Democrat former Tennessee Gov. and current U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen is raking in millions of dollars off of deals involving his Silicon Ranch Corp. by pitching solar projects that appear on paper to offer a cheaper alternative to coal.
But under closer examination, the Silicon Ranch numbers are skewed by federal tax credits that subsidize its solar-energy industry.
Take, for example, the 194-kilowatt per hour deal Silicon Ranch recently signed with the Georgia-based non-profit Green Power EMC. Under the terms, Silicon Ranch will build, own and operate a huge solar farm in Georgia and sell the power, enough to serve 35,000 households, starting in 2021, to Georgia EMCs over a 30-year period. The “low cost” deal was announced at “less than 3 cents” per kilowatt hour.
This is a very cheap rate, and there’s no denying that the cost of large-scale solar power has been coming down. But a significant chunk of the savings is coming compliments of the U.S. taxpayer, who is subsidizing solar projects and giving them a competitive edge over coal.
However, even with massive tax breaks available to solar producers, the rate offered by Bredesen’s company will still barely beat the price Georgia EMCs are now paying for coal-produced power, confirmed Leslie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Cobb EMC, the largest of the 30 EMCs included in the Georgia deal.
“Our carbon-based [coal] sources are averaging 3 cents per kilowatt hour,” Thompson told The Tennessee Star. “The new solar facility is going to be less than 3 cents and that is not an estimate. That is written into our contract with Silicon Ranch.”
It’s a good bet the final rate for the solar cost will be between 2.5 and 3 cents, but when pressed for a hard number, Thompson said that was proprietary information. She could only confirm that it would be “less than 3 percent.”
The other factor playing in favor of Bredesen’s company is that many coal plants have been forced to close in recent years under the heavy yoke of Obama-era regulations. In 2017, at least 10 coal-fired units under the direction of the Johsonville Cogeneration Plant were shut down, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), creating opportunities for Bredesen’s lucrative solar projects.
Bredesen launched the Silicon Ranch energy giant, flush with cash from Shell Oil, with the help of two of his former top economic-development aides after leaving the Governor’s Mansion in January 2011. Matt Kisber and Reagan Farr now serve as CEO and CFO, respectively, with Bredesen still serving as chairman of the board while he runs for the U.S. Senate. Bredesen has said he will step down if elected.
According to the Times Free Press, Bredesen’s assets and income sit somewhere between $92 million and $378 million, though the energy mogul is now declining to release his income tax returns, a practice he maintained as governor.
“I actually think this is much more comprehensive than the income tax returns. I’m doing what the law requires,” he explained in reference to his recent financial disclosures.
Silicon Ranch, with solar energy projects in 14 states, routinely engages in public-private partnerships with the Department of Navy (DON) and TVA, the former of which is a taxpayer-funded agency.
In multiple press releases, Silicon Ranch has insisted it will “fund, construct, own, and operate the solar facilities,” some of which are partially leased from DON.
“Silicon Ranch is honored to partner with the Department of the Navy, TVA, and MIDB to deliver cost-effective, clean energy to serve NSA Mid-South,” Kisber commented in a press release. “We remain focused on the economic, environmental, and community benefits this project brings to TVA’s ratepayers, to the city of Millington, and surrounding communities, and to the thousands of Tennesseans associated with the NSA Mid-South facility.”
DON mutually acknowledged the agreement, expressing its excitement over starting the “state’s largest producing solar power for [TVA].”
Since its founding, the company has received investments from several major players, including Shell and in 2016 another $100 million was pumped into the company from the Swiss private-equity firm Partners Group.
According to Nashville Business Journal, Shell has invested $217 million, making it the company’s largest shareholder.
Under the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), Bredesen’s company is now able to receive a 30 percent federal tax credit, which will drop to a permanent 10 percent credit by 2021. With the help of an ITC, one of Silicon Ranch’s Mississippi locations received $3.2 million in financing, according to the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credits.
Similarly, the journal reports that Silicon Ranch’s Arkansas project received $15 million in solar tax credits, as well as federal new markets tax credits, and an Arkansas state new markets tax credit.
Back in 2012, the company sparked debate in the Tennessee General Assembly after applying for a solar tax break. According to the Nashville Business Journal, the tax break was passed in 2010, in large part because of the work of Kisber and Farr while serving as gubernatorial aides.
At the time, Farr admitted his newly-launched solar company deliberately waited to apply for the solar tax breaks he helped put in place were “reaffirmed” by the new administration.
Bredesen, 73, now receives an additional $110,000 from his state pension, and is set to face off against Republican nominee Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN-07) in the race to fill the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. In the latest poll, Blackburn was leading by 4 points.