Solar Shenanigans

Harry Reid, Commerce Secretary John Bryson connected to fast-tracked solar companies

April 3, 2012

Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and the Commerce Secretary have extensive ties to fast-tracked green energy programs under investigation by the Senate Budget Committee.

Seven solar power companies have received quick approval and little scrutiny from the Department of Interior to lease federal lands in California and Nevada in no-bid processes. Critics have raised questions about the environmental impact of these companies on endangered species.

There are also concerns about political favoritism.

The disparity between conventional energy leases and the fast-tracked renewable energy projects has led Republicans to probe the fast-track program. On Nov. 21, 2011, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, requested documentation and communications related to the seven projects.

"I am concerned that the hasty siting and permitting of Section 1705 projects may have compromised both the effectiveness of the Section 1705 loan guarantee program and the potential alternative uses of DOI land for proven energy sources," Sessions wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The Department of Interior has failed to comply with the Senate Budget Committee’s request; after a follow up letter, DOI responded by sending public documents already available on its website.

The Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment regarding the letters.

Three of the seven renewable energy projects—Nevada Geothermal, Ormat Nevada, and SolarReserve—are located in Reid’s home state. Executives from all three companies have donated to Reid and his fellow Democrats, contributing more than $58,000 since 2008.

Furthermore, Brightsource Energy, which received a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Energy Department and is also expected to receive Treasury grants once the project is complete, has donated since 2008 at least $21,600 to Democrats and zero dollars to Republicans.

Reid received almost $4,000 from Brightsource executives in the 2010 cycle, including $2,400 from CEO John Woolard, who hosted a fundraiser for the majority leader.

Woolard is also a Barack Obama donor and has visited the White House 10 times since Obama took office.

Reid’s staffers have been a key part of Washington D.C.’s revolving door, setting up shop with lobbying outfits that have ties to green energy companies and the Department of Interior, which oversees such projects.

Kai Anderson, the lead lobbyist for Ormat, is a former deputy chief of staff for Reid. Paul Thomsen, who handles government affairs for Ormat Nevada, Inc., is also a former Reid Staffer. Neil Kornze, the acting deputy director of policy for the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of Interior, is also a former energy staffer for Reid.

Sanjay Wagle served as a renewable energy advisor at the Energy Department; he formerly worked for Vantage Point Venture Partners, a major backer of Brightsource Energy.

Reid’s office did not return requests for comment.

Reid is not the only government official with deep ties to Brightsource. Commerce Secretary John Bryson was chairman of BrightSource’s board prior to his appointment.

According to financial disclosures, Bryson had up to $500,000 in stock options from BrightSource and a $700,000 advisory fee from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, an investment group that has bought a number of solar farms in California.

He was also the CEO of Edison International, which obtained exclusive power purchase agreements for four of the solar projects, at the time the awards were issued.

The Commerce Department did not return requests for comment.

Kathleen Weiss, the lead lobbyist and Vice President of First Solar, had 16 meetings at the White House with Valerie Jarrett and other senior administration staffers. In 2008, she donated $2,300 to then-Sen. Salazar and Reid.

The Department of Interior’s fast-track program was spearheaded by Steve Black, a counselor to Salazar, and Janea Scott, special assistant to Black and former attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Black leads the Renewable Energy Policy Group, a network of senior officials at state and federal agencies who make key decisions on clean energy projects.

Also in the Renewable Energy Policy Group was Manal Yamout, a lobbyist for NextEra Energy who is now in a relationship with Black. Until recently, Yamout was special advisor on renewable energy facilities to both Gov. Jerry Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During his administration, Schwarzenegger exempted large solar plants from $90 million in taxes. Brown has used ratepayer surcharges to fund more than $70 million in clean energy research.