Another Sweet deal for Buffett – Who pays? You do!

Bruce Krasting's picture

Yesterday, First Solar (FSLR) announced that it had sold its interests in a big solar project called Topaz. The buyer was MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. So Warren B. is behind the transaction. I think he got another sweetheart deal. This time, it’s the taxpayers who will be making Buffett richer.

The transaction is between two companies. As a result there has been little disclosure of the actual terms and conditions. The following is my thinking on what is behind the transaction. If I have it wrong, the nice folks from Omaha can send me a note and I’ll publish their response.

There are a number of angles to consider in this story. I’ll outline a few and try to tie them together.

The Topaz solar project is in San Lois Obispo, California. Construction began a month ago, and will not be completed until 2015. The facility is designed to produce 550MW of energy. The cost per MW of these types of facilities is between $3mm and $4mm per MW. Using the mid point of $3.5mm you get an estimated cost of construction of $1.925 billion. Add in another $75mm of soft costs and the total should come to $2 billion.

Bloomberg confirms my estimate on the completion costs of Topaz with this headline.


Buffett has purchased the rights to build a solar farm. The money he is putting up will be the construction costs over the next four years. First Solar will get some consideration as it has absorbed all the front-end costs, but it would be a mistake to assume that FSLR is getting anything close to $2B from Buffet. (Neither of the press releases from the companies mentions cash consideration.)

Buffett’s only condition to the deal is that the Power Purchase Agreement ("PPA") that Topaz has previously entered into is affirmed to Berkshire’s lawyer’s satisfaction. This is a critical part of the deal.

California’s monster electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PGE), has entered into a 25 year PPA with Topaz. With PGE taking all of the power from Topaz, the risks in the deal fall sharply. The output of Topaz has already been successfully monetized. All that needs be done is complete the construction and then let the sun shine.


It’s important to understand that Uncle Warren has a seat at this table because the Department of Energy failed to approve a big loan to Topaz prior to 9/30/2011 (the deadline to get federal subsidies). The DOE did substantial work before nixing the deal. This PDF link to the DOE shows just how much had been accomplished prior to 9/30. (How much did this report cost the DOE/us? Many millions.) All of the necessary approvals and engineering work had been completed. Construction of these solar farms is not all that complicated once the approvals and site work has been signed off on. Buffet got a deal that was teed up and ready to go. Construction commenced a month ago. Warren bought into a deal in the 11th hour. He got a shovel ready investment. He has very little risk at this point.

When Topaz is completed, energy will be produced. Pursuant to the PPA Topaz/Buffet will receive checks monthly from PGE for the next 25 years. That stream of revenue is assured. PGE is a single A. Its long-term debt yields are in the mid 4% range. I’m certain that Buffet got a better yield than that. But the yield is not what brought Buffet into the deal. It was taxes and his desire to avoid them that got this deal inked. Again, that Bloomberg Headline:



It's clear that as part of the deal, Buffett got the tax breaks associated with Topaz. The federal tax subsidies for solar construction belong to Buffett. The numbers are huge.

Once completed, the owners of a solar farm get one of two massive incentive payments:

1) The owner gets a cash grant equal to 30% of the construction cost, or;

2) The owner gets a break on their federal taxes equal to (get this) 100% of the cost of the project. This “Bonus tax deduction” can be used to reduce federal taxes in the year that that the project is first completed.


Berkshire Hathaway paid 29% taxes in 2010. This would imply that it would opt for the cash payment of 30% ($600MM!). But BRK is actually faced with a statutory tax rate of 35%. Therefore the value of the tax reduction could be as high as $700mm. (Warren can engineer any income necessary to max out the tax deduction.)

The PPA with PGE will return all of Buffett’s $2B of investment plus a return of at least 5%. But when you add into the calculation that in four years Buffett gets a mega tax-break the implied returns soar. I did an IRR assuming a 2015 construction completion, $2b cost and a 25-year payback. It comes to a return of 15 -17% pa.

This monster result is exclusively the result of the tax breaks Buffet will enjoy. In other words, “you” are making Warren richer.


As I indicated, the PPA with PGE is central to Buffett’s investment. It’s important to understand why PGE has stepped up to facilitate Topaz. California (and 30 other states) have passed laws that mandate that electric utilities MUST produce or acquire a percentage of their electricity from alternative sources. In California. Executive order S-14-08  mandates that 30% of all power sold in California must come from alternative sources by the years 2020. This means that PGE is in a bind. It HAS to have alternative energy or it can’t grow. So PGE came into the Topaz deal desperate for a supply of power that did not come from fossil fuels. Topaz solved (in part) PGE’s problems.

There is one technical aspect to the Buffet/Topaz deal that I don’t quite understand. The rules on the tax breaks/rebate are very clear. Not less than 5% of construction must have been completed by 9/30/2011 in order to qualify for the subsidies. As I have indicated, construction of Topaz did not commence until November. It would appear that the requirements for the subsidies has not been met. The possibility exists that the DOE agreed to allow for the subsidy and waived the 9/30 deadline. Another possibility is that the DOE gave credit toward the 5% completion by allowing for the pre-construction soft costs of the project. If it's the latter, I’m confused. Other projects that I’m aware of did not get credit for pre-construction soft costs. One additional possibility is a waiver of the completion requirements was granted, AKA "Side Deal".

When the DOE money did not come through, it must have been a big blow to the White House. Topaz was a big prize for them. I wonder if Obama called his pal Buffett and asked for a "fix". Warren B. delivered. But, as usual, he charged a pound of flesh. Obama got what he wanted. He avoided another solar disaster when WB stepped in.


-Buffett gets another sweetheart deal that makes him richer.

-PGE gets a long-term supply of alternative energy that allows them to grow for a few more decades.

-First Solar gets out of a huge headache. It gets get to sell solar panels to Topaz.

-The citizens of California that will use this power will get nothing. They will continue to pay the highest rates for electricity in the country.

-The US tax payers foot the bill for another $600 - $700mm. That's the "Vig" for Warren. Those taxpayers also get nothing in return.


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booboo's picture

He didn't write that, the government did it.

larz's picture

orafice of omaha

Dina Strange's picture

This piece of writing by Buffett, made me really question the kind uncle of capitalism:

el Gallinazo's picture

"This time, it’s the taxpayers who will be making Buffett richer."


This time?  The Octogenarian of Omaha almost always made his billions on government inside info, influence,  and/or support.  How about those 10 percenters with the Squid when "the people" only got a nominal 5%.

Yen Cross's picture

 I Don't sleep!

Van Halen's picture

When this whole house of cards comes tumbling down, where will the politicians, bankers, billionaires, Hollywood stars, and dirty CEOs go to hide from us? How many of them will we find? What will happen to them?

Sambo's picture

The birds will take to the air, kicking the pack of cards down in the process.


AndrewCostello's picture

Yet another fraudulent scam.  This is never going to end.



Big Ben's picture

Buffet complains that taxes are too low, then enters into a sweetheart deal which lowers his taxes even more. Hypocrisy, thy name is Buffet.

DeadFred's picture

Getting lazy Bruce, more cartoon figures instead of your normal gaffiti.

pain_and_soros's picture

Glad good ole Warren is so publicly concerned about the rich not paying enough taxes....

non_anon's picture

Ebenezer Buffet of Omaha

oh, and what ever happened w/ the insider trading scandal that quietly went away?

Everybodys All American's picture

WB: Crony bastard ... no other way this guys makes the kind of money he has without the inside edge. Hey anybody find out what happend to Charlie Mungers front running the last deal? Nothing. Never saw that coming.

miker's picture

Uncle Buffet (as they say) loves the limelight.  He probably never thought he would be such a celebrity.  He is a brilliant person regarding the capitalist model.  He knew how to assess companies, buy and sell when appropriate.  No question.  But I think he's got a screw or two loose.  Maybe it's old age.   Probably due to all the notoriety he has been given in the last decade or less.  That shit will go to your head.

Regarding the huge tax break; well he can sleep well at night knowing he's advocated (publicly) for the "millionaires tax" or some such crap.  Of course, if he was so damn righteous, he could send in additional tax payments by himself; or make anonomoyous contributions to the US Treasury from someone that has been so blessed by the last 25 years of unfucking believable (and unsustainable) money growth!


I hope he lives long enough to see this whole thing collapse.  One last interview with  Uncle Warren trying to promote hope of the great American capitalist system.  As the markets freeze up dead and keel over.

masterinchancery's picture

Uncle Warren has become a maximum crony capitalist and scumbag robbing the American people. Very sad, he used to be a voice of reason.

smlbizman's picture

he only had a voice of reason because the voice of the hedge had not been heard by many of us. now that the game is being explained to us finally, it is not to hard to see ole uncle warren and his brother wilber and that good ole boy t-bone...are just inside pieces of shit...

Don Birnam's picture

"Oh ! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Buffett ! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner ! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster -- save for those quiet evenings in the tub; the fawning, dutiful Rebecca at his side."

"A Taxpayer-Subsidized Billionaire's Christmas Carol"

BKbroiler's picture

at least he got a medal

AldousHuxley's picture

they gave one to greenspan for most money printed in history

and a pad on his back for being extra douche with the last housing bubble.,_Alan_%28Wh...

swani's picture

I don't hate Buffet for getting the deals that he can get, or from benefiting from the status quo. I dislike Buffet for getting up there and selling the American people a bill of goods, as if he cares about them. I find this part of his personality dishonest and self serving. If he was quietly doing what alot of people in his position are doing, that would be different. He is out there marketing bad policy and I find this morally reprehensible. 

Fred Hayek's picture

Amen. You can't give cover for evil and still be good.

NotApplicable's picture

That "Uncle Warren" sales pitch is what lands him those deals. If he were an honest man, he'd be no richer than any other entrepreneur/speculator.

It's all payola for services rendered in support of power. Otherwise, why bother? (as he should be too busy minding his own business, rather than spending all of his time in mine)

b_thunder's picture

Did Buffett write the law establishing the "clean energy" tax breaks - no. Did he lobby for the law - i've never heard him talk about that publicly, and never hears/saw/read anything that would point to his lobbying efforts.  Don't hate the player, hate the game.  Yes, he got this deal becasue he's Buffett.  Very few others could get this deal.  So what? become rich like Buffett, and you'll get even richer.

BTW, there's plenty of reasons to hate Buffett, not the least for his deals with GS and BAC.

Was the tax breaks for solar enacted by Bush or Obama?



Mactheknife's picture

Obviously you weren't paying attention the day good ole Uncle Warren sat in front of a Senate Committee to give his strong opposition to their thought of repealing the estate tax. Of course he left out the part that many of the ninety some companies that BRK has acquired came from private families that had inherited these successful businesses but could not pay the estate taxes. And then there is the fact that he himself has already arranged that his estate will pay no tax when he leaves it. Warren Buffett is one of the greatest, smartest capitalist that ever lived. What he was able to accomplish from the early sixties was nothing short of historic and heroic. It is unfortunate that his prowess is now relegated to backroom, smelly cronyism.

AldousHuxley's picture

This plus SEC going after hedge fund is a sign from G20 global elites to pull your money away from big oil and wall st. banksters into high tech.


Be a bitch and government shall reward you.



swani's picture

That's why Buffet always wants Americans to pay more taxes. 

Smokey1's picture

WEB eats shit.

AldousHuxley's picture



that's their job. they tax you and spend. the question should be what are they spending money on?

Buffett sucks just like any other billionare aholes, but look at the big picture. BigOil gets more tax subsidies than anyone.


Plus we are not spending billions in the middle east for solar is for oil. WAR = subsidy for big oil.



Just because US rednecks in Texas doesn't want to spend money on math and science doesn't mean China is sitting around.

If Chevy can come out with all electric Volt in just 2 years, imagine what just few phDs can do with some government money.


Science and Tech progress is not due to lack of brains, but due to STATUS QUO OLD OIL Money holding the funds back so that they don't have any competition.


This is probably a quid pro quo deal he made when he saved Bank of America's ass. Obama promised Buffett any losses will be paid back in the form of solar panel subsidies.


And you know who the real OLD MONEY is right? OLD OIL money behind Exxon, Mobile, Connoco, Chevron, BP/Amoco.....STANDARD OIL....The monopoly of choice of Rockefellers...the family behind University of Chicago Milton Freedmans "global freemarket cutt-throat competition for you [socialism for elites]" and owns JP Morgan Chase.

machineh's picture

You might have more credibility if you knew how to spell "Mobil," "Conoco" and "Friedman."

Don't criticize things that you can't even write properly.

knukles's picture

And didn't state that the Volt is an all electric car.
It uses a gasoline engine as it's primary source of power.  First 40 miles, lithium ion battery charged by line.  Next 260 minles, gas powered electric generator.

AldousHuxley's picture

yes yes...hybrid....but my point is, GM pull that shit out middle of recession, they just didn't want to all this time.


Stuck on Zero's picture

What cursed stupidity to build "central solar facilities."  The beauty of solar power is that it is distributed.  Why import power from 500 miles away when you can generate it on your roof.  It's politics.  The companies and the state want power generation centralized so that they can control it and charge for it.  Electricity is now so expensive in California that it costs double what a diesel generator costs per KWH. 

williambanzai7's picture

This is a very good point. The grid mentality is a key component of the machine. The entire economy is one big grid when you think about it.

Mercury's picture

Rooftop solar might be more economical but right now that's heavily subsidized too (which begs the question as to how economical it really is).  And yes, those who are capable doing some math and thinking more than five minutes into the future have already figured out how to suck away that government handout as well:

When people are driven to using backyard diesel generators to avoid the pricey "green" grid, what exactly will have been accomplished with this bullshit?



blunderdog's picture

When people are driven to using backyard diesel generators to avoid the pricey "green" grid, what exactly will have been accomplished with this bullshit?

Overall electrical consumption per capita will be reduced TREMENDOUSLY.

Not that that's a good thing or a bad thing.  But since you asked.

knukles's picture

And money was it's name O 


Mercury's picture

Can't say I blame Warren here. The government is the one putting it's thumb on the scales of the marketplace by subsidizing something that isn't viable on it's own.  Buffett is just exploiting stupid policy. He probably didn't even have to use a calculator.

When the govenment subsidizes something this heavily it takes Wall St. about five minutes to figure out how to channel most of the subsidies into their pockets.  It happened when Enron jacked the state of CA after they "de-regulated" their electricity market and put all kinds of absurd price caps in place, it's happening now with residental solar and it happened when the federal government decided they wanted higher national home ownership rates.

It's almost enough to make you think that central planning isn't such a hot idea.


blunderdog's picture

It's just how things work when you let the industry write the legislation. 

That's what Brultke did with the CA bill that "deregulated" the electricity spot markets--he let Enron's lobbyists write the law.

Stephen's picture

"The citizens of California that will use this power will get nothing."

Do you think they will get a cleaner environment?

masterinchancery's picture

No, all the money wasted buying this solar power(with negligable effect) could have been used to do things that were actually effective, like taking households off the grid entirely.

KK Tipton's picture

They *will not* allow self-sufficiency to be policy in 21st century USSA.
This is why it's all a big push for grid-tied solar equipment. And phoney "smart (control) grid" schemes.

Sure, the hipsters can have solar...but it must be tied to their control.
The crony capitalist/liberal communists get paid forever, not you.

The "smart grid" the *right* way, by the guy that created the inverter industry (Heart Eng./Trace Eng. now sold to Chinese):

He lays it all out...and shows you how the "official policy" way is total graft and bullshit.
He set up his own production in Costa Rica. Lives there, builds it all there.
Hopefully he has success and we can get our hands on these devices.

Every house should have control in it's hands...thereby making the US resilient.

Bruce Krasting's picture

Yes, this will help. The Cali laws on the utilities will force this. It's happening all over the country.

Why is Warren the one to make big bucks? Because of Solyndra. That disaster screwed up the DOE funding for Topaz. Whether that should or should not have happened is a question I don't have an answer to. But that was the result.

So the taxpayers got stuck with Solyndra for a tidy $550mm. The bonus tax breaks in the Topaz deal is another $600mm+. That's just a portion of the DOE's alternate energy effort.

We're not such a rich country that we can afford this any longer. But rich people will get richer as this unfolds.

I feel like there is something dirty to this "clean" thing.


nmewn's picture

"I feel like there is something dirty to this "clean" thing."

Always go with the gut Bruce. We're well into the billions now. I think around 80 billion.

You should Google up Allison & Steve Spinner/Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati...Lightsquared...Solyndra. That law firm alone took in 2.4 million for guiding through "green loan packages". And, naturally, Steve being a former apparatchik in the Department of Energy now works for...wait for it...the Center for American Progress...where he is no doubt working on turning whale blubber into renewable energy (marketed under lamp oil) or

I suppose what I'm say is what everyone above the age of thirty already knows.

We should never allow government & industry to mingle and come against us as one. This is exactly what always happens. Crony capitalism/fascism where the elites take priority over the in the Solyndra obligation restructuring.

nmewn's picture

Tiger crawling into his SUV with a busted out windshield and four giggling porn stars in the back.

The term "golf clap" will never be the same for me again ;-)

AGuy's picture

Please! A few hundred Megawatts that operates only about 6 to 7 hours a day (night, overcast, etc). for a state that uses about 40 GW of electricity. barely a drop in the bucket. How much water pullution will 300-400 MW of Solar panels create and how much energy input goes into making, cleaning, and manintaining these panels. I guess a new dozen jobs for squeegee men to clean off all those panels with be the height of job creation on this project. Betchya they are the cheap thin film panels that will die within ten years after they are put into service.

goodrich4bk's picture

All I know is that my electricity rates tripled under utility deregulation --- supported equally by Dems and Repubs --- because of Enron's wholesale price manipulation.  I responded by installing solar panels at a net cost of $7.15 per watt for a 3kw system.  I received the same 30% tax credit as Uncle Warren, making my after tax cost about $15k.  I'm generating about half my power (almost 5,000 kwh a year due to my exceptionally efficient site) which at $.15 per kwh is an annual savings of $750.  This is presently a 5% yield on my $15k investment.   As electricity rates increase and mine do not, this yield will increase.

In short, public investment in solar --- whether through loans, tax credits or R&D --- is already giving me a direct monetary benefit.  And that is giving no consideration to the bluer skies I now see during the summer in Sacramento.  I can now routinely see the Coast Range from El Dorado Hills, something I could never do in my youth in the 1970's.