Forget the blame and focus on the promise of green energy

As news broke last week that the Amonix solar panel manufacturing plant in North Las Vegas would close, political campaigns jumped into action.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller’s campaign spokeswoman immediately fired a broadside at the campaign of Rep. Shelley Berkley, blaming her vote for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for wasted tax dollars and a lack of jobs in Nevada.

"Congresswoman Berkley, when you voted for the trillion-dollar stimulus, you promised it would create 34,000 jobs in Nevada. Nevada lost jobs," spokeswoman Chandler Smith wrote. "Congresswoman Berkley, you pushed $6 million in funding to a company that has created zero long-term jobs for Nevada. Congresswoman, it’s time. It’s time for you to admit the stimulus – and your policies – aren’t working."

Well, maybe not quite time yet.

As it turns out, Amonix never saw a dime of that $6 million in tax credits, because the company never realized any taxable income.

But taxpayers did lose out in an even bigger way: Amonix received a total of $15.6 million from the Department of Energy in grants under the Solar America Initiative. But those grants were approved back in 2007, when the Energy Department was run by the administration of President George W. Bush. The former Republican president’s men gave out $8.2 million in grants to Amonix, with an addition $7.4 million handed out by the department after President Barack Obama took over.

So if anybody is angry at $6 million in tax credits that were never used, they ought to be twice as mad at $15.6 million in grant funds that were. But anybody so irked should take it up with the Republicans.

Berkley’s campaign responded with an outrage-laden release of its own, accusing Heller of "cheering" the loss of jobs at the plant. (Most jobs were eliminated in May, when the plant was idled.) And Berkley made sure to note that no less a Republican than Gov. Brian Sandoval supported the opening of the Amonix plant as a bright point on the state’s rough-hewn road to economic development.

What Berkley didn’t say, but could have, was this: Stuff happens. (Feel free to play with the wording.)

If we’ve made the policy decision in this country that renewable energy is desirable (and we have) and further that there’s a role for the government to play in the research and development of that energy (and we have), then we also have to be prepared to deal with the consequences. Sometimes, those consequences will be the failure of a business and the loss of tax dollars.

What that should do is make us more dedicated to ferreting out the riskier prospects and avoiding those investments. What that should not do is send us into a paroxysm of criticism, finger-pointing and political blame.

Ask Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Industries Association in Washington, D.C. Resch told the Review-Journal’s Hubble Smith last week that the Amonix failure was not a reason to give up on subsidies for clean energy.

"America can’t afford to cede yet another high-tech industry and its jobs to China, Europe or elsewhere while we waste time with political arm-wrestling," Resch said.

Amen to that.

There are some who will say there is no market for green energy. But what that really means is there is no market – yet. Someday, there will be. And when we look back and see how it happened, the government will have played a prominent role in the success. There will be failures along the way, of course, just as there were failures along the way to building the Internet.

Today, we pretty much take it for granted.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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