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Close ties leave Center for American Progress, First Solar seeing green

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Center for American Progress supports green energy. First Solar makes green from such energy. Could there be a connection?

This is the second part of a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation into the intersection of CAP’s policy positions with its corporate donors’ financial interests. (RELATED: Center for American Progress — or corporate donors’ progress?)

CAP has been a major proponent of green energy, backing numerous policies and proposals to subsidize and mandate the use of renewable energy sources.

First Solar has been a large beneficiary of federal government largess, receiving billions of taxpayer dollars to build solar installations and sell panels abroad. It is not only listed as a CAP donor, but has also been listed as a client of the Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG) in 2011 — a lobbying firm founded by former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. ASG is also listed as a CAP donor.

The solar company was listed as a member of CAP’s Business Alliance in 2012. As a CAP Business Alliance member, First Solar would have gotten several perks like invitations to “VIP events with leaders from government, business, and academia.”

Coincidentally, Export-Import Bank President Fred Hochberg has spoken annually at CAP since 2011 — the same year First Solar got its loan. It is unknown whether the solar company was also a CAP donor at the time.

When Hochberg spoke at the progressive think tank in 2012, he mentioned that Alice Albright was in attendance — Madeleine Albright’s daughter and the Ex-Im’s chief operating officer from 2009 to 2013. Hochberg spoke on June 25 and First Solar was awarded $57.3 million in financing on July 18.

In 2011, Hochberg spoke on June 15 and, just over a week later on June 23, Ex-Im awarded First Solar millions more in financing. That year the taxpayer-backed export bank awarded First Solar nearly $573 million to make their products more competitive abroad and boost their sales — most of that financing came after Hochberg gave his speech. First Solar Vice President Frank de Rosa was likely bundling donations for Obama’s reelection campaign around this time.

When Hochberg spoke at CAP in 2011, he praised the progressive think tank. The Ex-Im head also hailed CAP founder John Podesta.

Podesta was White House chief of staff under President Clinton. More notably, Podesta was the chair of President Obama’s transition team in 2008 where he and Hochberg would have worked together.

“Well, John, thank you and thank the CAP for the work you do,” Hochberg said in 2011. “And I worked most recently with John at the transition, and I like to think as a part of it, to put together a top notch team that’s moving the country forward and moving in a number of these areas. I’ve now been at Ex-Im Bank for two years and I can think of no better place to have this conversation about priorities and issues than CAP.”

As chair of the Obama transition team, Podesta would have reviewed top level personnel decisions, like who would run Ex-Im, a position which requires Senate approval.

“John Podesta who co-chaired the Obama-Biden transition team, so in some way each and every one of us have to say thank you,” Hochberg added, heaping more praise on Podesta. “And John Podesta particularly as chief of staff to President Clinton I think understands the intersection of politics and policy, which obviously is a critical part in understanding trade and exports, so he was the ideal person to moderate today’s panel.”

It was also in 2011 that CAP stood up for First Solar when it was being bashed by House Republicans for job losses and alleged cronyism. CAP green energy expert Richard Caperton praised First Solar’s project in Antelope Valley in his congressional testimony, saying it was at the top of his list of “innovative projects” getting taxpayer support. Before that, Caperton and CAP fellow Steve Spinner wrote that Antelope Valley was “the cutting edge of the clean energy economy.”

This is not the only article CAP and its ThinkProgress blog have published touting First Solar. In May 2011 — the month before First Solar got a loan guarantee — CAP published a piece entitled “Low-carbon Innovation: A Uniquely American Strategy for Industrial Renewal.” The article touted First Solar as a green success.

“Indeed, U.S. company First Solar Inc., a pioneer of building solar power plants in the States, recently signed a deal to build the world’s largest solar plant in China,” the article stated. “As First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said, ‘this major commitment to solar power is a direct result of the progressive energy policies being adopted in China to create a sustainable, long-term market for solar and a low carbon future for China.’ The project will be financed by CLEAN contracts, or feed-in tariffs, that will guarantee pricing and long-term demand for electricity produced.”

The progressive magazine The Nation reported that Spinner was “
a top Obama fundraiser who left his job at the Energy Department monitoring the issuance of loan guarantees and became a CAP senior fellow.” The Nation also notes that José Villarreal — who is a consultant with the lobbying firm Akin Gump — “was on First Solar’s board until April 2012 while also sitting on the board of CAP, where he remains a member, according to the group’s latest tax filing.”

The ties between CAP and First Solar go deeper. Clinton Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner is a distinguished senior fellow at CAP and was on the think tank’s founding board of directors. Browner also served as an advisory board member for the Obama transition and joined the administration as the climate czar until 2011.

She took a position at ASG — her old consulting firm — and also rejoined CAP as a distinguished senior fellow. In 2012, Ex-Im announced that Browner would be joining its advisory committee for fiscal year 2013 — First Solar was a CAP donor in 2012.

Browner moderated a panel in 2013 entitled “Overcoming Barriers to Renewable-Energy Sales in Emerging Markets.” The panel was described as leading “U.S. environmental companies discuss the unique challenges exporters face when financing renewable projects in emerging markets.” Also on the panel was James Brown, First Solar’s executive vice president of global business development.

First Solar did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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