5 bets the DOE made that are better than Solyndra

The styling of the Model S Beta

It’s been almost five weeks since the news came to light that solar panel maker Solyndra was going to crash and take with it 1,100 jobs and $527 million in taxpayer funds. But the story still remains on top of the minds of investors, the media, House Republicans and concerned taxpayers, and it is overshadowing some of the early successes of other green companies that also won government support.

Here’s my top five list of companies and projects that the DOE also backed with loan guarantees or loans and that are showing some early signs of success. Yes, some of these projects still have some risk, but they have met some milestones.

1. Tesla’s Model S factory. This week I got a chance to ride in one of electric car maker Tesla’s beta versions of its second electric car, the Model S. The Model S is one of the first cars in the world to be designed from the ground up as an electric car (in contrast to the more common method of using the body of an internal combustion car as an electric car). It’s a seven-seater sedan, and it has one of the roomiest interiors I’ve seen for an EV. The DOE gave Tesla $465 million in low-interest loans out of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to build the factory, and Tesla says it already has 6,000 reservations for the Model S. Yes, Tesla will have to pay back that loan by selling Model S vehicles and its tech licensing projects (it has a $100 million deal with Toyota), but it seems to be on track to deliver the Model S in mid-2012.

2. BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar farm. Solar thermal company BrightSource is one of the first companies in the world to start building a massive solar power tower farm. BrightSource’s Ivanpah is now under construction on 3,600 acres of land in the desert near Las Vegas. I visited the farm in August, the same week that Solyndra announced its bankruptcy, and the company is making progress on the first of three sections of the 392 MW farm.

Ivanpah will be built with a $1.6 billion loan, guaranteed by the DOE and funded by the Federal Financing Bank. The farm could still be delayed and there could be other hurdles, but the company has overcome the milestones of being fully financed, and with utility customers. Private investors in the project include NRG Energy, Bechtel and Google, and funders of BrightSource include VantagePoint Capital, Alstom, Morgan Stanley, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Chevron Technology Ventures.

3. Shepherds Wind Flat. What looks to be the world’s largest wind farm, the 845 MW Shepherds Flat project, went under construction in Oregon in April 2011, and it is expected to start up in 2012. It will use 338 wind turbines from GE and will stretch across 30 square miles. It will cost $2 billion to build. Southern California Edison, a utility, has entered into a contract to buy the wind power. Japanese giant ITOCHU Corporation, Tyr Energy and a subsidiary of Sumitomo Corporation, Sumitomo Corporation of America, along with Google, are putting around $500 million into the farm. Most importantly, the project received a partial loan guarantee for $1.3 billion. With matured wind turbine tech, deep-pocketed private investors and utility customers, there’s little risk in this project.

4. Abengoa’s solar projects. Spanish engineering giant Abengoa Solar received $1.2 billion and $1.45 billion loan guarantees for solar projects using traditional and lower-risk solar thermal trough technology. Abengoa also has utilities that will have commitments to buy up the solar power from the farms. Abengoa is a multinational conglomerate that won’t likely crash and burn, swallowing loans and jobs.

5. The big automakers. OK, maybe not better in this case, but safer, though not likely to lead to innovations. The DOE, remember, gave Nissan and Ford the bulk of the ATVM program loans so far, including $5.9 billion for Ford Motor Company and $1.45 billion for Nissan North America. Word on the street is that Chrysler has been in the process of getting another big chunk. This support will lead to jobs but maybe not produce all that greener cars or cleaner energy.

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