Las Vegas Sun

August 1, 2014

Currently: 106° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

POLITICS:

Lawmakers bicker over demise of Nevada solar panel company

Sun Archives

As hundreds of Nevadans reel from the closure of what was to be the region’s largest solar manufacturing plant, representatives in Washington are wrestling with a question: Is Amonix’s failure a black mark on President Barack Obama’s fiscal policies, or just the disastrous end of a company waylaid by personal tragedy at the top?

It depends on the party stripes of whom you ask.

“This is just another example of another failed stimulus project,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said Thursday.

“CEO Brian Robertson was tragically killed in a plane crash,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. “Unfortunately, the company was unable to recover from this difficult time.”

No company’s troubles exist in a vacuum, and that goes double when your business is in the wheelhouse of one of the most hotly debated legislative ventures of the Obama era: The two-year, $787 billion stimulus adopted in the wake of the housing market crash to pump money into a sorely crippled economy.

Amonix’s North Las Vegas facility was approved for $5.9 million in federal tax credits under the stimulus plan, to underwrite early production of four 11-ton, 50-by-72 feet solar cell arrays per day — enough to power up to 30 homes and support about 300 jobs.

That tax assistance never materialized though, according to the firm, because the facility never made any money to offset through tax credits.

On that much, Republicans and Democrats agree. But Nevada’s representatives are at each other’s throats over why the company eventually failed — and whether Obama and other Democrats should have seen it coming.

Amonix received its first federal boost under President George W. Bush’s administration, when the Department of Energy awarded it $15.6 million, to be paid out over a few fiscal cycles; some of them during Bush’s years in the White House, some during Obama’s.

In May of 2011, the facility officially began production. But then just before Christmas, Robertson was killed in a plane crash. A month later, 200 workers at the facility were laid off.

Democrats maintain that chronology is key to explain why the venture failed.

“Some people will be tempted to use today’s unfortunate news for political gain,” Reid said Wednesday. “But I am hopeful that the bipartisan support for this project and the public-private partnership that helped make this and many other projects possible will not be degraded by dirty energy supporters for their own profit or political gain. The clean energy sector is too important to Nevada’s future.”

But Republicans are pointing an accusing finger toward Obama, blaming him for backing the now-failed project with stimulus tax write-offs, and sticking Obama with full blame for continuing to allow the Department of Energy to pay out $10.1 million of the $15.6 million in grants Amonix had been promised by Bush administration officials.

“Obama’s taxpayer-funded $15.6 million favor to pal Steve Westly is the definition of crony capitalism,” said Darren Littell, a Nevada spokesman for the Republican National Committee, invoking the name of the Obama bundler and clean energy venture capitalist who had a partial-stake ownership in both Amonix’s North Las Vegas facility and in the now-infamous Solyndra facility in California, which went under last year after receiving half a billion dollars’ worth of federal loan guarantees under the stimulus bill.

“With only 14 months of operation, the president’s favor cost taxpayers $1.11 million per month. Nevadans want stable, long-term job security, and today’s news is further proof that Obama doesn’t understand how to fix the economy,” Littell said.

Both the math and the accusations are a little difficult to substantiate, considering that Nevadans didn’t foot the bill alone (it was a federal program) and that the $15.6 million Amonix did receive was designated and initially doled out during the Bush administration.

But the failed project’s clear association with the stimulus is hard to overlook, especially when Republicans believe stimulus sells so big on the campaign trail.

Heller in particular proudly cites his “no” vote on the stimulus in 2009 as proof of how fervently he opposes “big government spending,” and his supporters have been going after his chief Senate competitor, Rep. Shelley Berkley, with attack ads decrying her for voting in favor of it.

“I opposed the stimulus, and (that’s) the reason why,” Heller reminded reporters Thursday, referencing the failed Amonix project.

But though Berkley’s prediction that the Amonix facility would help North Las Vegas recover from the recession didn’t pan out, she was at least in good, bipartisan Nevada company in thinking it was worth a federally backed shot before the enterprise quickly began to unravel this year.

“Shame on Sen. Dean Heller,” said Berkley campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. “While Shelley Berkley and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval are working to make Nevada the clean energy jobs capital of America, Sen. Heller is cheering the fact that hundreds of Nevadans have just lost their jobs because he thinks it will help his political campaign.”

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 7 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. It is a tragedy it failed, especially in light of the Chinese solar panel manufacturing plant that is coming to Nevada.

    The Chinese have a strong market for their products in solar panels worldwide.

    Now our potential competition is ended here.

    This is not something anyone should want to use as ammunition against either Bush or Obama. Both tried to do what was good for our country's future, in this case.

    Robertson's death was a sad event for his family, friends, and for the country's interest.

  2. It is the story of a company with new ideas trying to make a go of it in Nevada without ties to casinos. The deck was doomed to failure from the start.

  3. I see hypocrisy on both sides.

    If it is bad for Obama it's bad for Bush and vice versa. What is most troubling but not surprising is remembering when Obama was in NLV and it looked like a good thing, one that could score points, Obama gladly took credit never mentioning the Bush Admin. He never said; thank the Bush folks for putting this in place. Now that it's gone buns up, his campaign has done what they always do, deflect by pointing elsewhere. Good for one, good for both; bad for one, bad for both.

    Questions needing to be asked in light of high failure rates, regardless of which administration oversaw them are:

    Would the private money involved still have invested without government backing?

    Was the Energy Dept. procedure for investigating these enterprises beforehand adequate to ensure at least a reasonable chance of success?

    Is the high failure rate largely because Energy Dept. bureaucrats were ill equipped to make these kinds of evaluations?

    Were these projects were pushed because of ideological/political impetus or due to a life of their own once started? The later is common. Often a combination of both, projects started and funding during the budget process reflect the political and ideological make up of the law makers and their district and once started are almost impossible to kill. Having some experience in this area I have seen over and over again the empire building and intuitive fight to save programs that are almost unjustifiable that are SOP in government.

    These projects are examples of the difference between proper role of private capital and private equity companies taking risks with private money and our government using our money. Money that is 100% borrowed (40% from the Chinese) with both interest and principle coming from future budgets already far in excess of our ability to pay. There are many of them including ones I support when paid for.

    Those who cite roads, bridges, schools, libraries, etc. as examples need to consider the difference between letting contracts to build roads, bridges and buildings in an area that is clearly the governments statutory responsibility, and backing new business without proven models in an area that is not. Private equity should live and die by its own hand, that's the point of it being private. Publicly funded efforts are authorized and funded by congress, a body universally known for its inability to make sound business decisions and administered by political appointees, academics and individuals largely devoid of the personal and professional experience and education necessary to do that which they are tasked with doing.

    This is a perfect example of the Peter Principle and I believe the root cause of most of these failures.

  4. A pox on all pencil-pushing, bureaucratic drones who think, somehow, we have given them a green-light to use our tax dollars to pick "winners & losers" in the private sector! Bush, Obama. What difference does it make when they play favorites in determining who gets our tax dollars? This nonsense has to stop. Let private investors make the decisions and, when they fail, let them! No bailouts! And when they are successful, don't be castigate their success - try to emulate it.

  5. For now on, any USA backed "green energy" project needs to also include voluntary citizen participation, as like Habitat for Humanity, where the little guy American can put in work to get a "green energy" product to put on their property, since virtually no one but those who have the money can buy such green energy devices!!! That would truly be an INVESTMENT in America and Americans!

    Eliminate the 2-party and electoral systems as they NO longer serve Americans.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  6. What is "Star" thinking? Eliminate the 2-party system? And replace it with what? The Muslim Brotherhood? The Nazi party? A Hugo Chavez? We have a flawed system, for sure, but it's far better than most, yet there are those, such as "Star," who gladly give up their freedoms to a tyrannical regime so as to not have the responsibility to act on their own behalf. They need the "security blanket" of "Big Brother" to "show-them-the-way." Well, there are plenty of governments on this planet that fill their needs. They ought to emigrate to one of them and leave those of us who treasure our freedoms alone.

  7. When you have just 2 parties, who are elected and suppose to get the business of government done, and it is not because of inceassant bickering and NO compromise, something drastic needs to be done. There are rare few citizens left who believe our current 2-party system is getting anything, if much done. There is a continuing stalemate. We are beginning to see some Republicans who are not "in lock step" with their party, causing some Republicans in Washoe County to dissent and break away into their own group, for example.

    There are good points in each of the 2 parties, and it sure would be great to have the best platforms of both parties represented by yet another party, and THAT is what I suggest. Our American government should be open to that, as it had several parties in past history. American government became more "love it or leave it" when it settled on just the 2 parties. At present, with just the 2 parties, neither are willing to meet in the middle because they believe they are "giving" too much. Well, not much is getting done thanks to that kind of behavior. Whatever happened to TEAMWORK?

    It is not the President of the United States' job to be a "tyrant" nor a dictator. I believe that bringing back "popular vote" will truly put politicians on notice to get the job done as reflected by the will of the People in popular vote, or they will quickly be out of a job. Most noticably, corporations will NOT have the ultimate power that it currently possesses, when there is popular vote. Presently, corporations and ALEC run this country, because they have great influence in lobbyists, money, and favorable laws, and the little guy Citizen does NOT.

    As far as giving up my freedoms, I will fight, or die trying. Our Constitutional liberties and freedoms must be preserved at all costs. Since the advent of the Department of Homeland Security, Americans have been systematically stripped of their liberties and freedoms. Gradually, the People are losing their voice. Need I say more?

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star