive.

“These are winners that we think are going to produce what they promise,” she said. “We put them through all the tests that you’d put any government grantee through.”

The Commerce Department, along with officials from the EPA, Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation announced the winners of the government’s i6 Green contest on Thursday. The government provided between $1-$3 million to each of six new Proof of Concept Centers, which are public-private partnerships that will attempt to connect would-be green technology entrepreneurs to university researchers, business-development advice, seed funding, and professional evaluation of the companies’ business plans.

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