Conservative TV pundits are painting Democratic Rep. George Miller and his lobbyist son George Miller IV as kingpins in solar company SunPower's bid for $1.2 billion in federal loan guarantees that the critics call gambling with public money.
Hosts on "Fox & Friends" last week characterized San Jose-based SunPower as another "failing solar company."
Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity denounced the Millers, with the latter saying the father "failed to mention his son, George Miller IV, is their top lobbyist at SunPower. ... Can it get any more unethical?"
It's provocative, but the evidence falls short on several fronts.
Industry analysts say San Jose-based SunPower is struggling but nowhere near bankruptcy, and they describe the loan guarantee as low-risk for taxpayers. More significantly, Carlsbad-based NRG Energy, not SunPower, is on the hook to repay the loan, according to company representatives. NRG bought the project before the federal backing came through, although SunPower will design and build the solar farm in San Luis Obispo County.
"I'm just getting caught up in the daily story line that Republicans are putting out," said Miller, of Martinez, whose district includes much of Contra Costa County. In reality, Miller said, he's insignificant "in terms of the whole debate that roars around here as the GOP tries to make sure President Obama doesn't have any success."
The bigger story stems from the Solyndra collapse, a highly touted Fremont company that went bankrupt two years after it received more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees and one year after a visit from President Barack Obama.
It opened a floodgate of questions from conservatives opposed to taxpayer underwriting of the solar industry, congressional hearings and spurred a national debate over how much government should intervene in the global alternative energy market.
But the specific assertions about Miller, his son, SunPower's financial health and its loan guarantee appear to be exaggerated based on what is publicly known.
Mandated federal and state lobbyist registrations show Miller IV is not a SunPower lobbyist.
However, he is a partner in the Sacramento-based lobbying firm Lang, Hansen, O'Malley and Miller, which SunPower retained solely to lobby state legislators. The firm's lobbyist registered to represent SunPower is Bob Giroux.
SunPower paid the firm $38,000 for lobbying in the first half of the year, according to reports to the state.
How the firm's partners share revenue is not publicly known, but Miller IV has said that he has not worked directly on the SunPower account.
SunPower has a different lobbyist for its federal business -- Patrick Murphy with 3 Click Solutions LLC.
The congressman emphatically said that his son has not lobbied him about SunPower.
"My son and I do not talk business," Miller said Friday. "That's not how I do business. Period."
A clean energy advocate for decades, the congressman said his role in SunPower's quest for a loan guarantee consisted of a letter of support to the Department of Energy, cowritten with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose.
The agency has made $40 billion in loans and loan guarantees to clean energy projects since its creation in 2005. Many members of Congress of both parties have sent similar letters endorsing projects.
"This is precisely the type of clean energy project envisioned by Congress," Miller and Lofgren wrote the department May 10, 2010.
Miller had reasons close to home to support SunPower: Its' headquarters are in San Jose but has a research and development facility in the congressman's district in Richmond.
A year ago, Miller toured SunPower's Richmond plant with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and SunPower CEO Tom Werner.
SunPower Corp.'s federal political action committee donated $500 to Miller's 2010 re-election campaign, and to three other Bay Area members of Congress -- Lofgren, $500; Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, $750; and Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, $500.
The $1.2 million federal loan guarantee announced Sept. 30 is for the construction of a 250-megawatt solar farm in San Luis Obispo County.
Although SunPower applied for the loan guarantee, NRG Solar of Carlsbad subsequently bought the California Valley Solar Ranch project and is the sole party to the federal backing.
SunPower will design and construct the farm, and the firms will jointly operate it for two years until NRG takes over. Pacific, Gas and Electric Co. signed a long-term fixed-price contract to buy the power.
"The risk to taxpayers is very low," independent alternative energy investment analyst Daniel Ries said. "This loan guarantee is for a specific project using known technology that has a cash flow to pay off the debt.
"That's a very different scenario than Solyndra, which was for the manufacture of unproven technology that required building a plant for the first time."
SunPower is struggling financially in a tough market with its chief competitors in countries such as China enjoying heavy government subsidies. Its stock plunged last quarter after it reported hefty quarterly losses and costs rising twice as fast as revenue.
Ries is recommending his clients sell their SunPower stock based on the challenging solar market and the company's rising operating costs.
However, Ries and other industry experts quoted in newspapers said established American companies such as SunPower are unlikely to go bankrupt and default on their loans.
SunPower also recently received a cash infusion when the French energy company, Total, bought a 60 percent interest in the firm and extended a $1 billion line of credit.
SunPower Corp. will release its next quarterly earnings statement on Nov. 3.
Staff writers Dana Hull contributed to this story. Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773. Read the Political Blotter at ibabuzz.com/politics.