Chinese Solar Company Learns Cronyism with Harry Reid

Harry Reid photoA solar company project that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid successfully lured to Clark County, Nev. – where his son Rory was a former commissioner and now lobbies on behalf of the Chinese company that owns it – now wants the dominant utility in the state to buy its electricity.

So does Senator Reid, who is frustrated because every component to make ENN Energy Group move forward with the project is in place except for NV Energy, the state utility, to enter an agreement to buy the electricity. For the most part wind and solar farms don’t get built unless there is assurance that utilities will accept their power.

At an annual energy summit that Reid hosts, he said in a July 30 online conference that ENN “would start tomorrow if NV Energy would purchase the power,” according to a Reuters report. Adding that the utility controls 95 percent of all of the electricity that is produced in Nevada, Reid also said, “they should go along with this.” At the same time Reid has verbally pummeled NV Energy over its only coal-fired power plant in southern Nevada, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“We want all the boilers shut off,” he said a month ago. That would eliminate some competition and create an artificial demand for power from other sources, wouldn’t it?

The public arm-twisting is just the latest in a deal thick with the stench of cronyism, nepotism, and power politics. Sen. Reid has said he has banned family members from lobbying him or his staffers, while Rory Reid has lobbied for ENN since January 2012, after he left as chairman of the Clark County Commission in 2011 (after he lost his gubernatorial race as the Democratic nominee in 2010). Perhaps Sen. Reid and his son have not spoken to each other about the ENN solar project for Clark County, but do they really need to? 

Reuters reported that Sen. Reid recruited ENN on a 2011 junket to China (preceded by a similar 2009 visit by Energy Secretary Steven Chu), and ever since has flexed “his political muscle on behalf of the project in Nevada.” Meanwhile Rory works for “the state’s largest and most prestigious law firm,” and somehow ENN was steered to Clark County for its proposed $5 billion solar farm and panel manufacturing plant, where it has been granted a 9,000-acre site that it is purchasing from the government at a price “well below appraised value.” The $4.5 million cost is between 11 percent and 15 percent of the property’s true worth.

But a condition of the deal’s consummation is for ENN to have an agreement with a utility to buy its power, and in the eight months since commissioners endorsed the project, no electric company has stepped forward. NV Energy has said it has already exceeded the state’s renewable energy obligations for the last two years, which again proves utilities have no need for inefficient solar or wind power without mandates. Hence the public pressure applied by Sen. Reid.

Renewable energy projects have enjoyed great advantages and benefits with both Reids in their powerful roles. Last month the Review-Journal reported that two Clark County solar projects were put on a federal fast track for permit approvals, and 13 renewable energy projects in Nevada have been fast-tracked by the Bureau of Land Management since 2009. And the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office has backed both partial and full guarantees of nearly $3 billion in financing for five projects either completely or partially located in Nevada. A Nevada Journal analysis showed that $1.3 billion in federal funds readily shoveled into Silver State renewable projects is expected to create only 288 permanent, full-time jobs. Even Bill Clinton’s arithmetic puts that at $4.6 million spent per job.

According to Sen. Reid, that makes Nevada the “Saudi Arabia” of renewable energy. Other than the Obama administration, there has been no greater advocate for “green” boondoggles in Washington than Harry Reid. The favor has been returned, with big renewable firms such as Brightsource Energy helping the Reids’ campaigns with big donations and fundraisers.

Not only that, but executives with ENN’s subsidiary, ENN Mojave Energy LLC, have joined in the political contributions game. Mu Meng and De-Ling Zhou, identified as “Chinese businessmen” in a Review-Journal article from last July, have donated thousands of dollars to Democrat candidates and interests.

According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Meng and Zhou each gave $5,000 to Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership Fund PAC in August 2011, and Meng has also contributed $4,000 to the Democratic Party of Nevada for this campaign cycle. Meng gave $1,000 to President Obama, and both gave $2,500 each to Democrat Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). Meng also gave $1,000 to the Democratic senator, Debbie Stabenow, who represents the state where he resides, Michigan. Nelson, Whitehouse and Stabenow are all up for re-election in 2012.

Meng and Zhou appear to be ENN’s “boots on the ground” in the U.S. to get the company’s solar projects launched. Whether or not they are legal contributors (something worth finding out) to American candidates, clearly their campaign support has a purpose. Prior to July 2011 the only donation either made was a single $250 check by Meng to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008.

As for ENN, its top Chinese officials say they only have the most altruistic of intentions.

“We need to be more open and comprehensive on the partnership between China and the U.S.,” said Wang Yusuo, ENN’s chairman, at Reid’s energy summit. “If the United States launches more open investment policies, Chinese companies could make more investments into American market, in turn create more jobs and accelerate the country’s economic development.”

Turns out the Chinese can do arithmetic too – at $4.6 million per green job, the comparatively small investment in U.S. politicians makes all the sense in the world.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes, an aggregator of North Carolina news.