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This Week in Clean Economy: U.S. Electric Carmakers Get the Solyndra Treatment

Is Fisker a scandal, or much ado about nothing? In solar news, worries mount over an industry darling, and China fires back at America's tariff push.

Oct 28, 2011
Fisker's 2012 Karma Eclipse

The hunt for the next Solyndra heated up this week, as GOP critics of Pres. Obama's clean energy programs turned the spotlight on Fisker Automotive, a California electric carmaker backed by a $529 million federal loan.

Their gripe is that the company assembled its first car, called Karma, in Finland—creating green jobs there and not here. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), who is on the House committee investigating Solyndra, told the media, "American taxpayer dollars went to a Finnish automaker to build high-end luxury automobiles for Hollywood."

The congressman confirmed this week he has called for an investigation.

The Department of Energy insists there's no foul play. In its 2009 announcement of the loan, DOE made clear that "final assembly of the Karma will be done overseas." Last week it said, "While the vehicles themselves are being assembled in Fisker's existing overseas facility, the Department's funding was only used for the U.S. operations."

The scrutiny followed an Oct. 20 report from ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News. Media Matters for America, a nonprofit research center, wrote on Tuesday that the story, which was touted as an exclusive, "rehashes a flawed narrative pushed by Fox News more than two years ago."

Fox ran a series of segments in 2009 that similarly characterized Fisker as "a car company that is creating jobs in Finland," the group said.

Fisker conceded in a Oct. 21 news release that 500 manufacturing jobs went to a rural Finnish firm in a privately funded deal. It said it first tried, to no avail, to find a U.S. automaker to partner in production of its Karma sedan. (In 2009, Fisker similarly responded to Fox News reports saying it "searched for a U.S. plant to assemble the Karma, but none were willing or able to build the 15,000 of these advanced vehicles per year Fisker required.")

The E.V. maker says it employs 650 people at its California headquarters and more than 100 engineers and other workers at its Delaware plant. It expects to create some 2,000 jobs at the East Coast facility over the next couple of years. 

The jobs issue aside, the ABC/iWatch article quotes experts alleging that Fisker is a Solyndra waiting to happen. They say Fisker's $97,000 hybrid electric Karma has fallen more than a year behind its production schedule—as have plans for its next model, a more affordable family car to be made in Delaware.

The report pointed out similar concerns with Tesla Motors, another California E.V. maker backed by a $465 million DOE loan. According to its SEC filings, Tesla has shed money every quarter and expects to lose more in the future.

Both companies vehemently denied they're sinking.

The controversy spilled into presidential politics this week. GOP hopeful Mitt Romney wrote in an op-ed that investors of Fisker and Tesla are Obama campaign contributors and called for an investigation into alleged "cronyism."

"Congress should investigate carefully how so much taxpayer money was spent so poorly on behalf of so many donors," he wrote. (Romney is now facing criticism for his association with a Solyndra-linked lobbyist, reported the Hill.)

The Fisker/Tesla campaign follows recent attacks against SunPower, published by Fox News, claiming the California solar firm backed by a $1.2 billion is failing. Market analysts, by contrast, said SunPower is going strong.

According to news reports, Congressional hearings are expected to target all three companies in the coming weeks.

First Solar CEO Gets Axed as Sales, Profit Outlooks Slashed for 2011

Meanwhile, the U.S. solar industry can't seem to catch a break.

Arizona-based First Solar, the world's biggest thin-film solar company, fired its CEO Rob Gillette on Tuesday, causing panic among investors that another solar scandal might be underway, as First Solar's shares plunged 25 percent that day.

The company acted quickly to name chairman and co-founder Michael Ahearn to the top spot that day and released its third quarter earnings report a week early, which scaled back sales and profit expectations for 2011.

Analysts quoted by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday attributed Gillett's dismissal to the lousy earnings report, calling the event "a positive, versus worst fears of an accounting restatement, DOE loan scandal, or fraud."

Still, some experts cited by the Journal said they're on edge over how well First Solar can perform. They said massive oversupply of solar panels and the plummeting costs of polysilicon panels are putting pressure on First Solar's core business. The firm's thin-film panels are among the industry's cheapest, but Chinese-made polysilicon panels are still cheaper—and increasingly so.

It has become a familiar story in the solar industry—and a key reason why Solyndra, another thin-film solar panel maker, fell apart: Government subsidy cutbacks have reduced demand, while cheaper panel prices have given an edge to Chinese manufacturers.

Not helping matters is that German subsidies are set to shrink further.

The world's biggest solar panel market said on Thursday it would cut next year's subsidies for solar power by 15 percent—a record amount—according to Bloomberg.

China Fires Back Against U.S. Allegations of "Dumping" Solar Panels

The Chinese solar industry this week fired back at charges leveled against it by seven U.S. solar firms that Chinese manufacturers are skirting international trade laws to snag a bigger share of the American market.

The U.S. companies filed a petition with the Obama administration on Oct. 19, seeking  tariffs on solar panels "well in excess of 100 percent," according to a New York Times report. They accused their competitors of winning billions of dollars in Chinese government subsidies to help them enter the American market, then selling solar panels at unfairly low prices to American companies. 

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fl.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative panel, this week called for a hearing on the matter.

The China Chamber of International Commerce urged Washington this week not to launch an investigation into Chinese trade practices or impose additional taxes on Chinese-made solar panels, according to news reports. The trade case will "negatively affect both the Chinese and U.S. solar industries, as well as the global solar industry," said the chamber's chairman.

Trina Solar, one of the Chinese solar companies named in the case, issued a press release on Monday, maintaining that the company "believes the allegations made by the U.S. petitioners will eventually prove to be unfounded." (Greentech Media has posted the official responses from targeted Chinese solar firms.)

Not all U.S. solar companies along the supply chain want Chinese firms taxed.

Mike Hall, CEO of San Diego-based solar installer Borrego Solar, said in a Forbes story that increasing the price of Chinese panels would force installers to pass on higher costs to their customers, making going solar even more expensive and harming business.

On our radar for next week:

Republican scrutiny of the DOE clean energy loan program is likely to roll into November, with a heightened hunt for fishy political ties. On Friday, the Washington Post reported that a major fundraiser for Obama's campaign belongs to an investment firm with a stake in another DOE loan-winning E.V. maker, Vehicle Production Group.

Expect nuclear to get some Congressional attention. Democrats have called for House committees already probing Solyndra's loan to include Republican-backed nuclear power subsidies in their investigations.

Britain's energy ministry is expected to publish details next week of scaled-back state subsidies for solar power installations, which could further hit demand for U.S.-made solar panels.

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