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 (ENNGZ) 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 inWashington, 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 withChina. 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.”
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.
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