Obama admin under fire for Solar industry stimulus

GOOG, USB,CS

The US Treasury Department’s inspector general is investigating a popular stimulus program that allowed rooftop solar panel projects to turn tax credits into cash grants, according to a regulatory filing.

The Treasury’s internal watchdog is looking at how the department managed the program and is searching for “possible misrepresentations” about the fair market value of solar systems that received grants, one large installer of solar panels said in its filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

The inspector general issued subpoenas to SolarCity Corp and other big players in the market, working with the Justice Department’s civil division, San Mateo, California-based SolarCity said in its initial public offering (IPO) filing last week.

SolarCity did not say who else received subpoenas, and the reason for the probe was not immediately clear.

The probe is fueling more criticism of President Barack Obama’s clean energy initiatives that have come under fire for spending taxpayer money on unproven companies, including Solyndra, a solar panel maker that went bankrupt last year after receiving more than $527-M under a separate government program.

The Solyndra failure has become a stock part of stump speeches leading up the 6 November US elections, including those of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who argues that the government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.

The Treasury Department’s Inspector General would not comment on the scope of the probe.

The “Watchdog” has asked for documents dating back to Y 2007, including communications with other solar development companies and firms that appraised solar energy property for the grants, SolarCity said. A company spokesman was not immediately available for further comment.

The program, known as Section 1603, allowed renewable energy project owners to recover 30% of their construction costs in cash. It has been credited with helping boost the solar industry in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when it was difficult to find financing.

As of 20 July, the program had helped fund more than 44,000 solar projects and the solar industry had received more than $2.7-B of the program’s $13-B in funding, according to the Treasury. The 1603 program also extended to bio-mass, wind and other renewable energy projects.

The cash grant program reverted to a tax credit at the end of last year. Renewable energy project developers have been able to sell such incentives to investors, who finance the projects.

SolarCity said it did not know of specific allegations of misrepresentation. If any were found, the company could face damages, penalties and tax liabilities, it said.

“We anticipate that at least 6 months will be required to gather all of the requested documents and provide them to the Inspector General, and at least another year following that for the Inspector General to conclude its review of the materials,” the company said in its filing.

The disclosure was made in SolarCity’s US Securities and Exchange Commission IPO filing. It wants to raise up to $201-M.

SolarCity has expanded rapidly thanks to a business model that allows residential customers to lease solar panels for their roofs. Rather than paying the large up front costs required for a solar installation, customers pay a monthly fee.

The company faces competition in the solar lease business from start-ups that include: SunRun, Clean Power Finance and Sungevity, as well as solar stalwarts like SunPower.

“It’s our policy to keep all communications with the Treasury confidential,” a SunRun spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

Clean Power Finance did not receive a subpoena, nor is the IRS auditing any of its funds, a spokeswoman said.

SolarCity said in its filing that the Internal Revenue Service is also auditing two of SolarCity’s investment funds and is reviewing the fair market value of the solar power systems receiving grants.

The IRS declined to comment.

Companies that have provided funds to finance SolarCity’s projects include Google Inc, (NASDAQ:GOOG)U.S. Bancorp, (NYSE:USB) Rabobank and Credit Suisse (NYSE:CS). Such investors use the 30% federal tax credit for solar energy systems to reduce their tax liabilities.

Google, US Bank, and Credit Suisse were not immediately available for comment. A Rabobank spokesperson declined to comment.

Paul A. Ebeling, Jnr.

Paul A. Ebeling, Jnr. writes and publishes The Red Roadmaster’s Technical Report on the US Major Market Indices, a weekly, highly-regarded financial market letter, read by opinion makers, business leaders and organizations around the world.

Paul A. Ebeling, Jnr has studied the global financial and stock markets since 1984, following a successful business career that included investment banking, and market and business analysis. He is a specialist in equities/commodities, and an accomplished chart reader who advises technicians with regard to Major Indices Resistance/Support Levels.

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