The LA Times reports that Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner “raised warning flags” about the loan guarantee program for renewables long before the Solyndra bankruptcy. The article doesn’t have a lot of new information (the key players are clearly protecting themselves) but it does link to a fascinating briefing memo written for the President in October of 2010 by Summers, Ron Klain (then chief of staff to the Vice President), and energy advisor Carol Browner.
The memo says that OMB and Treasury were concerned about three problems, “double dipping” (massive government subsidies from multiple sources), lack of “skin in the game” from private investors and “non-incremental investment,” the funding of projects which would occur even without the loan guarantee.
The memo then illustrates with one such program, the Shepherds Flat Loan guarantee. Here is the relevant portion of the memo:
The Shepherds Flat loan guarantee illustrates some of the economic and public policy issues raised by OMB and Treasury. Shepherds Flat is an 845-megawatt wind farm proposed for Oregon. This $1.9 billion project would consist of 338 GE wind turbines manufactured in South Carolina and Florida and, upon completion; it would represent the largest wind farm in the country.
The sponsor’s equity is about 11% of the project costs, and would generate an estimated return on equity of 30%.
Double dipping: The total government subsidies are about $1.2 billion.
Federal 1603 grant (equal to 30% investment tax credit)
State tax credits
Accelerated depreciation on Federal and State taxes
Value of loan guarantee
Premium paid for power from state renewable electricity standard
Skin in the game: The government would provide a significant subsidy (65+%), while the sponsor would provide little skin in the game (equity about 10%).
Non-incremental investment: This project would likely move without the loan guarantee. The economics are favorable for wind investment given tax credits and state renewable energy standards. GE signaled through Hill staff that it considered going to the private market for financing out of frustration with the review process. The return on equity is high (30%) because of tax credits, grants, and selling power at above-market rates, which suggests that the alternative of private financing would not make the project financially non-viable.
Carbon reduction benefits: If this wind power displaced power generated from sources with the average California carbon intensity, it would result in about 18 million fewer tons of CO2 emissions through 2033. Carbon reductions would have to be valued at nearly $130 per ton CO2 for the climate benefits to equal the subsidies (more than 6 times the primary estimate used by the government in evaluating rules).
In my view, the Summers/Klain/Browner analysis was a damning indictment of the Shepherds Flat project. The taxpayers were expected to fund by far the largest share of the bills and also of the risk and in return they weren’t getting many benefits in terms of reduced pollution. In contrast, Caithness Energy and GE Energy Financial Services, the corporations behind the project, weren’t taking much risk but they stood to profit handsomely. I guess that is why they call it “green” energy.
In short, the Shepherds Flat project was corporate welfare masquerading under an environmental rainbow.
So are you surprised to learn that shortly after the memo was written the Shepherd Flats loan guarantee of $1.3 billion was approved? Of course not; no doubt you also saw that the memo authors were careful to inform the President that the “338 GE wind turbines” were to be “manufactured in South Carolina and Florida.” Corporate welfare meet politicized investment.
In the Solyndra case just about everything went wrong, including bankruptcy and possible malfeasance. Caithness Energy and GE Energy Financial Services are unlikely to go bankrupt and malfeasance is not at issue. As a result, this loan guarantee and the hundreds of millions of dollars in other subsidies that made this project possible are unlikely to create an uproar. Nevertheless, the real scandal is not what happens when everything goes wrong but how these programs work when everything goes right.