The Corner

$32 Million Per Job: DOE Awards Another $646 Million Loan Guarantee to Solar Company

The Department of Energy will announce later today that it has finalized a $646 million loan guarantee that will help fund a new solar generation facility in California. DOE estimates that the project will create 350 (temporary) construction jobs and 20 (permanent) operations jobs. As some simple math reveals, that works out to $32 million in taxpayer backing for every permanent job created. From the release:

Washington D.C. – Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced today that the Department finalized a $646 million loan guarantee to AV Solar Ranch 1, LLC.  The loan guarantee will support the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch 1 Project, a 230 megawatt (MW) alternating current Cadmium Telluride (Cd-Te) thin film photovoltaic (PV) solar generation facility that will be located in Antelope Valley in North Los Angeles County, California.  The project, recently acquired by Exelon Corporation, is anticipated to fund 350 construction jobs and 20 operations jobs.

“Innovation and investments in America’s clean energy future are critical to our continued competiveness in the global market,” said Secretary Chu.  “Solar generation facilities, like the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch, helps make solar power more reliable and cost effective, supplies clean energy to local utilities, and funds hundreds of new jobs in the region.”

Perhaps even more worrying than the huge disparity between the size of the loan and the projected number of jobs created is the fact that this particular company deals in “thin film photovoltaic” solar panels, which is the same risky technology that Solyndra was seeking to make profitable (but, er, had trouble doing so). I spoke with Rep. Brian Bilbray (R., Calif.), a avowed supporter of “smart” solar technology and member of the House subcommittee currently investigating the Solyndra loan scandal, about this very issue:

“Not all solar technology is created equal,” Bilbray tells National Review Online as we chat in his Capitol Hill office. “They started off with a technological choice that was high-risk to begin with.” Modern solar-panel technology, he explains, is based almost entirely on either monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon cells. So-called “thin-film” technology is much rarer and still in the early stages of development, making it a far riskier investment. But that didn’t stop administration officials from putting taxpayer dollars on the line. “Part of the selling of this was: We have figured out all of the shortfalls of this technology that has always had problems,” Bilbray says. But clearly that wasn’t the case.

Silver and Democrats at last week’s hearing repeatedly argued that the United States needs to invest more in solar energy in order to “keep up with China,” a country that subsidizes its own solar industry at a rate of about $30 billion per year. But almost none of that Chinese funding goes to thin-film technology, Bilbray pointed out. Rather, China is “betting the farm” on the polycrystalline variety, which is not as efficient as thin-film but is less risky and vastly cheaper to produce. In other words, a far safer bet, especially if taxpayer dollars are at stake.

But what’s another $646 million bet on a risky technology? Of course, today (Sept. 30) is the absolute deadline for the DOE to approve is outstanding ‘green’ loan applications before the money allocated in the 2009 stimulus package is rescinded. But I’m sure they thought this one through.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...