$400 Billion Agenda: Biden’s Right-Hand Man
Jigar Shah, currently at the helm of the Energy Department’s loan program, has embarked on an ambitious mission to fund green-technology projects on a grand scale, a venture set against a harsh political landscape that could make or break his plans. Operating within the parameters of a demanding bureaucracy, Shah finds himself amidst a scenario akin to an investor’s paradoxical dream – promising yet fraught with challenges.
Armed with a staggering $400 billion from government coffers, Shah’s task is to invest in businesses that promise to advance green-energy initiatives. However, his role is far from straightforward. His actions are under constant scrutiny from skeptical lawmakers, cautious bureaucrats, and the White House itself, with which Shah has already butted heads regarding the politics of his lending venture. As losses are anticipated in such large-scale projects, these may not sit well with Congress, adding to the precarious nature of his position.
Shah’s pipeline is brimming with about 150 companies, ranging from startups with groundbreaking yet unproven products to industry behemoths like General Motors and PG&E. Collectively, these companies seek a staggering $127.7 billion in loans. Disbursing such a vast amount to climate-oriented startups within a limited time frame poses a monumental challenge. To facilitate this, Shah has increased the size of his funding contributions, with a notable instance being a record-setting $9.2 billion commitment to a Ford joint venture tasked with manufacturing batteries in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Shah’s financial muscle originates from the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, a somewhat obscure component of the Biden administration’s strategy to combat climate change. The office, which remained mostly dormant for almost a decade, is engineered to fund businesses that are crucial to the nation’s transition to cleaner energy, particularly those unable to secure loans from conventional lenders due to perceived risks or unfavorable terms.
Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act equipped Shah’s office with an unprecedented influx of funds, enabling a ten-fold increase in its lending capacity. The resultant funding pool is at least 20 times larger than most private green-energy funds, thereby positioning Shah and his office as key influencers in the evolution of the American energy scene.
Despite the challenges, Shah has proactively reached out to a plethora of clean-energy executives to promote the potential loans his office could offer. He targeted clean-energy startups that had successfully raised at least $100 million in equity financing and also courted established companies capable of repaying sizable loans. However, some entities were hesitant to apply, daunted by the intricate approval process and potential risks associated with securing a government loan.
For Shah, the stakes are high and patience runs thin. He’s been pushing startups to borrow significant sums to launch their projects, one instance being his interaction with a company with a unique battery recycling plan. Despite initial hesitation from the company’s CEO, Ajay Kochhar, Shah was able to convince him of the viability of the repayment plan through revenue generated from the recycling plant. Five months later, they announced a federal loan worth $375 million.
During Shah’s tenure, the Loan Programs Office has evolved into what Peter Davidson, the office’s former leader from 2013 to 2015, refers to as “the clean-energy bank of the United States.” Following a surge in funding, the office has become one of the primary drivers of clean-energy initiatives in the country. Its efforts, in tandem with tax credits and spending under the Inflation Reduction Act, constitute one of the largest taxpayer-financed industrial stimuli since the 1930s New Deal.
However, the specter of past failures like Solyndra, a solar-panel startup that went bust after securing a loan from the office, haunts Shah and his team. The office’s endeavors are continually overshadowed by what Shah calls “Solyndra PTSD,” despite its successful backing of companies like Tesla.
Shah’s tenure has seen him champion some risky investments. Despite opposition from some staff members and concerns over potential political fallout, Shah has persistently advocated for financing projects that he believes are integral to the country’s energy transition. His dedication to exploring new technologies, such as carbon-removal technology in oil extraction, is unwavering.
Shah’s impressive trajectory is as diverse as it is fascinating. A co-founder of a solar-energy company and a clean-energy investment firm, Shah’s vivacious personality and extensive network helped build his ventures into significant entities in the clean-energy sector. Despite initial reluctance, Shah agreed to lead the Loan Programs Office, provided he could reform it to increase efficiency. His audacious steps, such as tripling the agency’s staff and recruiting debt experts from banks, signal his determination to revolutionize the office.
Nonetheless, the program’s success and longevity are uncertain, particularly given the impending threat of a potential Republican win in the White House next year. Regardless, Shah remains optimistic, stating that the government has made strides in ensuring its protection through the inclusion of safety provisions in the new deals. Despite the uncertainty, Shah continues to advocate for clean-energy initiatives, propelled by an unwavering commitment to combat climate change and facilitate the transition to greener energy.