In Lithuania, the Tax Man Cometh Right After the Google Car Passeth - Yahoo! Movies (blog)

VILNIUS, Lithuania—One day last summer, a woman was about to climb into a hammock in the front yard of a suburban house here when a photographer for the Google Inc. ( GOOG ) Street View service snapped her picture.

The apparently innocuous photograph is now being used as evidence in a tax-evasion case brought by Lithuanian authorities against the undisclosed owners of the home.

Some European countries have been going after Google, complaining that the search giant is invading the privacy of their citizens. But tax inspectors here have turned to the prying eyes of Street View for their own purposes.

[More from WSJ.com: Grumpy Cat Has an Agent, and Now a Movie Deal ]

After Google's car-borne cameras were driven through the Vilnius area last year, the tax men in this small Baltic nation got busy. They have spent months combing through footage looking for unreported taxable wealth.

"We were very impressed," said Modestas Kaseliauskas, head of the State Tax Authority. "We realized that we could do more with less and in shorter time."

More than 100 people have been identified so far after investigators compared Street View images of about 500 properties with state property registries looking for undeclared construction.

Two recent cases netted $130,000 in taxes and penalties after investigators found houses photographed by Google that weren't on official maps.

From aerial surveillance to dedicated iPhone apps, cash-strapped governments across Europe are employing increasingly unconventional measures against tax cheats to raise revenue. In some countries, authorities have tried to enlist citizens to help keep watch. Customers in Greece, for instance, are insisting on getting receipts for what they buy.

For Lithuania, which only two decades ago began its transition away from communist central planning and remains one of the poorest countries in the European Union, Street View has been a big help. After the global financial crisis struck in 2008, belt tightening cut the tax authority's budget by a third. A quarter of its employees were let go, leaving it with fewer resources just as it was being asked to do more.

[More from WSJ.com: One Man's Oodles of Doodles Draw a Picture of Life in Finance ]

"We were pressured to increase tax revenue," said the authority's Mr. Kaseliauskas.

Street View has let Mr. Kaseliauskas's team see things it would have otherwise missed. Its images are better—and cheaper—than aerial photos, which authorities complain often aren't clear enough to be useful.

Sitting in their city office 10 miles away, they were able to detect that, contrary to official records, the house with the hammock existed and that, in one photograph, three cars were parked in the driveway.

An undeclared semidetached house owned by the former board chairman of Bank Snoras, Raimundas Baranauskas, was recently identified using Street View and is estimated by the government to be worth about $260,000. Authorities knew Mr. Baranauskas owned land there, but not buildings. A quick look online led to the discovery of several houses on his land, in a quiet residential street of Vilnius.

Mr. Baranauskas faces extradition from Britain to Lithuania amid an investigation into the collapse of Snoras, which failed in late 2011. Mr. Baranauskas is suspected in Lithuania of property embezzlement, a charge he denies. His extradition case at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court is scheduled to proceed in July.

His properties had been seized, but the house didn't exist on paper. Lithuanian authorities were unable to seize it until the building came up on Street View.

Mr. Baranauskas's lawyer didn't return messages seeking comment.

Most people swept up in the dragnet aren't millionaires. Lithuania is a nation of homeowners, said Giedre Aleknaviciute, analyst at real-estate consultancy Colliers. Authorities say the house with the hammock in suburban Vilnius is worth about $380,000.

[More from WSJ.com: A Very Pedestrian Superhero Grapples With Mexico City Traffic ]

Google's Street View service has been highly controversial around the world and many governments in Europe and beyond have tried to restrict the company's operations. In Germany, after legislators considered a law that would curb Street View, the company allowed individuals to request that photos of their property be removed from the service before it was launched. Google didn't respond to requests for comment.

But in Lithuania the government's use of Google Street View has resonated well, and authorities have been aided by the local populace. "We received even more support than we expected," said Mr. Kaseliauskas, the chief tax inspector.

The iPhone used by Mr. Kaseliauskas features an application his office...

>

Google Is Investing in the Next Hotspot for Renewable Energy: South Africa - National Journal

There's a place where a developer can propose, finance and build a big solar power project in a matter of months. That place is not California, Germany or China. It's South Africa. And the country's embrace of renewable energy has attracted investors like Google, which today said it is helping finance a 96 megawatt (MW) photovoltaic power plant in the Northern Cape province.

South Africa had "the highest growth in clean energy investment in the world last year," Rick Needham, Google's director of energy and sustainability, noted in a blog post about the Jasper Power Project. Google has put more than $1 billion into renewable energy, but this is only its second overseas venture. (The company put $5 million into a German photovoltaic power plant in 2011.) The search giant's stake in Jasper is relatively small—103 million rand, or $12 million of the $260 million total cost—but the solar power station will be one of Africa's largest, supplying enough electricity to power 30,000 homes.



Latest from Quartz:

South Africa aims to install 20,000 MW of renewable energy over the next 15 years. That's attracted SolarReserve, a California-based startup, which is developing the Jasper project as well as two other 75 MW photovoltaic power plants. "The US market is pretty flat for large scale projects," SolarReserve chief executive Kevin Smith told Quartz.

Jasper is a win for China as well. Yingli, the world's largest photovoltaic manufacturer, will supply solar panels for it.

SolarReserve also has two 100 MW solar thermal power plants in the works in South Africa. Unlike photovoltaic power plants, which deploy thousands of solar panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, SolarReserve's solar thermal projects use mirrors to focus the sun on boilers that contain molten salt, to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. The molten salt can also store heat so it can be released to produce electricity at night or on cloudy days, smoothing out the otherwise uneven electricity supply that comes from solar.

The company is building solar thermal projects in California and Nevada in the US, but Smith says extensive bureaucracy and financing requirements mean it can take years to get a power plant online. For instance, developers must find so-called tax equity partners willing to finance a plant in exchange for a 30% federal tax credit given to solar projects. Such deals involve numerous parties and complicated financial engineering. Deals sometimes fall apart after they've been approved, because the developers often first win a long-term contract to supply electricity to a utility at a set rate, and only then try to get the financing that will allow them to make a profit.

South Africa, in contrast, offers no subsidies for renewable energy. Developers must have their permits, suppliers and financing lined up, and then submit bids to the South African Department of Energy (DOE), which decides whether to pay the requested rates. Once a bid has been accepted, the developer must start construction in six months.

"You bid the economics that work," says Smith. "I wish the markets in the US worked as well."

Get the latest news and analysis delivered to your inbox. Sign up for National Journal's morning alert, Wake-Up Call , and afternoon newsletter, The Edge . Subscribe here .

>