News that Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican unit is acquiring the 550-megawatt Topaz solar project in San Luis Obispo County comes amid a turbulent time for the beleaguered industry.
Less than a week before the announcement, the International Trade Commission ruled that China has harmed U.S. manufacturers of solar panels through cut rate pricing designed to drive domestic producers out of business.
In its ruling, a six-member panel found evidence that domestic manufacturers had been damaged by cut-rate pricing from Chinese competitors. The commission ruling is the first step in a long road that could lead to tariffs on imported Chinese panels.
Competition from Chinese manufacturers was one factor behind the closing of SolarWorld’s Camarillo plant earlier this year—a move that was costly in terms of manufacturing jobs. SolarWorld, the U.S. arm of a larger German manufacturer, is the lead company in the complaint and it’s been able to garner support in Congress and at the Commerce Department for its position. But clearly the longer-term prospects for the solar industry are much brighter than the dumping charge would appear. First Solar’s decision to sell the Topaz project [see page 1A] puts the credibility of Warren Buffett’s legendary ability to spot a bargain behind such projects.
Although the details of the sale were not disclosed, the price tag for building out the mammoth plant in northern San Luis Obispo County is estimated at about $2 billion. The plant’s construction schedule is neatly timed to maximize currently available tax credits for solar power facilities, which expire about the time the plan will be operational in 2015. And it has the unique advantage of being located close to existing power lines that connect the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant to California’s power grid. That gives the Topaz facility a competitive advantage over wind and solar projects where fights over permits for plants and power lines are expensive and time consuming. MidAmerican is already a major player in the transportation of natural gas, in conventional power and wind power generation. Buffett has famously said that investing in utilities is “not a way to get rich” but a “way to stay rich.”
Until now, the Topaz project has looked extremely risky to investors because of its size and the sheer number of panels required to make the project viable. But with Berkshire Hathaway’s big balance sheet behind it, the Topaz project looks less like a high-risk venture and more like another value play by a long-term investor. What remains to be seen about Topaz is whether there will be enough domestic panel producers left standing or whether competition from China will drive the entire industry offshore.