Still No Sign of $460M Incentive-Backed AQT Solar

September 23, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMore than eight months after a small, young California company announced it would locate a $460 million solar-cell manufacturing plant in Richland County, creating a purported 1,000 jobs over four years, the massive building it’s supposed to go in remains empty.

As The Nerve first reported in April, there’s still not even a sign at the Blythewood-area site announcing the AQT Solar project.

A year-end S.C. Department of Commerce report ranked the would-be plant as the second-highest announced capital investment in the state in 2010 and the third-highest announced job-creation project.

If the plant ever comes to Richland County, state and local taxpayers would be on the hook for a projected $24.8 million over 10 years, according to a cost-benefit analysis included with a state incentives agreement obtained earlier this year by The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The estimated tab doesn’t include other taxpayer-funded benefits offered for the project. Those incentives include a $10 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with Richland County, according to a company project information sheet included with the state incentives agreement, which was heavily redacted in parts.

Asked last week about the absence of activity at the Richland County site, AQT spokeswoman Liz Patrick told The Nerve in a written response, “Unfortunately, we are experiencing delays in the planning and design phase of our manufacturing facility in order to accommodate the development of a second generation production tool from our equipment vendor.”

“Once our new manufacturing tool has satisfied the requisite pre-qualification trials, and the facility layout is finalized, we will have better visibility on the overall project timeline,” Patrick continued.

Patrick did not give any estimated date for the startup at the Richland County site, saying only that “we continue to be in contact with the state and county regarding the delay, and both continue to support the project.”

As for receiving any up-front state or local incentives, Patrick said, “At this point, no funds have been sought or provided.”

S.C. Rep. James Smith, D-Richland and an attorney who has been involved with the project, did not respond to written messages last week from The Nerve.

The Nerve last week attempted to contact S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt and Richland County Economic Development Director P. Nelson Lindsay for comment on the AQT Solar project. In a written response last week, Richland County Assistant Attorney Elizabeth McLean declined comment, saying only that the county would “gladly release all statutorily non-exempt information (through a new Freedom of Information Act request); however, until that time, Richland County has nothing further to add.”

Commerce chief attorney Karen Manning, responding on behalf of Hitt, told The Nerve last week in a written statement that it was her agency’s understanding that the project has been “delayed because of an issue related to the equipment required for the project.

“At present, we have no further information regarding an updated schedule for project implementation, but generally are willing to work with companies when projects encounter delays.”

Manning said the state Coordinating Council for Economic Development, staffed by Commerce and made up of the heads of various state agencies involved in economic development, including Commerce, has approved state job development credits for the company and a grant to Richland County that “will benefit the project.”

She added that to date, “no state funds have been expended (nor will they unless and until the company’s performance is in accordance with its agreements).”

The Nerve reported in April that according to the state incentives agreement, AQT would have to hire 500 employees – not 1,000 as claimed by Commerce and the company – to receive a $2 million state taxpayer-funded “closing fund”  grant.

If AQT didn’t start the project within three months of the award of the grant, which was Dec.  21, 2010, the Coordinating Council could rescind the grant and require AQT to repay any allocated grant funds, according to the agreement.

Besides the grant, the projected $24.8 million taxpayer cost over a 10-year period would include, according to the cost-benefit analysis provided with the incentives agreement:

  • Job development credits (refunds of a portion of employee state income tax withholdings) –  $11.2 million;
  • Job tax credits – $7.2 million;
  • Increased state education costs – $1.5 million;
  • “Special Schools” (presumably the state “readySC” training program for company workers) – $1.5 million; and
  • Increased local education costs – $1.2 million

In an earlier written response to The Nerve, AQT spokeswoman Patrick said all discretionary incentives are “subject to performance measures and clawback provisions.” But other than a repayment schedule connected with the $2 million state grant, there are no specific “clawback,” or penalty, provisions for most of the incentives listed in documents provided earlier this year to The Nerve.

Patrick earlier said the state incentives agreement requires the creation of 1,019 jobs in two phases over four years – despite the lower threshold number listed in the incentives agreement provided to The Nerve. The total projected investment is about $460 million, she said, though The Nerve’s review of the cost-benefit analysis found it to be at least $100 million less.

AQT was founded in 2007 and had about 40 employees as of earlier this year, according to other media reports. The Silicon Valley company opened its first solar-cell manufacturing plant in Sunnyvale, Calif., in August 2010, according to a Jan. 6 S.C. Commerce press release announcing the Richland County project.

The Richland County site would “expand AQT’s current production capacity and help to fill current order backlog,” the release said.

When The Nerve in April and again in late August visited the Carolina Pines Industrial Park site off Interstate 77 during normal business hours, there were no private cars at the site, and no apparent activity inside the 184,000-square-foot building that AQT reportedly is supposed to lease.

The only observable item in the building that wasn’t a permanent fixture was a small display table in the main lobby for the site developer, Michigan-based Kirco.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.