Posts tagged ‘First Solar’

The Graveyard of Cronyism

Phoenix businesses add hundreds of jobs every week.  However, the only jobs that every get subsidized are in sexy businesses.  That is because the subsidies themselves make zero sense, from an economic or public policy standpoint.   The point is not to create jobs, but to create press releases and talking points for politicians and their re-election campaigns.

And there is little that is sexier to politicians spending taxpayer money to get themselves re-elected than solar and Apple computer.  Which brings us to this plant in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), which I am calling the Graveyard of Cronyism.

GT-Advanced

This plant was built by First Solar to build solar panels.  I would have to quit my day job and work full-time to figure out all the ways this plant was subsidized by taxpayers -- special feed-in tariffs for First Solar customers, government tax breaks for solar panel purchases, direct government subsidies and grant programs for solar panel purchases, the DOE loan guarantee program for solar... etc.  In addition, the City of Mesa committed $10 million in infrastructure improvements to lure First Solar to the site.  I can't find what economic development incentives there were but there must have been tax abatements.  In addition, the company was promised a further $20 million in economic development funds from the County, but fortunately (unlike most such deals) the funds were tied to hitting employment milestones and were never paid.  First Solar never produced a single panel at the plant before it realized it had no need for it.

More recently, Apple and sapphire glass manufacturer GT Advanced bought the empty plant from First Solar.  And again there was much rejoicing among politicians locally.  Think of it -- Two great press release opportunities for politicians in just three years for the same plant!  I never feel like we get the whole story on the development deals offered for these things but this is what we know:

Brewer and the Arizona Legislature approved tax breaks related to sales taxes on energy at manufacturing plants. The state also put the Apple/GT plant into a special tax zone that pays a 5 percent commercial property tax rate. Most Arizona companies pay a 19 percent rate this year and an 18.5 percent next.

[In addition,] Apple was slated to received [sic] $10 million from the Arizona Competes Fund for the Mesa factory. The Arizona Commerce Authority — the privatized state economic development agency which administers the $25 million sweeten-the-deal fund along with Gov. Jan Brewer — said neither Apple nor GT Advanced (Nasdaq: GTAT) have received any money.

Well, it turns out that artificial sapphire sounds really cool (a pre-requisite for crony deals) but it is not so great for cell phones.  Apple went another way and did not use the technology on iPhone 6 -- not just for timing reasons but because there are real issues with its performance.

So a second crony buys the plant and does not even move in.

What's next?  I am thinking the best third tenant at the sexy-crony nexus would be an EV battery plant, or even better yet Tesla.  It is too bad Fiskar motors went out of business so soon or they would be the perfect next crony fail for this site.

I Like to Hear This

In the past I have been critical of First Solar, like I have most solar companies, for having business models that were almost entirely dependent on huge government subsidies, particularly in Europe.  When these go away, the businesses start to crash.

I have not had time to dig into their financials to look for shenanigans, and to parse out how much is still dependent in some way on either direct subsidies of solar projects or incentives that cause utilities to buy solar electricity at above market rates, but First Solar reversed their large losses to a profit in the last quarter.  I am not sure if this is BS or not, but I like this attitude if true:

The company's cost per watt is the lowest in the industry, but it increased slightly during the quarter, to 72 cents per watt, because of the under utilization of its factories. If the factories had run more, the cost would have gone down, officials said.

Hughes said First Solar is making headway on its plan to target regions of the world with ample sunshine and a need for electricity, where solar power can compete without subsidies that make it cost-effective when compared with traditional energy sources.

Those places include Australia, India, the Middle East and other regions, he said.

That would be terrific.  I would love to see a solar boom driven by real economics and not taxpayer largess.

Where Did Those First Solar Subsidies Go? $32 Million went to their Failed CEO

It would be impossible to trace all the ways taxpayer money ends up in the coffers of solar manufacturers like First Solar.  Most of First Solar's money has been made selling panels in Germany to solar plants that, by law, can rape electricity customers with prices 10-15x higher than the market price for electricity.  First Solar also benefits more directly from direct subsidies, loan guarantees, "retraining" subsidies and even government Ex-Im Bank loans to sell panels to itself.  While First Solar vehemently denies it is a subsidy whore, it is telling that when Germany began to cut its solar feed-in tariffs, First Solar's stock price fell from over $300 to around $20.  Just watch day to day trading of First Solar stock, it does not move on news about its efficiency or productivity, it moves on rumors of changes in government subsidies.

Let's look at one subsidy.  In 2010, the Obama administration gave First Solar a subsidy of $16.3 million, ostensibly to help open a new plant in Ohio.  But it is interesting that this private company, which apparently could only raise the $16.3 million it needed by taking it by force from taxpayers, had plenty of money to pay its CEO.  In the 13 months leading up to its $16.3 million taken from taxpayers, First Solar paid its new CEO $29.85 million!  

Rob Gillette, the ousted CEO of First Solar Inc., earned more than $32 million in compensation from the struggling company for his two years of service, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday.

Gillette came to First Solar from Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace in October 2009 and was fired by the Tempe-based solar company's board of directors in October 2011....

Most of his compensation came in the three months of 2009 that he worked, when his total compensation, including salary, bonus, stock and options awards and other perks, reached $16.55 million. In 2010 his total compensation was $13.3 million, and last year he earned $2.46 million, which consisted of $763,000 in base salary and a $1.7 million severance.

Yep, they can't scrape up $16.3 million of their own money for a factory but they can find $30 million to give to an unproven CEO they eventually had to ride out on a rail.

By the way, I don't know Mr. Gillette, but I was once an executive at Honeywell Aerospace for several years.  I can tell you that it's a great place to find an executive who is focused on process to manage large complex organizations in a relatively stable business where manufacturing, logistics, and schmoozing large buyers is important.  It is a terrible, awful place to seek an executive for a fast growing business that needs to rapidly shift business strategies and where grinding through the process gets the wrong answer 12 months too late.

Another One Bites the Dust

Another solar company which received $2.1 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama Administration has gone bankrupt.  The good news is that it has not spent much of that taxpayer money, and its bankruptcy is probably due more to the bankruptcy of its German parent, which in turn is likely related to the huge cuts Germany has made in its feed-in tariff subsidies.

The big asset possessed by Solar Trust is the Blythe solar project, a planned 1000MW facility that apparently has all of its permitting in place.  The Blythe facility was originally going to be a solar-thermal facility, with adjustable mirrors focusing the sun on a central boiler that would in turn power turbines.   This plan was scrapped last year in favor of a more traditional PV technology, and I know local company First Solar has been hoping to save itself by getting the panel deal (First Solar also has been hammered by the loss of German subsidies).

If we take the cost of this planned 1000MW facility as the stated $2.8 billion (of which 2.1 billion would be guaranteed by US taxpayers), we see the basic problem with solar.   A new 1000MW  natural gas powered electric plant costs no more than about $1 billion.  It produces electricity 24 hours a day.  This solar plant, to be the largest in the world, would produce 1000 MW for only a few hours of the day.  That area of desert gets about 7 peak sun hours per day (the best in the country) so that on a 24 hour basis it only produces 292 MW average.  This gives it a total capital cost per 1000 MW of $9.6 billion, making it approximately 10 times costlier than the natural gas plant to build.  Of course, the solar plant has no fuel costs over time, but solar is never able to close the gap over time, particularly with current very low natural gas prices.

Update:  Apparently the $2.8 billion was just for the initial 484 MW so you can double all the solar costs in the analysis above, making the plant about 20x costlier than a natural gas plant.

First Solar Update

A few years ago I was asked to give a presentation in front of a group of Phoenix business leaders on climate and alternative energy.  I can't remember what particular group it was, but it was some public-private group that was heavily invested in advocating for local subsidies to promote strategic businesses - the sort of local MITI that most large cities have, that has this delusion that they can ramp up the city's growth by focusing public and private investment into a few selected industries (that they select, of course).

I told them that I thought their focus on solar manufacturing was dumb.  First, the whole idea that because Arizona is a good solar market meant that it should have some advantage in solar manufacturing made absolutely no sense.  This only makes sense for products with high transportation costs or a particular input cost that can be gotten more cheaply in one particular area (the location of aluminum manufacturing near cheap electricity in the Northwest comes to mind).  By the same logic all car manufacturers would be located in LA.

Second, I said that the whole solar business was completely driven by subsidies.  If the subsidies were to go away, the heart of the business would go away faster than pets.com.  I specifically mentioned First Solar in a positive context here, saying that though they where wholly dependent on subsidies for their revenues, they at least acknowledged as a corporate strategy they needed to get costs low enough to compete without subsidies.  (Someday, solar will get to that point, I hope, but I am skeptical that current approaches will yield the breakthrough, but that is another discussion).

If you want to understand the financial problems First Solar is having, let me show you four items.

First, from their 2010 annual report:

Geographic Risk. Our solar modules are presently predominantly sold to our customers for use in solar power systems concentrated in a single geographic region, Germany. This concentration of our sales in one geographic region exposes us to local economic risks and local public policy and regulatory risk in German.

This is way back in the notes on page 133.  By the way, I took a whole course in business school on reading financial reports.  Here is the key lesson for those not in the financial industry:  read them from the back.  Skip all the glossy crap at the front, go straight to the notes.

OK, here is the second bit of information.  Here is a world map of solar insolation, which is essentially the total solar energy available to produce power in a location when adjusted for atmosphere, weather, latitude, etc.

See Germany?  I won't insult your geographic knowledge by pointing at it, but much of Germany is in that yellow-green color which, for solar potential, means (in scientific terms) "it sucks."  Let's zoom in, and compare it to the US to get a feel for it (combined from two charts here)

Apparently the better sites in Germany have the same solar potential as ... Seattle!  The sliver of absolute best sites in Germany have approximately the same solar potential as Buffalo, NY.

So we have a company whose fortunes are dedicated almost entirely to selling solar panels into one of the most unpromising solar sites in the world.   Why is Germany buying so much solar?

OK, here is the third bit of information.  For years Germany had enormous feed-in tariffs (mandated above-market minimum prices)  for solar electricity:

The German feed-in tariff scheme has been in operation since 1991 and is regarded as one of the most successful in the world. In Germany, feed-in tariff rates are differentiated according to the source of the renewable energy. Separate tariffs are determined for biogas, biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind energy sources. The tariff paid for solar generators varies between EUR 45.7c/kWh and EUR 57.4c/kWh, depending on the capacity of the system and other design features. The tariff is greater for generators that are attached to the roof of a building or structure and greater again for generators that are attached to another part of a building. In Germany, the feed-in tariff is paid for a period of 20 years

Note the language from several years ago where "most successful" is determined without references to costs.

0.574 Euros per kWh is equal to about $0.75 today and even more several years ago when exchange rates were higher.  Remember this is a wholesale price, and should be compared to a $0.04 to $0.06 wholesale electricity price in the US  (I use US numbers to as its not clear to me Europe has a particularly competitive wholesale market.  The French have some sort of fixed price system set around $0.06).

However one wants to look at it, these are enormous subsidies.  People putting up solar panels in Germany were getting paid 10-15x what a market price for the same electricity might have been.

Finally, here is the fourth piece of evidence leading to First Solar's woes.  In 2010 and 2011 Germany, whose consumers began to balk at paying the highest electricity rates in the world in order to subsidize the method of electrical generation least suitable to Germany, began substantially cutting these tariffs.  In 2012 they will cut them even further:

German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler are set to hold a press conference on Thursday to outline the government's new approach on subsidies. However, the indications are that the cuts will be heavier than the market has been expecting:

  • a 30% cut in the feed-in-tariff (FIT) to 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour for new large solar installations
  • and a 20% cut in the FIT to 19.5 cents for new small plants

The market has of course been expecting cuts in the German FIT system. However, this news is decidedly worse than expected and likely to continue to pressure solar stocks - particularly those such as Yingli (YGE) with a significant exposure to German solar demand.

From a peak of $0.75 per kWh, Germany will now pay $0.255 per kWh for smaller installations, still four times the market price for wholesale electricity but only a third of what they paid during First Solar's boom years.  As I wrote yesterday, Germany was essentially paying $2 for milk from brown cows and $25 for milk from black cows.  This can't be sustained.

If one assumes a wholesale electricity price of 6 cents, First Solar's German customers were getting a 92% subsidy.  Sure, First Solar now faces other problems like Chinese competition and they have shot themselves in the foot on quality, but at the end of the day the only way they can survive is to convince some other government to turn on the taxpayer money spigot to keep them in business.  I am hoping we in Arizona and the US will not be the suckers, but I fear that we will.  One can argue the projects I discussed the other day, including the one where we taxpayers loaned First Solar the money to sell its solar panels to its own subsidiary, are evidence of this.  My guess is that First Solar will be throwing a lot of money and time towards Obama, praying for his re-election.

The Article I Would Write, If I Didn't Have A Day Job

Update:  I found a bit more time to give some more background on First Solar and German feed in tariffs here.

If I had the time, I would love to try to research and list every subsidy recieved by a company like First Solar.  Here are just a few:

First Solar is an Arizona-based manufacturer of solar panels. In 2010, the Obama administration awarded the company $16.3 million to expand its factory in Ohio -- a subsidy Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland touted in his failed re-election bid that year.

Five weeks before the 2010 election, Strickland announced more than a million dollars in job training grants to First Solar. The Ohio Department of Development also lent First Solar $5 million, and the state's Air Quality Development Authority gave the company an additional $10 million loan.

After First Solar pocketed this $17.3 million in government grants and $15 million in government loans, Ex-Im entered the scene.

In September 2011, Ex-Im approved $455.7 million in loan guarantees to subsidize the sale of solar panels to two solar farms in Canada. That means if the solar farm ever defaults, the taxpayers pick up the tab, ensuring First Solar gets paid.

But the buyer, in this case, was First Solar.

A small corporation called St. Clair Solar owned the solar farm and was the Canadian company buying First Solar's panels. But St. Clair Solar was a wholly owned subsidiary of First Solar. So, basically, First Solar was shipping its own solar panels from Ohio to a solar farm it owned in Canada, and the U.S. taxpayers were subsidizing this "export."

But this is just a few of them, even on this deal.  For example, the Canadian solar farm very likely picked up federal and provincial subsidies from Canada, and even more likely gets some kind of subsidized feed-in tariff (meaning that an above-market wholesale rate is paid for its electricity).  This sort of feed-in tariff, which is paid by electricity consumers, is wholly un-transparent and likely makes up the large bulk of solar subsidies.   I know the state of Arizona threw a lot of money at First Solar as well (which is headquartered in the Phoenix area.)

During First Solar's boom years, the company was mainly supported by sales to Germany, probably one of the worst solar sites in the world after perhaps Seattle.  But the German government mandated feed-in tariffs for solar that were five times (or more) the market price for electricity.  It was like saying that, while milk generally goes for $2 a gallon, the government mandated that milk from  brown cows could be sold for $10 a gallon, and what's more, consumers had to buy it.

The House Your Tax Money Built

I Need Some Help on Alternative Energy Subsidies

Next week I am on a panel talking about alternative energy.  These guys have already told me they don't want to re-fight the global warming science battle at this venue, and my guess is that there will be a lot of pragmatist corporate types who won't really care about individual liberty or role-of-government issues  -- they will only care if there is money to be made, even if it is by rent-seeking.  My best bet, I think, will be to discuss why alternative energy is a bad investment.  My sense is that it is a bubble investment, like goofy Internet stocks in the 1990's or housing in the 2000's.  Already, I think we see the crash in the corn ethanol business.

My two assumptions are

  • I can't think of any industries that were initially heavily subsidized that eventually found their way to competing successfully and growing without subsidies.
  • With the exception of agriculture, the public's tolerance for growing subsidies to a single industry eventually wanes.

I would love for commenters or emailers to send me contra-examples if they have them to either of these assumptions.  In particular, can you think of an industry that could not have grown initially without subsidies eventually prospering without subsidies.

To the second point, I looked at the numbers two ways.

  1. In Germany, which is often held up as the model, feed-in tariff subsidies are between $0.06 (wind) and $0.50 (solar) a Kwh.  If the US reached a goal of 20% of its production in wind and solar (total production today is about 4000 billion KWh) then the subsidy would be between $50 billion and $400 billion a year.  It is hard to imagine these remaining popular for any period of time.  (lots of German numbers here and in the linked PDF)
  2. Venture capitalists and investors are expecting the growth stocks they invest in to grow at, say, 30% a year.   Let's assume alternative energy companies grow at 30% a year and the number of companies, attracted to the growth and subsidies, doubles every two years.  In this scenario, assuming unrealistically that the supply curve for alternative energy is flat rather than upward sloping, the amount of subsidies to support this growth would have to nearly double every year.  They would increase 21-fold in five years and 440-fold in 10 years.   In fact, given the shape of real supply curves, new more expensive capacity at the margin is replacing cheaper and cheaper alternatives, resulting in the need to grow subsidies even faster to keep up.   Never has happened, never will.  Once the industry outgrows the government's willingness to grow subsidies, the whole thing crashes.

(PS - the subsidy could also be in the form of taxes that increase the cost of alternatives, or production and/or import restrictions on the alternatives).

Any help along these lines in the comments is appreciated.

Update: This seems relevant:

First Solar shares skidded 8% Friday to close at $116 after the company issued a murky business outlook beyond June. Until then, however, "orders look very strong," First Solar CEO Robert Gillette said in a post-earnings conference call.

This commentary, along with price pressure and expected subsidy cuts solar panel makers get from the German government is making investors a bit more wary of First Solar, whose shares have been on a bumpy ride the past 18 months....

First Solar, helped by government tax credits extended to businesses for using solar power, has rewarded its investors since going public in November 2006 at $20 a share. The stock peaked at $317 in May 2008. But the shares have been skittish ever since.

Germany, the world's biggest solar market, is weighing a 15% cut on so-called solar feed-in-tariffs. This could make solar installations less attractive.

First Solar projects 60% of its 2010 sales from German-related contracts, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Christine Hersey.

Remember from above, the German feed-in tariff for solar is around $0.58 per KwH, or fully $0.50 above the price paid for the fossil fuel base load.  At this subsidy level, the US would be paying $400 billion a year in subsidies and/or higher prices.

First Solar has grown at over 150% per year for the last 3 years so the 30% assumption above is conservative, as is the assumption about the number of competitors doubling every two years.

Another interesting note - First Solar makes a pre-tax margin around 33% of sales, which is over 6x larger than health insurance companies make (and are excoriated for).  Is it any wonder Germany no longer wants to keep subsidizing First Solar's bottom line to levels far above most equipment manufacturing companies.