Firm sells solar panels - to itself, taxpayers pay

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A heavily subsidized solar company received a U.S. taxpayer loan guarantee to sell solar panels to itself.

First Solar is the company. The subsidy came from the Export-Import Bank, which President Obama and Harry Reid are currently fighting to extend and expand. The underlying issue is how Obama's insistence on green-energy subsidies and export subsidies manifests itself as rank corporate welfare.

Here's the road of subsidies these solar panels followed from Perrysburg, Ohio, to St. Clair, Ontario.

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.

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."

First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer defended this maneuver, saying this really was an export, pointing out that First Solar paid sales taxes on the transaction.

But this subsidy undermines the arguments for Ex-Im's existence. Ex-Im, whose authorization expires May 31, is supposed to be a job creator, helping U.S. manufacturers beat foreign manufacturers by having U.S. taxpayers backstop the financing.

"It is critical that we encourage more American companies to compete in the global marketplace," Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg said about the First Solar deal, saying the subsidy "will boost Ohio's economy, create hundreds of local jobs and move us closer to President Obama's goal of doubling U.S. exports by the end of 2014."

The implication here is that First Solar was "competing" with foreign solar panel makers in order to sell solar panels -- to First Solar.

This isn't the first time Ex-Im has subsidized companies selling to themselves. In late 2000, for instance, the ill-fated power giant Enron won a $132 million direct-loan package from Ex-Im (that is, from the taxpayers) in order to sell "engineering services & process equipment" to a Venezuelan power company owned 49.25 percent by Enron. Enron was both the buyer and the seller in a 1995 sale to Turkey that Ex-Im financed through a $250 million loan.

Enron's healthy feedings at Ex-Im's trough before its bankruptcy also help poke holes in another Ex-Im defense: that it operates at no cost to taxpayers.

Sure, as long as the foreign buyer pays off the debt, then Ex-Im's loans and guarantees don't increase the deficit. But Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were profitable for years, too, before they failed and taxpayers had to bail them out. Once foreign governments and foreign companies start defaulting, taxpayers pick up the tab. At least one Enron deal resulted in U.S. taxpayers contributing to the Enron bankruptcy fund. Also, Ex-Im has ended up owning a 747 after Air Nauru failed to make its payments because the island nation's economy -- dependent on seagull droppings -- went under.

This week, First Solar unloaded its St. Clair solar farm to NextEra Energy, and so First Solar's financial troubles don't threaten to put the taxpayer on the hook for this deal. But the Ex-Im subsidy itself was a great case in point as to how national industrial policy pitched in the name of helping the U.S. economy often does nothing to help the broader economy, instead helping only those companies lucky -- or politically connected -- enough to get the handouts.

Obama, Reid and most of the Republican leadership want to reauthorize Ex-Im this month and boost the amount of debt it can have outstanding. The lobbyists at Boeing, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers agree. They'll claim Ex-Im is crucial to prosperity. And for a few companies, it is.

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CORRECTION: Due to my own brain slip-ups, this column originally referred, repeatedly, to wind farms. No wind farms are involved here. All solar. My apologies for the carelessness and the confusion it caused. -TPC

CORRECTION II (3/22): Due to an error in my reporting, I originally attributed to First Solar some of the state subsidies other Ohio solar companies received. I've removed the paragraphs discussing state subsidies. -TPC

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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