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Discussion about who is the greatest investor is a never-ending argument. You can make a case for Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, and George Soros, among countless others. One institution you aren't likely to mention in the same breath is the United States government.
Investments the government made in banks and other financial institutions under TARP have been well-documented, so I'm going to focus on another sector that received plenty of government support over the past few years: energy.
China completes solar takeover
It's no secret that China is the new epicenter of solar manufacturing. U.S. firms that don't manufacture in China are at least close, with facilities in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. But the government thought Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLRD ) could transform itself into an industry power using superior technology and American labor. A nice idea, but after closing its plant in Devens, Mass., Evergreen is relegated to joining its competitors in China, if it can survive at all.
The Massachusetts government put $58 million into Evergreen Solar, and now the company says it is obligated to pay back only $4 million. A 93% loss on its original investment probably wasn't what Massachusetts was looking for.
Batteries staying here, for now
Another emerging energy technology getting plenty of government money is electric vehicles. For electric vehicles to be feasible, they need batteries, lots of batteries. Two high-tech battery makers, Ener1 (Nasdaq: HEV ) and A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) , have been granted $118.5 million and $249 million, respectively, to build out factories here in the United States. We don't know if that investment will pay off quite yet, but continued losses are starting both companies off on the same foot as Evergreen Solar.
In a sign we may be repeating history, Ener1 just signed an agreement with Wanxiang Electric Vehicle Co. to co-manufacture batteries in China. Ener1 may not be relocating its entire operation to China anytime soon, but heat from Advanced Battery Technologies (Nasdaq: ABAT ) has placed U.S. manufacturers on alert. While U.S. companies burn through cash, Advanced Battery Technologies is profitable and expanding capacity quickly.
Government money hasn't led to shareholder returns either. Evergreen is on the cusp of bankruptcy or a major reorganization, Ener1 is down 18.8% over the past year, and A123 Systems is down a whopping 49.6% in the same time frame. To me, it looks like investing alongside the government in the energy sector is a recipe for disaster.