We have to admit we didn't see this one coming: Embattled Bay Area solar manufacturer Solyndra, whose bankruptcy last year has become a lightning rod for conservative opposition to the Obama administration's energy policy, is suing three Chinese solar panel makers for allegedly conspiring to drive them and other U.S. manufacturers out of business.
Solyndra, recipient of a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy's Stimulus fund, filed for bankruptcy in 2011, generating a media-driven firestorm of criticism of the administration's stimulus fund-backed renewable energy program.
The antitrust suit was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the Chinese firms -- Suntech Power Holdings, Trina Solar Ltd., and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. -- and claims that the three companies, along with their suppliers, financiers, and the Chinese government conspired to dump inexpensive photovoltaic panels on the U.S. market. Solyndra alleges that the Chinese firms met to coordinate their product's prices in order to undercut American competition.
According to Bloomberg, the suit also names Chinese banks, silicon wafer makers, a trade association, and China's energy agency as "co-conspirators." Solyndra is asking the court to decide if the Chinese companies' conduct constitutes illegal price-fixing and an attempt to create a monopoly.
Solyndra isn't the only American firm alleging that its Chinese colleagues have engaged in unfair business practices. Manufacturer SolarWorld filed a petition with the International Trade Commission last year, with the support of the trade group Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, charging the Chinese government with subsidizing photovoltaic panels so that they could be sold below cost in the U.S. Solar installation companies have charged SolarWorld with trying to drive up their materials costs by filing the petition with the ITC.
Monday-morning quarterbacks in the solar field have suggested that Solyndra may well have had trouble even without alleged bad actions by Chinese solar firms: the firm's technology, while intriguing, was complex and expensive, and vulnerable to undercutting from simpler, cheaper flat thin-film panels.
Solyndra's suit was filed a day after Bloomberg reported that the firm's bankrupcty plan had hit a couple of serious roadblocks: opposition from the Department of Energy and from the IRS. The DOE says that Solyndra's plan doesn't protect the agency's financial interest in any assets the company may possess, lessening the chances that the feds will recoup any of their $528 million claim against the DOE's loan guarantee. The IRS, for its part, says that the plan would turn Solyndra's parent company, 360 Degree Solar Holdings, into a highly profitable tax shelter, offering its owners as much as $300 million in tax breaks.
"The plan proposes that Holdings will emerge from bankruptcy as a no-asset, no-business entity, whose only purpose is to provide future tax benefits to its owners," said the IRS in its filing. "The undeniable conclusion is that tax benefits drive this plan."