There has been a lot of discussion among politicians and pundits about the role of government and the “free” market. Conservatives think the government needs to not pick “winners and losers” and let the market decide. Liberals think it is the job of the government to foster new technologies. Both sides have points that can get lost in the angry rhetoric.

Yet while the focus has been on green energy companies that got Department of Energy loans, and failed, there have been a number of success stories too. Among them is the Vehicle Production Group, a Florida-based company that has brought to market a natural gas-powered van, thanks in part to a $50 million DOE loan.

VPG’s MV-1 is being targeted at fleet managers, mostly taxi companies, who can afford to install their own CNG fueling structure. Built to be wheelchair accessible, I have already seen MV-1’s around my area in Connecticut, where both the Metro Taxi and Yellow Cab companies are rolling out fleets of the CNG vans to replace its aging collection of Crown Victoria cabs.

Would VPG’s MV-1 have come to market without the DOE loan? Maybe. But it’s just as possible that it would have only developed the gasoline version, which it also offers. Other fleet operators are also seeing the benefits of CNG (low price, lower emissions, domestically produced) as a boon to their business. GM, Chrysler, and Ford now offer CNG versions of their pickup trucks, and even Republicans are in favor of developing CNG as an alternative to gasoline.

But without the nudging and assistance of the government, developing a nationwide infrastructure for CNG fueling will be a long, slow process…if it ever even happens. That said, between the bankruptcies of Solyndra and Ener1, and the litany of problems with the Fisker Karma, the DOE loan program has lent money to companies that have failed to deliver in a big way. So it is worth reviewing these projects more extensively if you ask me.

I am of the opinion that any alternative to oil is a good thing, though many environmentalists have (legitimate) issues with natural gas production. But thanks to the DOE loans, I now have CNG taxis at my beck and call, and there are jobs being created in both Florida and Indiana (where the MV-1 is being built) thanks to these loans.

Not every loan will work out, and there are some real questions about who got money and why. But amongst all the rhetoric, perhaps Obama should do a better job of reminding people about the success stories surrounding these DOE loans, success stories that even the Republicans have to applaud.

Sources: GigaOm | Metro Taxi