FREMONT — President Barack Obama marked Fremont as a capital of the burgeoning clean-energy industry — a sector that won't lead to the kind of environmental disaster that's wreaking havoc in the Gulf of Mexico — while taking an economic stimulus victory lap Wednesday.
Obama toured Solyndra Inc., a solar-panel company that last year received a $535 million loan guarantee through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build a huge manufacturing plant down the road from its existing facility. It was in that incomplete plant — which eventually will employ about 1,000 and whose construction has provided work to about 3,000 — that he spoke to a few hundred employees, construction workers and local dignitaries.
The plant shows that the promise of new energy isn't science fiction but "is happening right now. The future is here," Obama said.
The president's visit seems to be part of a full-court press on the economic recovery. Elsewhere Wednesday, Democrats were touting a new analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showing that the Recovery Act in 2010's first quarter has raised the nation's gross domestic product, lowered the unemployment rate, and increased the number of people employed by more than 1.2 million.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will be in Hayward today to visit Plastikon, a former NUMMI parts supplier that's working with federal, state and local governments to save jobs.
The visit came amid a politically tough week for the president in which he met privately Tuesday with Senate Republicans for a discussion that reportedly grew testy. During it, he ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border — a move applauded by some but decried as inadequate by many. He mentioned neither Wednesday.
He called Solyndra "a testament to American ingenuity and dynamism" that's "leading the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future." Though, he said, Fremont and the Bay Area are still reeling from the recession, Solyndra's expansion and the Tesla-Toyota partnership to produce electric vehicles at the nearby, recently shuttered New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant are signs of recovery and the "building (of) a foundation for lasting growth."
The president said the "heartbreaking" environmental and economic devastation from the BP PLC Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, which continues to spew oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico, is a sign that the nation must be weaned from its dependence on fossil fuels. He's scheduled to visit the Gulf Coast on Friday, and said his administration is "intensively engaged" in halting and remediating the spill.
Other nations can't be allowed to get ahead of us in securing the jobs and economic benefits of new, cleaner energy, Obama said.
He vowed to seek comprehensive energy and climate legislation — "We're going to try to get it done this year" — but said the nation has already started down the right path by investing in businesses such as Solyndra, whose new plant will produce enough solar panels over its projected life span to replace eight coal-fired power plants.
"It took years to dig our way into this hole and we're not going to dig our way out overnight," Obama said, but "we will recover, we will rebuild."
Obama on Tuesday night had headlined two pricey fundraisers in San Francisco to benefit U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's re-election campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. After his Solyndra speech, he was whisked by helicopter to San Francisco International Airport, where he boarded Air Force One bound for Washington, D.C.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger met privately Wednesday with Obama and attended the speech, but made no public comments. He later issued a statement praising the president's decision to send National Guard troops to the border and to seek $500 million for enhanced border protection and law enforcement activities.
"It is encouraging that President Obama is committed to providing more resources to secure the border and I look forward to seeing the final proposal," he said. "We must find a permanent solution to our broken immigration system, and I will continue to call on the federal government to take action on comprehensive immigration reform."
Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, was at the Solyndra speech and called the president's visit "a great day for Fremont, for the Bay Area and for California" underscoring the region's and the state's green economic futures as well as a need for quality higher education required to train such a work force.
Torrico, a primary-election candidate for state attorney general, has been touting an oil-severance tax to fund higher education. After the president spoke Wednesday about lessening the nation's reliance on oil, Torrico said the tax would be "a short-term, much-needed investment in higher education." Nobody would be happier than he to see oil extraction end as the nation shifts to cleaner energy, Torrico said, but for now California should be taxing the way all other oil-producing states do.
Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council — a public-policy advocacy group consisting of executives from the region's top employers — called the president's speech "really encouraging."
"It's amazing to see the effects of the stimulus package taking root right here in the Bay Area," he said, in a way that will "not just produce dollars-and-cents results but also good results for our society — it's not often you get to do that."
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, said the president's visit and comments are "proving the naysayers wrong: Protecting the environment is good for the economy."
Fremont Vice Mayor Bob Wieckowski, a Democratic primary candidate for the 20th Assembly District seat, said Solyndra is hoping for more federal investment; it has bought more land adjacent to the new plant for a massive future expansion, if possible.