For the record: Manufacturing investment tax credit typo pushes REC Solar to the top of the list

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Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney, former senior editor of PV-Tech and Photovoltaics International, is now chief curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs’ solar practice.

Whose information should you trust more, an agency of the Federal government or a major solar company? In the case of the recently announced U.S. Advanced Energy Manufacturing Investment Tax Credits, the advantage goes to the private sector. Because of an error in the Department of Energy’s spreadsheet of credit recipients, a $153.3 million discrepancy has propelled REC Silicon from well down the list of tax credit recipients to the top of the charts.

The journey to truth began early Tuesday morning, when I booted up my Fujitsu and checked the PV Tech headlines. My colleague Mark Osborne had posted another investment tax credit-related story, focusing on the big chunks of tax-break change that a handful of solar polysilicon companies had earned. As I scanned through his copy, my eyeballs froze when he cited REC Silicon as the biggest-single tax credit winner.

This factoid contradicted details from my blog about the $2.3 billion in credits announced last Friday, in which (after a careful examination of the list) I proclaimed Hemlock Semiconductor as the number-one recipient, with $141.87 million. I clicked back to the DOE page and downloaded the spreadsheet again (a link also living at the White House site), the amount shown for REC was I recalled: a relatively modest $1.5 million.

I contacted Mark and let him know of the discrepancy, and he replied that he had tried to reach REC’s communication team, without success (ah, those fjord time zones). A check of the company Website revealed the source of the number that he had included for REC—a short, self-congratulatory press release quoting the $155 million figure.

Now challenged with two contradictory info sources, I called the spokesperson at DOE who had provided a few additional details for my blog. When I reached her and explained my fact-finding dilemma, she said I need to contact someone at the Department of Treasury, who is Energy’s partner on the tax credit program. The exchange definitely triggered my “OK, what EVER” mode, but I followed her advice.

I then got on the horn to Treasury, where I asked the media-line receptionist to talk to the contact provided by my Energy source. I was then abruptly connected to someone else and, nonplussed, left a voicemail on the stranger’s phone and explained my dilemma, hoping for a return call in a reasonable amount of time—not always a given when dealing with a bulbous government bureaucracy.

In less than an hour, a call came in from the guy who I’d left a message for. As it turns out, he had little or no idea what I was talking about, although he was nice enough to hear me out--and it did give me a chance to get a chuckle out of a beleaguered IRS dude.

Going back to my scribblings, I found the email of the “real” Treasury contact provided by the Energy spokesperson and fired off a note explaining my question. The woman at Treasury replied in short order and explained that my questions were outside her purview and then “looped me” together with yet-another person who she said was tasked with communications regarding the tax credits.

Hours passed, during which I left a message on REC Silicon’s main voicemail in Moses Lake, WA (never did get a reply from them), and pinged the supposed contact at Treasury, who did answer but had no update. Eventually, she got back to me with an answer via email: “Really sorry to bounce you around on this, but DOE is going to get back to you.”

Going with the buck-passing boing-boing flow, it wasn’t long before I had a call from my original contact at Energy. Since I was busy interviewing the CEO of a solar PV start-up when she called, I checked the voicemail afterwards, and she said to call her back or shoot her an email. By then, it was after hours in Washington, DC (and we know what that can mean), but I still left a voicemail on the generic media line and sent her an email.

(Don’t any of these government agency communications folks have direct lines they're willing to give out to, er, the media?)

Just before 4 p.m. Pacific time, she replied to my email as follows, with an actual answer to my original query: “The discrepancy is on our end. REC Silicon's tax credit is $155 million. We are in the process of updating the figure on our website.”

So, for the record, REC Silicon has jumped the queue and becomes the recipient of the single-largest Section 48C manufacturing investment tax credit, although Dow Corning—the winner of two credits—maintains the top slot for its combined credits for its silane plant and the Hemlock award.

This also means that yet-another U.S.-based subsidiary of a foreign company has cashed in on the credits.

And that the amount of tax breaks earned by the solar sector pops well over the billion-dollar mark.

But the truth has set me free—to ponder other multimillion-dollar typos or “discrepancies” that might be lurking in my government’s spreadsheets and databases.

UPDATE: The DOE has corrected the Sec. 48C spreadsheet on its Website, revealing the exact amount of the REC tax credit: $154.8 million.

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