Published on February 12th, 2014 | by Peter Allen15
Strange Bedfellows Of The Energy Industry
The old saw goes that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Well, the same appears to be true in the battle over our energy future, judging by the looks of an exceptionally weird story that’s developing in the halls of the International Trade Commission. Here’s the rub:
SolarWorld is a struggling solar panel manufacturing company with a CEO who (literally) lives in an ivory tower while his empire crumbles beneath him. For the past few years, SolarWorld has been hemorrhaging stock value, employees, and goodwill in the renewable industry — particularly in the United States, where it has a plant in Hillsboro, Oregon. The only thing keeping the company afloat is a seemingly endless ability to file lawsuits against regulations that it believes are crippling their business model.
The SolarWorld argument centers around low-cost solar cells produced in China, which already face an import tariff. SolarWorld’s high-priced attorneys argue that tariffs should be expanded geographically to Taiwan, plus expanded vertically within the range of Chinese solar products. This, they argue, would create a level playing field for domestic solar panel producers and protect American jobs. It’s an ironic argument given that SolarWorld is based in Bonn, Germany, and traded on the German stock exchange.
But the argument would make some modicum of sense if the majority of solar jobs were actually in manufacturing. Instead, they’re in sales, development, and installation. Added to that, the number one factor in market penetration for solar energy is cost. A global fair price competition has lowered the cost of installing solar across America’s residential and commercial rooftops, which, in turn, has created more than 140,000 jobs — and counting. This is not to mention that SolarWorld’s Oregon facility cannot possibly produce enough supply to meet growing demand. The fight over tariffs is basically an attempt by a rogue energy company to raise prices for consumers looking to join the solar revolution — all to protect their corporate profits. But who benefits from those profits?
Well, in 2010, SolarWorld entered into a joint venture called Qatar Solar Technologies – a shell renewable company owned by a state-backed foundation from, you guessed it, Qatar. Qatar Solar Technologies was supposed to develop a new solar manufacturing hub in the tiny but wealthy oil-producing state. Of course, like most renewable investments from big oil, this was likely more marketing than business strategy, softening the images of two embattled utilities. Flash forward to 2013, when Qatar Solar Technologies purchased what is purported to be a 30% stake in SolarWorld. This investment would appear to provide the only (are we sure about “only”) funding for SolarWorld’s attempts to disrupt its own industry.
But the truly weird thing is that nobody questions these facts. SolarWorld doesn’t deny its company’s European roots, nor its involvement with the Qatar Foundation — which, for its part, has never done anything of consequence other than investing in a nearly bankrupt German company. Instead, the two happily parade around hand-in-hand while spending a fortune on legal battles that could put tens of thousands of American jobs in jeopardy. But all the while they claim to be safeguarding those very same American jobs.
Is this just an attempt by a Middle East oil state to undermine renewable energy growth in the United States? The writing is certainly on the wall. But the truth may be even stranger than what we already know.