A private citizen told California investigators to check out the land rights First Solar said it acquired when it paid $400 million in stock for OptiSolar’s project pipeline. When the deal was announced, First Solar said it received "strategic land rights of approximately 136,000 acres." In reality, OptiSolar only had applications for the land rights.
Applications are considerably less valuable. If First Solar labeled those applications as assets, and priced them into the acquisition, then the company may be in violation of the law. At this point, it’s unclear if First Solar did or did not label them as assets. It’s also unclear if it’s illegal to price them into the deal, reports Dow Jones.
In spite of the haze around this minor infraction, it’s receiving a decent amount of coverage. Major news outlets are reporting on it as well as most energy/solar focused blogs.
Our intial reaction was that this was much ado about nothing. The Bureau Of Land Managment in California is worried about speculators paying for applications, holding them, then selling them to developers at higher prices. We don’t consider First Solar a speculator, so we thought it was long shot that they were violating the law.
While developing a project is not First Solar’s typical operating pattern, it is a direction the company is heading. In the relase announcing the OptiSolar acquisition, First Solar mentioned other construction projects it was working on. For this reason, we don’t think First Solar plans on just selling off its application permits.
We are curious about the identity of the "private citizen" that tipped investigators. After news broke that First Solar was under investigation, Earth2Tech reported that:
A couple weeks ago we received an email query from an exec at an environmental group wondering about the legality and ethics of solar maker OptiSolar incorporating yet-to-be-approved Bureau of Land Management land applications into its price when solar giant First Solar agreed to acquire the thin-film PV company back in March. I’m not sure how legal it is, I told him, but I would assume First Solar would do due diligence on how viable the applications are and factor that risk into the price.
Is this executive the same person that tipped off the BLM? Environmentalists are worried that unused land will be developed to expand clean energy sources like solar. While clean energy is a positive for the environment, developed land is a minus. (The LA Times, who broke the story, and led with the First Solar news, has details on environmentalists complaints about allowing the desert to be used for solar projects.)
Other people could be worried as well. Analysts warned that any news that hurt First Solar’s deal would knock a few dollars off the company’s share price.