“A 10% reduction off the retail rate for wholesale power would net Summit Ridge Energy a price of $0.1181 per kWh, which is 244% higher than the average wholesale rate in 2021 that all other power producers received. And that boost will be absorbed and passed on to all retail ratepayers.”
“The $2.5 billion investment in production plants that Q-Cells promises isn’t really coming from the company, but from the U.S. Treasury courtesy of federal taxpayers’ largesse and Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.”
Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris visited a Korean-owned solar photovoltaic module plant in Dalton, Georgia. Long known as the carpet capital of America (and perhaps less illustriously as the Home of the Blonde Bombshell), Dalton will now host a vastly-expanded Korean-owned solar panel production facility operated by a company called Q-Cells.
Those with long memories may recall the name Q-Cells as a spectacular crash-and-burn event during the previous decade. The company was originally German-owned, filing for bankruptcy in 2012, an event heralded by Der Spiegel as “the end of German solar.” The once high-flying company boasted a $150 share price and an €8 billion market capitalization. Fortunes waned in the face of stiff Chinese competition, and the company’s shares had collapsed to just 16 cents before declaring bankruptcy in April 2012. Six months after the German bankruptcy declaration, Q-Cells was acquired by South Korea’s Hanwha Solutions Group.
“Community Solar” Projects
During her visit, the Vice President proudly announced a deal whereby Q-Cells and Virginia-based Summit Ridge Energy will partner on what are called “community solar projects” to be deployed in three states, Maine, Maryland and Illinois. Two of these three states reside wholly or in part within the PJM balancing authority area. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory lists nearly 2,625 megawatts of community solar project capacity deployed as of June 2020.
Q-Cells will invest a combined $2.5 billion in two solar module production plants in Dalton and nearby Cartersville according to news reports. The investment will expand Q-Cells production capacity in Georgia to 8.4 gigawatts of solar modules per year.
The Biden administration claims that community solar projects result in a 10 percent annual savings for customers. Media outfits like Associated Press and National Public Radio parrot this dubious claim verbatim. Summit Ridge Energy shows a similar figure on its website, but avoids making any definitive claims.
Let’s Do the Math
Take a closer look at the actual written declaration about the promised 10% savings:
The installations will sell power between a 5–10% discount to current RETAIL UTILITY RATES under their local community solar programs….
See? They’re not saying you’re getting a 10% reduction on your RETAIL electricity bill. They’re saying they will sell solar power to utilities under Power Purchase Agreements — i.e. WHOLESALE agreements — that are priced at a level 10% below the RETAIL rate level.
How does that work in practice?
In 2021, the average wholesale power purchase price in the PJM territory where these projects were to be deployed was $0.0485 per kilowatt-hour. But the average retail power price in Maryland in 2021 was $0.1312 per kWh.
Thus, a 10% reduction off the retail rate for wholesale power would net Summit Ridge Energy a price of $0.1181 per kWh, which is 244% higher than the average wholesale rate in 2021 that all other power producers received. As you can see, your 10% “savings” is really just a massive 244% boost in the wholesale rate for the power produced by these projects in PJM. And that boost will be absorbed and passed on to all retail ratepayers.
One such series of community solar projects in Illinois and Maryland deployed 26.7 megawatts of solar capacity at a development cost of $78.7 million. These projects qualified for federal Investment Tax Credits of $26.6 million, meaning federal taxpayers paid fully one-third of the installation cost.
Tax Credits Galore
Interestingly, the tax credit schedule enacted in the wildly-misnamed Inflation Reduction Act shows a 7 cent per Watt tax credit for manufacturing of a solar module. Press reports indicate the Dalton plant will produce 5.1 gigawatts per year of solar modules while the Cartersville plant will produce another 3.3 gigawatts annually.
Together, the plant expansions will cost Q-Cells $2.5 billion in investment. That capacity will qualify the company to receive $588 million per year in federal tax credits, meaning that it will have completely recouped its $2.5 billion investment outlays in 4 years and 3 months. In essence, Q-Cells isn’t paying for the plants. Federal taxpayers are.
“These credits were absolutely critical to this expansion by Q-Cells,” says Michael Carr, Director of Solar Energy Manufacturers for America, a solar industry lobbying group. With the U.S. Treasury effectively buying solar manufacturing plants on the installment plan without receiving a single share of stock, one would be hard-pressed to disagree.
So, if you’ve been following closely, Q-Cells and Summit Ridge Energy will install community based solar projects in three states, but one-third of the cost of those projects will be funded by federal taxpayers. These community solar projects promise to deliver a 10 percent savings that actually entails a huge 244 percent increase in the cost of wholesale power purchased by utilities and the grid operator. And the $2.5 billion investment in production plants that Q-Cells promises isn’t really coming from the company, but from the U.S. Treasury courtesy of federal taxpayers’ largesse and Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
VP Harris Applauds
Vice President Harris offered some uncharacteristically stirring oratory to announce the Q-Cells deal with Summit Ridge Energy:
I am proud to be in Dalton today to announce the largest community solar order in American history — made possible by the investments our Administration has made to expand American manufacturing and increase demand for clean energy. When we invest in climate, clean energy, and manufacturing, we invest in America. President Biden and I will continue to fight to create opportunity in every community.
Actually, it wasn’t the administration making any investments. It was federal taxpayers and system ratepayers. And the administration’s “fight to create opportunity in every community” wasn’t really about creating opportunity in communities. It was actually about creating an opportunity for federal tax money to be used to line the pockets of Q-Cells and Summit Ridge Energy.
This isn’t just a story about the often-hidden cost of renewable energy, or the blatant dishonesty of the administration that championed a massive spending spree aimed at boosting wind and solar energy. It’s also a story about the corruption of the “fact check” media whose default position is to accept at face value any pronouncement from the Biden administration, to “run cover” for its misstatements.
Think about this the next time you hear a solar industry flack or an administration mouthpiece or a corrupt media ideologue yammer about what a great deal ratepayers and taxpayers are getting for IRA-funded clean energy projects.
Joseph Toomey is a career management consultant with undergraduate and MBA finance degrees. His supply-chain-strategy consulting work for clients in the oil and gas, electric utilities, industrials, and renewable energy industries spans three decades across dozens of countries around the world. He is the author of An Unworthy Future: The Grim Reality of Obama’s Green Energy Future (2014), which critically appraises the Obama Administration’s energy policy.