Fact-check: Half of fed-funded green companies bankrupt?

Everyone’s entitled to a little hyperbole every now and then. But the closing minutes of last night’s presidential debate contained a real whopper.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney claimed that half of the green-tech companies funded by Obama’s stimulus package had gone bankrupt. Here’s the precise wording, taken from a transcript of the debate:

“You put $90 billion into — into green jobs. And I — look, I’m all in favor of green energy. $90 billion, that would have — that would have hired 2 million teachers. $90 billion. And these businesses, many of them have gone out of business, I think about half of them, of the ones have been invested in have gone out of business. A number of them happened to be owned by people who were contributors to your campaigns.”

First of all, this is the kind of estimate that’s inherently hard — if not impossible — to pin down, due to the large number of companies involved. That $90 billion, for example, included $4 billion for smart grid projects, such as installing smart meters. So do you count all the big utilities that received money to install meters? (By the way, that doesn’t include Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which funded its $2.2 billion SmartMeter program through utility bills.) How about the companies that make the meters? We’re talking about a lot of businesses that benefited from clean-energy spending under the stimulus, and the chances that half of them went belly-up in the last three years are minimal, to put it mildly.

Romney, of course, is invoking the ghost of Solyndra in California, the solar panel maker that imploded last year after receiving $528 million in federal loans. Since Solyndra’s bankruptcy, most Republican criticism of the Obama’s green-jobs spending has focused on the loan programs run by the Department of Energy, programs that awarded $34.5 billion in loans. Here’s the list of companies and projects that received those loans:

There are 33 projects. By my count, three of the companies behind those projects have gone bankrupt — Abound Solar, Beacon Power, and Solyndra.

Definitely not half.

Now, the success of many of the companies that received funding is far from guaranteed. And one can easily question whether taxpayers got their money’s worth on all of the green stimulus spending. For example, California received $146 million in stimulus funding for a program to make homes more energy efficient. So far, the program has only served 5,130 homes. Not a lot of bang for the buck.

But the wave of bankruptcies that Romney’s comments suggest? It hasn’t happened.

Romney invoked Solyndra one more time by noting that some of the companies that received funding are owned by Obama contributors. Solyndra’s largest private investor was George Kaiser, an Obama bundler with enough clout to get seated next to the president at a Las Vegas fundraising dinner after the company received its loan. But a congressional investigation found no conclusive evidence that the Kaiser connection won Solyndra its loan. And although people tend to forget it, Solyndra’s second-largest private investor was a venture capital firm tied to the Walton family of Walmart fame, known for supporting Republican candidates.

Finally, I should note that anyone hoping the candidates would address global warming during the debate came away empty-handed. Search through the transcript for “warming” or “climate.” Nothing there.

– David R. Baker