More solar companies led by Democratic donors received federal loan guarantees

John Rossomando Contributor
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A Daily Caller investigation has found that in addition to the failed company Solyndra, at least four other solar panel manufacturing companies receiving in excess of $500 million in loan guarantees from the Obama administration employ executives or board members who have donated large sums of money to Democratic campaigns.

And as questions swirl around possible connections between political donations and these preferential financing arrangements, the Obama White House suddenly began deflecting The Daily Caller’s questions on Wednesday to the Democratic National Committee.

Asked Wednesday to comment on the connection between large Democratic donors and Obama administration loan guarantees to the companies they represent, the White House responded to TheDC with a single sentence: “We refer your question to the Democratic National Committee.”

Concerns about the long-term viability of Solyndra, first made public by The Daily Caller back in February, have now expanded to include the financial health of other loan-guarantee recipient firms as well.

These companies have suffered from declining stock prices despite their favored status in the White House. Yet as the end of the federal government’s fiscal year looms on Friday, a new series of loans could be finalized amounting to more than nine times what taxpayers have already lost on the failed company Solyndra.

“Who was visiting the White House during this period of time?” Texas GOP Rep. Joe Barton asked when contacted by TheDC. Barton is a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Who were they talking to and what were they talking about? Are there more loans at risk of not being paid back? Are these good investments or political favors?”

“The American people just lost a half billion dollars and they deserve answers to these questions before more money is wasted. Until we know exactly what happened, I think we should slow down this loan program and take a closer look at each case.”

“It is becoming more clear with each revelation that warning signs were ignored in the Solyndra case,” Barton continued. “Yet in the next 48 hours — because of a deadline that can still be changed — the Department of Energy is going to hand out another $5 billion in loans.”

Companies like First Solar, SolarReserve, SunPower Corporation and Abengoa SA have already, collectively, received billions in loans through Obama administration stimulus programs to build solar power plants in the southwestern United States.

Yet each, with the exception of the privately held SolarReserve, has seen its stock price hammered at the same time it was lobbying the Obama administration and Congress for billions in loan guarantees.

The Hill newspaper reported Wednesday that the Santa Monica, Calif.-based SolarReserve has secured a $737 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy for a Nevada solar project.

That company has ties to George Kaiser, the Oklahoma billionaire who raised $53,500 for President Obama’s campaign in 2008. Through his Argonaut Private Equity firm, Kaiser holds a majority stake in Solyndra.

Argonaut has a voting stake on SolarReserve’s board of directors in the person of Steve Mitchell, who also serves on Solyndra’s board of directors.

Additionally, Federal Election Commission records made available by the Center for Responsive Politics show that SolarReserve board member James McDermott has contributed $61,500 to various Democratic campaigns since 2008, including $30,800 to Obama’s presidential election campaign.

McDermott’s U.S. Renewable Energy Group has a significant financial stake in SolarReserve, and has drawn scrutiny for its ties with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — and for reportedly driving green jobs to China.

And Lee Bailey, a fellow SolarReserve board member and U.S. Renewables Group investor, has donated $21,850 since 2008 to Democratic candidates including President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, California Sen. Barbara Boxer and then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

SolarReserve’s board of directors also includes Jasandra Nyker of Pacific Corporate Group Asset Management, where former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law, Ronald Pelosi, holds a leadership position.

Other data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that SolarReserve paid $100,000 in lobbying fees in 2009 to the Podesta Group. That firm’s principal, Tony Podesta, is the brother of John Podesta — who ran Barack Obama’s presidential transition team.

SolarReserve’s financials are not public since it’s a privately held company, but First Solar provides a more transparent example. That solar energy firm’s stock has lost more than $100 in value since it peaked at $170.80 on Feb. 17, 2011. The company was trading at $65.77 per share Wednesday afternoon.

This market tumble came despite First Solar’s success in winning approximately $2.1 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy. The company announced Wednesday that it would not be able to qualify for a further $1.5 billion loan guarantee before the Sept. 30 deadline.

First Solar founder and Chairman Michael Ahearn, whom Reuters reported cashed in $68.9 million of his company’s stock last month, has donated $123,650, along with his wife, to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates during the three most recent cycles, mostly in Arizona.

The solar energy giant, the nation’s biggest, also spent more than $1.5 million lobbying Congress and the Obama administration since 2009 on the stimulus and subsequent green-jobs plans. This included approximately $400,000 paid to the Washington Tax Group, which also represented Solyndra.

Investment website The Motley Fool reported Wednesday that First Solar faces a potentially bleak future as its technology increasingly is becoming eclipsed by its competitors.

“As [solar] panel costs fall the balance of system costs becomes more important, highlighting First Solar’s current conundrum,” Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium writes. “A less efficient panel requires more land, more labor to install, and more auxiliary components than higher efficiency panels. And with feed-in tariffs now leaning on rooftop installations in Europe, First Solar is now behind the curve.”

First Solar’s competitor SunPower has similarly received a $1.3 billion loan guarantee for a solar project in California, but Wall Street has been less than optimistic about the company’s financial health.

SunPower’s stock, like First Solar’s has lost enormous value in recent months. The stock peaked at $21.40 on April 29, 2011, and now trades at $8.36 per share. Morningstar forecasts the company “will post losses in both 2011 and 2012.” SunPower’s technology, Morningstar warns, is likely to remain “too costly compared to its peers” and it expects “mediocre” returns from the stock in the foreseeable future.

SunPower has paid lobbyist Patrick Murphy, a close confidant of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, at least $290,000 in lobbying fees since 2009.

SunPower’s political action committee gave $15,650 to Democratic congressional candidates in 2010 and only $500 to a single Republican candidate. Reid received the largest slice of that pie, a $4,000 campaign contribution.

The Spanish firm Abengoa Solar received a $1.45 billion loan guarantee for an Arizona solar project, yet it has similar financial woes. Abengoa also recently reached an agreement for a second loan guarantee, $1.2 billion for another Arizona project.

Yet despite its success appealing to the Obama administration for financing, the company has consistently lost value since March. Its stock fell from a high of $16.50 six months ago to just $10.45 per share on Wednesday.

Abengoa Solar’s lobbying efforts are spearheaded internally by Fred Morse, a veteran of the Department of Energy from the Carter and Reagan administrations. Since 2009, the company has paid Ernst and Young $330,000 in lobbying fees, according to information made available by the Center for Responsible Politics.

Abengoa also enlisted the help of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, according to the Institute for Energy Research, to pressure the Department of Energy to expedite the loan guarantees.

“It is wrong when we let the country pick the winners and the losers,” said Mark Kramer, a project faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “If they can’t get funding privately, they probably shouldn’t exist.”

In an interview with TheDC, Kramer described these companies as bad investments whose collapse taxpayers shouldn’t be bankrolling.

But Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, defends the loan guarantee program as an investment in clean technologies that has created thousands of jobs and has spurred innovation.

He contends the United States needs to invest in solar to allow it to thrive in the face of Chinese competition, which has made it difficult for American companies.

This stiff competition was described as a key factor when Massachusetts-based Evergreen Solar and New York-based SpectraWatt filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.