U.S. lawmakers press DOE about Abound Solar tech problems

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON, Oct 10 (Reuters) - U.S. Republican lawmakers on Wednesday pressed the Obama administration for more information about its decision to back, and then stop funding, a now-bankrupt solar company, with a report now saying the company may have been selling a faulty product.

The request from leaders of the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce committee marked the latest probe of the administration's energy loan program, which has become a lightning rod for critics after the high profile failure of solar panel maker Solyndra.

Abound Solar, another solar manufacturer in the program, filed for bankruptcy in July after receiving about $70 million of its $400 million loan guaranteed by the government.

At the time Abound cited intense competition from Chinese panel makers as the reason for the company's collapse, but a report from The Daily Caller website said internal documents show Abound's panels were defective.

"Recent reports and publicly available documents indicate that persistent technological problems contributed to Abound's inability to remain commercially viable and, ultimately, its bankruptcy," said Republican Congressmen Fred Upton, Energy and Commerce committee chairman, Cliff Stearns and Cory Gardner in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The Daily Caller report said the panels were underperforming and prone to catch fire. The website was founded by Tucker Carlson, a conservative commentator, and Neil Patel, who was an adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In their letter, the lawmakers questioned what the Energy Department knew about these technological problems before awarding Abound's loan and whether these issues played any role in the department's decision to cut off funding for the project in August 2011.

Prior to finalizing the loan for Abound, a department-commissioned engineering report found "performance shortfalls" with the company's panels, the lawmakers said.

So far, the funding received by the three bankrupt companies - including Beacon Power, an energy storage company - in the loan program represents less than 4 percent of the $16 billion in loans the program backed.

The Energy Department has defended its investment in Abound Solar, saying the company was an "innovative" manufacturer that suffered from the precipitous drop in solar panel costs.

An Energy Department official said the administration has already provided Congress with more than 1 million pages of documents as part of Republicans' extensive review of the loan program, including the independent engineering and market analyses used to evaluate Abound.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)