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Ivanpah solar farm in Nevada. Photo: John Locher / AP

The Energy Department's top renewable energy official on Tuesday praised a massive solar farm in California for "improving" after he criticized it while testifying to Congress last year as a conservative expert.

Daniel Simmons, the acting head of the department's renewable and energy efficiency office, toured the facility, named Ivanpah, on Sunday before giving remarks to a solar industry conference underway this week in Las Vegas.

Why it matters: Simmons' comments show the subtle ways some conservative experts known for blasting then-President Obama's policies are moderating their rhetoric as they join the federal bureaucracy that created those policies.

"It's a facility where they had substantial challenges after starting," Simmons told Axios by phone from Vegas on Tuesday. "What was impressive to me is the work they've done over the past few years improving their processes."

Two levels deeper:

  • An online news search of the solar farm shows the collection of challenges Ivanpah has had, like this March 2016 Wired article: "A huge solar plant caught on fire, and that's the least of its problems."
  • In Simmons' July 2016 testimony to a House committee, he criticized the $1.6 billion in loan guarantees Obama's Energy Department awarded the developers of Ivanpah, which included Google. "If Google (and their billionaire founders) want to take risks on new energy systems, they should use their own money instead of risking taxpayer dollars."

So does Simmons now think it was a good use of government money? "I'm not going to say that," he responded.

The bigger picture:

In his speech to the solar industry Tuesday, Simmons talked about how the Energy Department's solar office is shifting gears to focus more on providing federal funds for two types of technologies that...

  1. integrate solar onto the electricity grid
  2. enable solar to be tapped on demand, instead of just when the sun is shining

He gave cautious praise to solar as an energy type generally speaking, and said it has the ability to fulfill the four priorities of the Trump administration's energy policy: to be affordable, reliable, an economic driver and a boost to energy security.

This contrasts markedly with the thrust of his 2016 congressional testimony, where he said solar could increase foreign imports, was expensive and not reliable.

"I look forward to working with each and every one of you to overcome solar energy's critical challenges. Success will come from an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the energy industry's strengths and weaknesses," Simmons told the crowd, according to his prepared remarks reviewed by Axios. "In the coming months, you will see a shift in focus on the research, but a steadfast commitment to what I know is a shared vision: affordable and reliable energy for all."

Go deeper

Updated 51 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Report: Pentagon watchdog finds Ronny Jackson drank on duty and harassed staff

Rep. Ronny Jackson walking through the Canon Tunnel to the U.S. Capitol in January. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) allegedly made "sexual and denigrating" comments about a female staffer, drank alcohol and took sleeping medication while working as White House physician, according to an official report obtained by CNN Tuesday night.

Driving the news: The Department of Defense inspector general's report stems from a years-long investigation. Jackson has called the allegations "false and fabricated."

DOJ pressed to enforce Al Jazeera foreign agent ruling

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Justice Department is being pressed to enforce its own demand that the U.S. arm of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera register as a foreign agent.

Why it matters: The launch of Al Jazeera's new right-of-center U.S. media venture, Rightly, has refocused attention on the media company's alleged links to Doha, and DOJ's efforts to crack down on media outlets viewed as foreign interest mouthpieces.

Poll: Immigration is America's most-polarizing issue

Data: The American Aspirations Index/Populace; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Immigration was found to be the most polarizing issue in America based on new polling from Populace.

Why it matters: Americans have surprisingly similar priorities for the U.S., but immigration stands out as one of the few issues with clear partisan differences. It underscores the challenge for advocates and lawmakers hoping to pass immigration reform in the coming weeks amid narrow margins in Congress.