A Chinese billionaire is teaming up with the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate to build a solar plant in a dusty corner of Nevada, even as officials accuse China of driving energy companies out of business by dumping cheap components on the American market.
ENN Group plans a manufacturing and generating facility worth $5 billion, more than all Chinese investment in the U.S. combined last year, in Laughlin, Nevada, a town pockmarked with foreclosed properties and the skeleton of a 14-story resort abandoned when the project went bankrupt.
Company founder Wang Yusuo, one of China’s richest men, has joined with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to win incentives including land 113 miles (182 kilometers) southeast of Las Vegas that ENN is buying for $4.5 million, or less than one-eighth of the $38.6 million assessors say it is worth. The project has produced legal work for Reid’s son, Rory, a lawyer at a Las Vegas firm that gave the Nevada Democrat more than $40,000 in the past three election cycles.
“This is counter to most logic,” said Thomas Maslin, an analyst at IHS Emerging Energy Research in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t make sense in terms of supply and demand. The likely rationale is that because they’re building on public land they need to justify somehow the price through job creation and high-tech manufacturing.”
ENN’s project highlights the growing clout of Chinese capital in this country. Chinese investment in the U.S. jumped to 66 deals worth $4.5 billion in 2011, up from just 11 deals worth $146 million in 2003, according to the Rhodium Group, a New York-based firm that researches trade with China. While it is rising quickly, that total is still far lower than countries such as Switzerland, whose $42 billion infusion makes it the top foreign investor, according to a July report from the U.S. Commerce Department.
Solar panel prices have plunged almost 50 percent globally in the past 15 months, leading to the bankruptcy of equipment maker Solyndra LLC, with $535 million in U.S. government loan guarantees, and job cuts at other solar manufacturers. The Obama administration, under pressure to curb Chinese companies’ trade practices, imposed preliminary duties on March 20 of as much as 4.73 percent on solar equipment imported from China. Tariffs may prompt more Chinese companies to move their manufacturing facilities to the U.S., Maslin said.
ENN’s Nevada plan calls for solar panel manufacturing and generation facilities and an eco-community people can visit -- part of what Reid proposes as an alternative-energy hub in a March 12 report called “Playing to Win in Clean Energy.”
Energy for California
Reid, 72, a Nevada Democrat who has led the U.S. Senate since 2007, promotes the project planned by ENN, based in Langfang, Hebei Province, as a way to put thousands of people back to work as his state struggles to overcome one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates.
“It will generate the electricity California must have in just a few years -- 30 percent of all electricity must come from renewable resources,” Reid said during a March 12 conference call with reporters. “This project is close to California. It’s within walking distance.”
Plans for ENN’s Nevada facility say it may eventually generate about 700 megawatts of electricity, more than 100 times the output of the company’s biggest solar operation now, in Germany. If actually built at that size, it would be 12 times bigger than the largest solar power plant currently in operation in the U.S., Sempra Energy’s 58-megawatt Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility, and also larger than the biggest facility under construction, the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in Santa Margarita, California, with financing from Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co.
The solar complex could create as many as 2,505 jobs during construction through 2023, according to an economic impact study by Las Vegas-based Applied Analysis, a market research consulting firm.
“Other solar companies said they could produce electricity, but they didn’t have anything that would offer a permanent number of good jobs -- ENN’s manufacturing component will,” said Jacquelyne A. Brady, Laughlin’s town manager, in an interview.
Both Rory Reid, 49, and former Nevada Governor Richard Bryan, attorneys at the Lionel Sawyer & Collins law firm, have worked on the project, according to documents and Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.
Payments to Reid
The firm gave $40,650 individually and through its political action committee to Senator Reid over the past three election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan firm that researches the role of campaign contributions in public policy. Lionel Sawyer’s political action committee also contributed $2,000 in 2010 and $5,000 in 2008 to the Searchlight Leadership Fund, a political action committee that lists Reid as an affiliate, according to the CRP’s opensecrets.org.
The senator’s son hasn’t lobbied him on the ENN project, said Kristen Orthman, a Reid spokeswoman.
“We have a longstanding office policy that strictly bars any member of the staff’s family or the Senator’s family from lobbying our office on behalf of their clients,” Orthman said in an e-mail. Reid did not recommend the law firm to ENN, she said. Bryan and Rory Reid didn’t return repeated calls.
While the project may create jobs, it doesn’t make sense in terms of market dynamics, said Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst at Glen Allen, Va.-based NanoMarkets, an alternative-energy research firm.
‘Reasons to be Skeptical’
“There are many reasons to be skeptical of this project,” Gasman said. “Running a power plant and running a manufacturing plant making solar panels are two very different skill sets.”
Cash-strapped states nationwide want to draw foreign investment to create jobs and boost tax revenue. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Feb. 24 that PepsiCo Inc. and Theo Muller Gmbh, a German dairy company, would invest $206 million in a yogurt factory that would create 186 jobs.
In Florida, a Malaysian developer announced plans to build a five-star resort on Biscayne Bay that state officials said would boost employment and raise millions in tax revenue.
In January, Xinyu, China-based LDK Solar Co. announced plans to build two solar plants with a capacity of 8 megawatts in California.
Like struggling U.S. solar manufacturers, Nanosolar Inc. and SoloPower Inc., both based in San Jose, and Loveland, Colo.- based Abound Solar Inc., ENN manufactures thin film solar panels. ENN’s panels aren’t made with the same material as its U.S. competitors’ and rely on a non-crystalline substance known as amorphous silicon.
SoloPower announced in August that it received a $197 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Abound Solar, with $400 million in approved federal loan guarantees, said in February it was firing 180 workers and halting solar panel production.
Solar price weakness may be good news for consumers and for utilities such as San Francisco-based PG&E Corp., which is required to buy much of its power from renewable sources, said Anthony Earley Jr., PG&E’s chief executive officer. The trend isn’t as healthy for government-backed solar companies struggling to make ends meet in the aftermath of the collapse of Solyndra.
“Every time we go out for bids we are seeing the price come down,” Earley said in an interview. “A lot of it is that the Chinese and others are dumping cheap solar cells on the market. The risk is the industry just collapses.”
Suits of Armor
The man behind the proposed Nevada plant is Wang, 48, chairman of ENN Group, which includes ENN Energy Holdings Ltd., the fourth-largest Hong Kong-listed natural gas supplier by sales. He founded the company that became ENN Group in 1989 and it now operates in more than 100 cities across China, according to its website.
Wang rose from a background selling natural gas canisters for home cooking and renting cars to build the 100-acre ENN headquarters 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Beijing, with manufacturing facilities and a company museum. Nearby, Wang built a luxury golf course with his personal villa and a five-star hotel, featuring a wine cellar guarded by suits of armor.
With his wife, Zhao Baoju, Wang is estimated to be worth $2.7 billion, ranking the couple among the top 100 richest people in China, according to the Hurun Report, a Shanghai-based publisher of luxury magazines, which tracks the nation’s wealthy using publicly available information.
The land deal ENN negotiated with Clark County commissioners requires the firm to obtain an agreement from a utility to buy power before it can break ground, Sisolak said.
The California Public Utilities Commission approved only a fraction of renewable power deals brought before it for review last year, said Timothy Alan Simon, a member of the commission.
“We have a situation where we’re oversubscribed,” Simon said in a telephone interview.
Speaking through an interpreter, Wang touted the proposal in August in Las Vegas at Reid’s fourth annual Clean Energy Summit. Vice President Joe Biden and California Governor Jerry Brown -- who asked Wang to consider bringing the project to his state -- were photographed alongside the ENN chairman, Reid and Sisolak.
“We plan to build an eco-community by using our ‘Ubiquitous Energy Network’ technology, with the aim of making it a good resort destination just like Las Vegas,” Wang said in a speech at the summit.
In a statement provided by a company spokesman, ENN Solar Energy Co. Chief Operating Officer De-Ling Zhou said: “After reviewing your questions, it became clear that at this early stage in the proposed project, we simply do not have enough details or are not in a position to adequately answer them.
“We can say ENN’s proposed project will bolster the long-term economic health of Clark County and the State of Nevada,” Zhou wrote.
Job creation persuaded Clark County commissioners to approve the subsidized land deal, which requires ENN to meet a series of milestones including investing $100 million by 2014 and $1 billion by 2018. Officials also offered to use ENN’s land payments to build infrastructure on the property.
“Next to the hospitality industry, construction has been our life blood,” said Sisolak. “It’s not like it got a little rough for construction over the last couple of years. It basically went away.”
For Clark County, where 70 percent of homeowners owe more on their homes than they are worth, furloughed construction workers rely on food banks at local union halls, and unemployment is 13.1 percent, the project could singlehandedly diversify a stagnant economy.
“I can’t tell you how many tours I’ve given people over the years trying to get them to see Laughlin as an attractive place,” said Brady, who has managed the town since 1995 on behalf of Clark County.
About 30 percent fewer people visited Laughlin in 2011 than in 2007, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Gaming revenues at its riverside resorts -- battling competition from Indian casinos in Nevada and California -- were off by 25 percent, statistics show.
ENN isn’t the only company interested in the desolate desert where road runners race across potholed two-lane roads in front of Baby Boomers on Harleys. Here, the sun shines 320 days a year and mobile phones can’t decide whether to use Pacific (Laughlin) or Mountain (Arizona) time.
Others are also looking to buy land for solar projects in the area, wrote New York-based Integra Realty Resources in an appraisal commissioned by Clark County for the 9,000-acre ENN parcel and obtained by Bloomberg through the Nevada Public Records Act.
“From what we can surmise, this is just the beginning,” Integra wrote. The firm added: “We also found that this is a highly secretive business.”