WASHINGTON - Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on a former cattle ranch and gypsum mine, NRG Energy is building an engineering marvel: a compound of nearly a million solar panels that will produce enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes.
The project is also a marvel in another, less obvious way: Taxpayers and ratepayers are providing subsidies worth almost as much as the entire $1.6 billion cost of the project. Similar subsidy packages have been given to 15 other solar- and wind-power electric plants since 2009.
The government support - which includes loan guarantees, cash grants, and contracts that require electric customers to pay higher rates - largely eliminated the risk to the private investors and almost guaranteed them large profits for years. The beneficiaries include financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, conglomerates like General Electric, utilities like Exelon and NRG - even Google.
A great deal of attention has been focused on Solyndra, a start-up that received $528 million in federal loans to develop cutting-edge solar technology before it went bankrupt, but nearly 90 percent of the $16 billion in clean-energy loans guaranteed by the federal government since 2009 went to subsidize these lower-risk power plants, which in many cases were backed by big companies with vast resources.
When the Obama administration and Congress expanded the clean-energy incentives in 2009, a gold-rush mentality took over.
As NRG’s chief executive, David W. Crane, put it to Wall Street analysts early this year, the government’s largess was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and “we intend to do as much of this business as we can get our hands on.’’ NRG, along with partners, ultimately secured $5.2 billion in federal loan guarantees plus hundreds of millions in other subsidies for four large solar projects.
“I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk than these projects,’’ he said in a recent interview. “It is just filling the desert with panels.’’
From 2007 to 2010, federal subsidies jumped from $5.1 billion to $14.7 billion, according to a recent study. Most of the surge came from the economic stimulus bill, which was passed in 2009 and financed an Energy Department loan guarantee program and a separate Treasury Department grant program that were promoted as important in creating green jobs.
States like California sweetened the pot by offering their own tax breaks and by approving long-term power-purchase contracts that, while promoting clean energy, will also require ratepayers to pay billions of dollars more for electricity for as long as two decades.
The federal loan guarantee program expired Sept. 30. The Treasury grant program is scheduled to expire at the end of December, although the energy industry is lobbying Congress to extend it. But other subsidies will remain.
The windfall for the industry over the last three years raises questions of whether the Obama administration and state governments went too far in their support of solar and wind power projects, some of which would have been built anyway, according to the companies involved.
Obama administration officials argue that the incentives, which began on a large scale late in the Bush administration but were expanded by the stimulus legislation, make economic and environmental sense. Beyond the short-term increase in construction hiring, they say, the cleaner air and lower carbon emissions will benefit the country for decades.
“Subsidies and government support have been part of many key industries in US history - railroads, oil, gas and coal, aviation,’’ said Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman.
Even companies whose business has little to do with energy or finance, like the Internet giant Google, benefit from the public subsidies. Google has invested in several renewable energy projects, including a giant solar plant in the California desert and a wind farm in Oregon, in part to get federal tax breaks that it can use to offset its profits from Web advertising.