Google-Owned Solar Company Requests $540 Million Bailout To Help Pay $1.6 Billion Loan

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

A renewable energy company touted publicly by President Barack Obama which lists Google as an investor is requesting a $539 million federal grant to help pay off part of a $1.6 billion federal loan it received to build a solar plant in the Mojave desert.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which is owned by Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource Energy, uses nearly 175,000 mirrors, called heliostats, and sprawls 3,500 acres in California.

“It’s going to put about 1,000 people to work building a state-of-the-art facility. And when it’s complete, it will turn sunlight into the energy that will power up to 140,000 homes,” Obama said of Ivanpah in a weekly address in Oct. 2010, touting a new clean-energy investment initiative he said would stimulate the economy.

But since going operational in February, Ivanpah has failed to meet its own expectations, generating only 254,000 megawatt-hours of power, about one-fourth of what it predicted, Fox News reported this weekend.

NRG Energy said fewer sunny days than predicted are responsible for the deficit.

To help keep the project afloat, NRG Energy, which holds the largest stake in Ivanpah, has applied for federal grants through the Treasury Department.

The bailout was initially reported in September by The Wall Street Journal.

The $1.6 billion federal loan came through the Department of Energy’s 1705 loan guarantee program and helped finance the plant’s construction, which began in 2010. Tech giant Google also invested $168 million in the project.

The 1705 program is the same one that funded Solyndra, the California solar company that went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving $536 million in federal loan guarantees.

Two weeks after Ivanpah became operational, on Feb. 25, NRG Energy applied for, and received, an extension from the Department of Energy to pay off the $132 million owed on the first installment of its massive loan. The company must now pay that amount by Feb. 27, 2015, the Journal reported.

A $159 million loan payment due on June 27 was extended until Dec. 27.

When the Journal reported those extensions in September, a third loan installment of $117 million due on Oct. 27 remained on schedule. But according to NRG’s most recent quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the repayment date for that loan has been extended to Apr. 27, 2015.

To help pay off these installments, NRG applied for a $539 million grant through the Treasury Department’s 1603 program, which, according to Treasury’s website, provides awards that are “equivalent to 30% of the project’s total eligible cost basis in most cases.”

Rather than put the grant to use to develop the plant, NRG Energy plans to use those proceeds to pay off loans it owes the Department of Energy.

“Solar Partners I, Solar Partners II, and Solar Partners VIII submitted applications to the U.S. Department of Treasury for cash grants; any proceeds received will be utilized to repay the borrowings,” reads NRG Energy’s SEC filing for the quarter ended Sept. 30.

The Ivanpah project is one of many that have come under scrutiny following the Solyndra debacle, which the White House pushed despite concerns over the project’s risk.

During an investigation into the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released emails in 2012 showing communications between Department of Energy officials and executives at BrightSource in 2010.

As Oversight noted in an Oct. 2012 memo, BrightSource chairman of the board John Wooland sent an email to then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley requesting his help in speeding up an environmental analysis being conducted by the Department of Interior. Wooland, who was later appointed to lead the Department of Commerce, wrote that the project faced “significant risk” because of the delayed analysis and asked Daley to lean on Interior Sec. Ken Salazar to speed up the process.

Two weeks after those emails, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of Interior, issued a revised Biological Opinion which allowed the project to proceed.

The emails also revealed that Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the Department of Energy’s loan program, met with Woolard at his Washington D.C. home for dinner in Nov. 2010, months before the $1.6 billion loan guarantee agreement had been finalized.

According to a March 2012 Oversight report, which looked at how the Department of Energy managed its loan guarantee program, the Ivanpah project’s recovery estimate was the lowest – 55 percent – out of all of the loan guarantees the Committee reviewed.

Oversight, and other outside observers, have flagged the Obama administration’s possible conflicts of interest in the Ivanpah project.

Sanjay Wagle, who ran the group Clean Tech for Obama, which backed Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, was appointed to the position of renewable energy adviser at the Department of Energy after the election.

Wagles’s Vantage Point Venture Partners invested in clean-tech companies that were given $2.4 billion in federal loan guarantees, the Washington Post reported in 2011. One of Vantage Point’s investments was BrightSource.

Financial struggles are not Ivanpah’s only problem. (RELATED: Google-Owned Solar Plant Ivanpah Incinerates At Least 1,000 Birds Per Year)

Environmentalists have criticized the plant for causing the death of between 1,000 and 28,000 birds per year. The birds apparently mistake the Ivanpah’s large field of mirrors for water. When they fly towards it, the birds are fried as they near the mirrors, which generate heat of up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. (RELATED: Government Report Confirms That Southwest Solar Plant Blinds Airline Pilots)

Airplane pilots have also complained about the plant. A government study found that the mirrors can temporarily blind pilots flying near the facility.

Follow Chuck on Twitter