The weird story of a Chinese solar firm & Nevada politics

A Chinese energy company called ENN Group says it will invest $5 billion in building a solar panel factory, a solar power plant, and an “eco-community,” in Nevada. Doesn’t sound that unusual, right? Well, the devil’s in the details — and this one’s a peculiar plan that involves politics, an outdated technology and an ambitious plan that’s being drawn up in the middle of one of the most difficult solar markets in years.
Bloomberg took a look at this project, which is light on details about ENN, a private company which started off as a car rental company in 1989 and morphed into a natural gas distributor, a clean coal technology developer and more recently a solar panel maker and project developer. The company also develops golf courses and other types of real estate for the tourism industry, according to its website.
What we do know
Nevada’s Clark County has agreed to sell 9,000 acres that it owns for $500 per acre, or about one-eighth of its assessed value, according to Laughlin Nevada Times, to ENN to build the solar projects and eco-community. Part of the deal will require ENN to pour in $100 million by 2014 and $1 billion by 2018 to build the project. ENN also will have to secure a contract to sell power from its planned solar project before it can start building on the land, which is located in the town of Laughlin, roughly 100 miles south of Las Vegas.
The deal is unusual not just for the high amount of promised investment from ENN’s founder and chairman Wang Yusuo, a project that the company said will create over 4,000 local jobs. But for a Chinese manufacturer, a factory in the U.S., would probably require significantly higher production costs.
The project is also oh-so political. It’s being touted by U.S. Senate majority leader and Nevadan Harry Reid, who has been a long time supporter of clean energy and green jobs for both Nevada and on the federal level. And like all politicized clean energy, the ENN project sounds like one of those well-meaning efforts to bring jobs to a depressed community, but that probably just won’t work out as planned.
In the past, Reid has also lent a hand to California solar company Amonix, which opened a factory in North Las Vegas in May 2010. Over a year later Amonix laid off about two-thirds of the workers there because it said it needed to modify the machines to make a new generation of solar energy equipment.
Old-skool solar
ENN’s solar experience is also grounded in an aging solar technology. The company entered the solar panel manufacturing market in 2007,  chose to use amorphous silicon and bought equipment from Applied Materials, which got out of that line of solar factory equipment business in 2010 because it couldn’t attract enough buyers.
Amorphous silicon technology isn’t as efficient at converting sunlight into electricity as other technologies, such as the use of silicon or cadmium-telluride, though it’s supposed to be far cheaper to make. But prices for competing technologies, such as silicon and cadmium-telluride solar panels, have fallen quickly in recent years – about 50 percent during 2011 alone because there was an oversupply of them. Many startups that bought amorphous silicon factory equipment from Applied and other suppliers either went out of business or stay small. A major maker of amorphous silicon solar panels, Energy Conversion Devices in Michigan, filed for bankruptcy in February.
ENN is not a brand new entrant to the U.S. market,. Last November, the company announced the completion of a 4.3 MW solar power project in New Jersey that used its solar panels.
The company also has signed several technology and project development agreements with Duke Energy, when both announced a broad agreement in 2009 to work on various renewable energy, clean coal and smart grid projects, including solar power plants in the United States. In May last year, two companies said they also would work together to test technologies for creating smart cities in China and the U.S.
Photo courtesy of ENN Group, Solopower, and Suntech.