Since the Solyndra bankruptcy, the Obama administration has been taking a lot of heat over its handling of the energy sector. Just days ago, Rick Santorum said Obama is pushing a "radical environmentalist" agenda and that the president's environmental beliefs are a "theology" -- whatever that means. Romney has attacked renewable energy as "time and money wasted."

It's easy to paint a broad stroke of the energy picture when oil prices are rising and bankruptcies such as Solyndra and Beacon Power are in the headlines. But political candidates and newscasters rarely take the time to show the complete picture. The fact of the matter is, the cost of Obama's renewable energy investments has been relatively small when compared to the national budget. And it pales in comparison to the money the Chinese government gives to renewable energy companies -- the same companies who now, incidentally, dominate manufacturing in the fastest-growing part of energy: solar.

Real dollars and cents
The Department of Energy's loan guarantee portfolio, which includes Solyndra and Beacon Power, was recently reviewed by an independent consultant to determine credit characteristics and risk of loss. The findings might surprise you.

The program has provided $23.8 billion in loan guarantees. Only $8.3 billion of that has been drawn, and the subsidy cost provided by the government to the program amounted to $2.7 billion to $2.9 billion. The low overall cost is because most of the money was provided to extremely low-risk utility renewable projects.

The federal government's 1603 Treasury Program, a cash grant program for renewable energy developers, helped 22,000 renewable projects at a total cost of $1.75 billion. The program was allowed to expire at the end of 2011, although President Obama wanted to revive it in his latest budget.

What have these subsidies gotten us?

Growing renewable energy sector
Judging exactly what we've gotten from government subsidies is nearly impossible. But there is evidence that the industries that were supported are at least making a strong contribution to the economy.

  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the loan program is supporting $40 billion in private investment and 60,000 direct jobs.
  • First Solar's (NAS: FSLR) $646 million loan guarantee for the $1.36 billion Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One will power 75,000 homes at peak production. The company also has partial loan guarantees of $1.46 billion to build two Desert Sunlight projects totaling 550 MW.
  • The $1.237 billion loan guarantee for the 250 MW California Solar Ranch, now owned by NRG Energy (NYS: NRG) , will be used to install SunPower's (NAS: SPWR) high-efficiency panels and is projected to power 59,000 houses annually.
  • The solar industry now employs over 100,000 people nationwide.
  • The U.S. was a $1.9 billion net exporter of solar products, driven by capital equipment from GT Advanced Technologies (NAS: GTAT) and others. Ironically, this will likely be a short-term phenomenon because we're shipping manufacturing capabilities to China.

It isn't just U.S. companies that are creating jobs here in the U.S. First Solar and SunPower still dominate the solar landscape here, but Suntech Power (NYS: STP) now runs a manufacturing facility in Arizona to supply the growing U.S. market. Then there are companies like SolarCity who are installing modules on rooftops around the country and creating a majority of the jobs in the solar industry.

What it all means
Whether or not it's the federal government's role to guarantee loans for specific companies or subsidize an industry is up for debate, and it's not what I'm trying to point out in this article. I just want to put a scale on the debate.

At a cost of around $5 billion over the last three years, there are probably more important things to be debating, especially considering how fast the industry is growing and creating jobs. Plus, renewable energy costs are falling so fast that renewable subsidies will dry up in coming years as grid parity is reached across the country -- something that most subsidies never do.

Sometimes it's important to keep political rhetoric and government spending in perspective. President Obama may have a soft spot for renewable energy, but the support that's been given to these projects is pretty small in the grand scheme of things.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of SunPower and First Solar and manages an account that owns shares of SunPower. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings, or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.The Motley Fool owns shares of First Solar. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of First Solar. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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