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5 Energy Questions for President Obama

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With a focus on jobs and the economy, Americans may see energy as being subservient to these larger aims. Even President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who meet in their first debate tonight, often couch their discussion of energy in terms of job creation and economic strength.

Yes, oil and gas creates jobs and spurs the economy, and the shale boom can help America reach the ever-elusive goal of energy independence. Beyond the usual rhetoric, though, there is the nuance and detail that politicians just loathe to get in to when the timer is running and America is watching. Energy is a complicated business, and sound bites help no one when it comes to energy policy.

With that in mind, here are five questions about energy policy for Obama to answer.

1. Solyndra. Yes, we know you are tired of this one. It's become politicized, and the lessons learned have been lost. With all due respect, I've yet to hear you admit one important lesson learned from the failure of Solyndra that will help the U.S. avoid making similar mistakes in the future. While I don't want to get into the whole "the government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers" rhetoric, your administration has avoided, deflected and redirected the Solyndra failure -- maybe for good "political" reason since it has become such a political lightning rod -- but without ever once saying, "Here is where we went wrong, here is what we learned, and here is how this will make U.S. energy policy better in the future."

Saying "no one could have seen the price drop in solar coming" -- reams of bearish Wall Street data from the past five years makes this excuse a poor one -- or "taking risks is part of progress and everyone knew this was risky" doesn't cut it. If you expect to stay in the alternative energy manufacturing space for the long haul, you have to show a more thorough understanding than that.

Mr. President, Americans love a good self-help book, especially one that begins at a low point and holds out great hope of turning lemons into lemonade for everyone, so tell us, how can we "fail forward" with the help of Solyndra? And then you can be done with it.

2. Manufacturing jobs. Speaking of Solyndra -- yes, we know, "enough already." You probably have some choice words for Republicans chosen from Clint Eastwood's political script over this tired subject. However, the Solyndra political pawn does raise a much more important issue about U.S. manufacturing. I have heard the rumor that the reason why Solyndra got U.S. funding in the first place was because the government feared it would look bad if the company set up shop in China.

It's an irony that leads to the dilemma over the current "lust" for any manufacturing sector jobs versus manufacturing jobs that make sense. Look at First Solar (FSLR), the largest U.S. solar company: It now can barely make money on its solar panel manufacturing line production, and its strategy is more reliant on its expertise in building large-scale solar projects.

Yes, we know the U.S. government slapped tariffs on Chinese solar panel makers because they don't "fight fair." But in a trade war, it's usually "win one, lose another," so a prolonged trade war in alternative energy manufacturing isn't necessarily sound manufacturing policy.

You've said in defense of the Department of Energy loan guarantees, and solar specifically, that the U.S. won't cede the lead in this sector to anyone. Apple (AAPL), the most valuable company in the world, and an American one at that, doesn't make one blessed thing in the United States of America. In fact, all of its devices are made by a low-cost manufacturer in Asia.

Mr. President, does having the "lead" in a sector have to mean being the "lead" manufacturer?

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