WASHINGTON (AP) – The government announced approval Friday of the first loan guarantee for an energy project under a program that Congress approved four years ago, only to see it hamstrung by years of delay.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu vowed as one of his top priorities to revamp and speed up the loan guarantee program, promising to cut the time it takes to review applications, many of which have been on file at the department for a year or more.

On Friday, Chu announced approval of a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra Inc., a company in Freemont, Calif., that makes solar panels for commercial buildings. The company said the government guarantee will cover debt financing for 73 percent of the cost of a second manufacturing plant in Freemont.

The company said construction of the new plant is expected to begin later this year and be completed in late 2010 or early 2011, and produce 3,000 construction jobs.

Chu said he planned to announce additional application approvals in the coming weeks under the $60 billion loan guarantee program.

Under the program, the government backs a percentage of debt financing for a project. Federal money would not be required if the project succeeds, but the government would have to cover the debt if it fails.

Chu has criticized the long and complex application process that the department had used under the program approved by Congress in 2005. Within days of becoming secretary, he said he saw no reason applications couldn’t be processed in a matter of weeks and months, instead of years. Applications – some amounting to 1,000 or more pages – could be reduced to 50 pages in many cases, he said.

The loan guarantee program has been a target of criticism in Congress where both Democrats and Republicans questioned the slow pace of the approval process.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Chu’s announcement Friday “is especially welcome” given “years of watching this program struggle to get off the ground.”

The loan guarantee “will enable Solyndra to achieve the economies of scale needed to deliver solar electricity at prices that are competitive with utility rates,” said Chris Gronet, Solyndra’s chief executive and founder, in a statement. “This expansion is really about creating new jobs while meaningfully impacting global warming.”

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