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Archive for the ‘Solel’ Category

Photo: Todd Woody

The land rush to stake prime sites in the Mojave Desert for solar power plants has moved east from California to a state that knows a thing or two about desert dreaming and scheming — Nevada.

When Green Wombat’s story on the solar land rush was published in the July 21 issue of Fortune (see “The Southwest desert’s real estate boom”), solar energy developers, financiers and speculators had filed lease claims on 226,000 acres of federal land in Nevada. Today, 702,000 acres are in play, largely thanks to Goldman Sachs’ aggressive moves to lock up land. The New York investment giant has put claims on about 300,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management dirt in the Silver State — in one week alone, it filed claims on some 187,000 acres.

Given its financial firepower, Goldman’s designs on the desert have been a matter of intense interest. (The firm also has filed claims on 125,000 acres in California.) Goldman (GS) declined to discuss its solar strategy, but a review of BLM documents and interviews with green energy executives sheds some light on its power plans as the financial crisis triggers a shakeout in the solar land rush.

Over the past two years, scores of companies — from Silicon Valley startups to Chevron (CVX) to utility FPL (FPL) — have scrambled to put lease claims on the nation’s best solar real estate to build massive megawatt solar power plants. In California, where utilities face a state mandate to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33% target by 2020, claims have been filed on nearly 1 million acres. If all those solar stations were built, they would generate a staggering 60,000 megawatts of electricity, or nearly twice the power that California currently consumes.

With most of the prime solar hot spots taken in California, the action is moving to sun-drenched states like Nevada where there’s plenty of wide-open desert land. The BLM has yet to issue any leases and is currently evaluating the applications on a first come, served basis. A key consideration: whether the applicant can deploy a viable solar technology.

But with the credit crunch threatening to derail many of those projects, companies are jockeying to score the best sites – those near transmission lines and water – when the weak are weeded out by a failure to obtain financing or a proven solar technology. Some sites have two or three companies queued up in case the first company in line falters.

For its part, Goldman Sachs has brought in its Cogentrix Energy subsidiary to develop its solar projects, according to BLM records.  Cogentrix is a Charlotte, N.C.-based owner and operator of coal and natural gas-fired power plants that Goldman acquired for $2.4 billion in 2003.

“Cogentrix doesn’t have a solar technology,” says Rob Morgan, executive vice president and chief development officer for Silicon Valley solar startup Ausra. He says Ausra, which is building a solar power plant for utility PG&E and itself has staked claims in Arizona and Nevada, has held discussions with Goldman about its solar technology.

European renewable energy companies are also taking advantage of the market turmoil. State and federal records show that Iberdrola Renewables, a spinoff of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, has quietly acquired a year-old Henderson, Nev., startup called Pacific Solar Investments — and its claims on about 180,000 acres of desert land in Arizona, California and Nevada. Iberdrola Renewables is the world’s largest wind developer.

The saga of Pacific Solar shows how cutthroat the competition for solar real estate has become. Just ask Avi Brenmiller, CEO of Israeli solar power plant company Solel, which last year inked a 553-megawatt deal with PG&E (PCG). Brenmiller now finds himself up against his former COO, David Saul, who set up Pacific Solar and began filing land claims while still working for Solel, according to BLM  records and Brenmiller. During this time, Saul also was making land claims on behalf of a second solar company, IDIT, where he serves as CEO, according to filings with the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Five days after leaving Solel in August 2007, Saul filed a claim on a California site, getting second in line behind Goldman but beating his former employer to the punch by a week. Solel is now behind Pacific Solar and IDIT on two other sites. “So he’s now a competitor in the land rush, which is one of the problems we face,” Brenmiller told me ruefully when we met in San Francisco earlier this year.

Saul did not respond to requests for comment. Iberdrola Renewables also did not return requests for comment.

French energy company EDF’s U.S. subsidiary, enXco, meanwhile has been joined in the land rush by Portuguese utility company EDP and Germany’s Solar Millennium. Spanish renewable energy heavyweight Acciona’s name doesn’t appear on any land claims. But the CEO of Acciona’s U.S. solar operations, Dan Kabel, started a company called Bull Frog Green Energy that has filed claims on 56,000 acres in California and Nevada. Kabel did not respond to a request for comment.

Other new players in the desert solar game include U.S. energy giant Sempra (SRE), which wants to lease 11,000 acres in California’s Imperial County for a 500-megawatt photovoltaic power plant. That could be good news for solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which is currently building a smaller solar power plant for Sempra in Nevada. Johnson Controls (JCI), the Fortune 100 automotive and power systems conglomerate, has put in a solar land claim in Nevada. Even former hotel magnate Barry Sternlicht, founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, wants a piece of the action through his Starwood Energy Group, which has filed claims in Arizona and Nevada to build solar power plants.

SolarReserve, a Santa Monica, Calif-based solar startup backed by Citigroup and Credit Suisse, has BLM land claims in California and Nevada and is also negotiating with smaller companies that staked claims on prime solar power plants with access to the transmission grid.

“We have done deals with three or four applicants in the BLM queue,” SolarReserve chief operating officer Kevin Smith tells Green Wombat. “The smaller companies with land claims are typically speculators who don’t have their own technology.”

Industry insiders say a shakeout in the land rush is inevitable, given the credit crunch and too many companies in the chase for the best solar power plant sites.

“A drawn-out financial crisis will reshape the renewable sector, most likely forcing a wave of consolidation,” says Reese Tisdale, research director for Emerging Energy Research, a Cambridge, Mass., consultant. “If someone holds land and someone holds a technology, maybe there’s a deal out there.”

That’s Ausra’s thinking. With the financial crisis putting the billions of dollars needed to build big solar projects out of reach, the company is repositioning itself as a supplier of solar technology as well as a builder of solar power plants.

“We see our future as being a technology provider,” says Ausra’s Morgan, who says the company has had discussions with various power plant developers. “And hopefully a lot of these developers in the BLM queue will use Ausra technology.”

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For those readers who missed Green Wombat’s feature story on the solar land rush in the July 21 issue of Fortune – available here at Fortune.com – I reprint below.

The Southwest desert’s real estate boom

From California to Arizona, demand for sites for solar power projects has ignited a land grab.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — Doug Buchanan grins with relief when he sees the carcasses. He has just driven up a steep dirt road onto a vast, sunbaked mesa overlooking the Mojave Desert in western Nevada. There, a few feet from the trail, lie the corpses of two steers. A raven perches on one, the only object more than three feet above the ground on this pancake-flat plateau. Cattle, dead or alive, qualify as good news in Buchanan’s line of work. If cattle are present, that means grazing is permitted, and that in turn means that this land is most likely not protected habitat for the desert tortoise.

Buchanan, 53, is scouting sites for a solar power company called BrightSource Energy, an Oakland-based startup backed by Google and Morgan Stanley. The blunt, fifth-generation Californian, who used to survey the same area for natural-gas power sites, knows that the presence of an endangered species such as the tortoise could derail BrightSource’s plans to build a multibillion-dollar solar energy plant on the mesa.

BrightSource badly wants these 20 square miles of federal land on what is called Mormon Mesa. The company was in such a hurry to stake its claim with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that it applied for a lease sight unseen. That’s an expensive gamble for a startup, given that application fees alone run in the six figures. “I usually like to go out and kick the tires before filing a claim,” Buchanan says, “but there’s a lot of competitive pressure these days to move fast.”

That’s putting it mildly. A solar land rush is rolling across the desert Southwest. Goldman Sachs, utilities PG&E and FPL, Silicon Valley startups, Israeli and German solar firms, Chevron, speculators – all are scrambling to lock up hundreds of thousands of acres of long-worthless land now coveted as sites for solar power plants.

The race has barely begun – finished plants are years away – but it’s blazing fastest in the Mojave, where the federal government controls immense stretches of some of the world’s best solar real estate right next to the nation’s biggest electricity markets. Just 20 months ago only five applications for solar sites had been filed with the BLM in the California Mojave. Today 104 claims have been received for nearly a million acres of land, representing a theoretical 60 gigawatts of electricity. (The entire state of California currently consumes 33 gigawatts annually.)

It’s not just a federal-land grab either. Buyers are also vying for private property. Some are paying upwards of $10,000 an acre for desert dirt that a few years ago would have sold for $500.

No doubt the prospect of potential riches is overheating expectations. But California and surrounding states have mandated massive increases in renewable energy in the next few years. That has led some experts at Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., to predict that Big Solar could be a $45 billion market by 2020.

Meanwhile, the land rush is setting the stage for a showdown between solar investors and those who want to protect a fragile environment that is home to the desert tortoise and other rare critters. The Southwest is on the cusp of what could be a green revolution. And the biggest obstacle of all may be … environmentalists.

***

Over the past year a parade of executives bearing land claims have made the trek to a stucco BLM office just off the interstate in the dusty city of Needles, Calif., a 110-mile drive south from Las Vegas. (It’s the town where the late “Peanuts” cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz, briefly lived as a boy; in the comic strip, Snoopy’s brother Spike is a resident.) The Bush administration has instructed the BLM to facilitate renewable-energy projects (along with nonrenewable ones). But Sterling White, the BLM’s earnest Needles field manager, is also concerned about what could happen if they transform the Mojave into a collection of giant power stations. “One of our biggest challenges is the cumulative impact of these projects,” he says.

Nearly 80% of the land that White’s office oversees is federally protected wilderness or endangered-species habitat. That leaves about 700,000 acres for solar power plants, only some of which are near transmission lines. Land leases are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, but White is also supposed to weed out speculators from genuine solar developers based on loose criteria such as who is negotiating with utilities and who is applying for state power licenses. White has yet to approve a single lease, but he has summarily rejected four because they lie in protected-species habitat.

***

Solar prospectors tend to be as secretive about their land as forty-niners were about the veins of gold they discovered. Most bids are placed by limited-liability corporations with opaque names that conceal their ownership. And no one has been as quick to move into the Mojave – or as tightlipped about it – as Solar Investments.

That entity, it turns out, is Goldman Sachs’s solar subsidiary. The investment bank’s designs on the desert are a topic of intense interest and speculation. Goldman declined to comment. But here’s what we know:

Solar Investments filed its first land claim in December 2006 and within a month had applied for more than 125,000 acres for power plants that would produce ten gigawatts of electricity. Many of the sites lie close to the transmission lines that connect the desert to coastal cities. (Goldman has also staked claims on 40,000 acres of the Nevada desert.)

Nobody expects Goldman to begin operating solar plants. It will probably either partner with another developer or sell its limited-liability company (and its leases) outright. The firm has been making the rounds of solar developers. “The conversation’s been pretty wide-ranging, primarily as an investor interested in financing deals,” says one solar energy executive approached by Goldman. “But there’s clearly an element of interest in our technology.” Goldman has requested permission to install meteorological equipment on its sites and is evaluating “competing technologies, including solar dish systems, power towers, and large-scale photovoltaic arrays,” according to a letter Goldman sent to the BLM in August 2007.

Competitors are lining up behind Goldman, staking claims on some of the same sites in hopes the bank will abandon them. PG&E and FPL, for instance, are in the queue after Goldman on one site. Solel, an Israeli solar company that last year scored a contract to deliver 553 megawatts to PG&E, is third in line behind Goldman on another.

“I view Goldman as a very interesting indicator of things to come,” says Brian McDonald, PG&E’s director of renewable-resource development. “They’re usually ahead of the curve – you can extract a huge amount of value if you get in early.” There’s other smart money here too. A Palo Alto startup called Ausra received $40 million from the elite green venture capitalists Vinod Khosla and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Ausra has signed a deal with PG&E and announced its intention to construct a gigawatt’s worth of projects a year.

Most of the power production contemplated for the Mojave will rely on solar thermal technology – the common approach in large-scale generation projects – in which arrays of mirrors heat liquids to produce steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. But a secretive Hayward, Calif., startup called OptiSolar has filed claims on 105,300 acres to build nine gigawatts’ worth of photovoltaic power plants, which employ solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops. (The company also has applied for leases on 21,800 acres in Arizona and Nevada.) To put those ambitions in context, the biggest photovoltaic power plant operating today produces 15 megawatts. Says OptiSolar executive vice president Phil Rettger: “We have a proprietary technology and a business approach that we’re convinced will let us deploy PV at large scale and be competitive with other forms of renewable energy.”

***

With the prime BLM sites quickly being snapped up – recently the agency temporarily stopped accepting new land claims while it develops a desertwide solar policy – competition is growing for private land. Here, too, the emphasis on secrecy borders on the obsessive. A request to view a piece of desert that is up for sale is treated as if I had asked to visit Area 51.

Waiting outside a roadside diner in southwestern Arizona – I’ve promised not to say where – with BrightSource senior vice president Tom Doyle, I expect to see a weather-beaten farmer come chugging up in a battered pickup. Instead, a pale-green Volvo SUV driven by a physician glides into the parking lot. The doctor, who wishes to remain anonymous, acquired the land two years ago as the renewable-energy boom got underway. “We thought we’d put solar on it – that’s the reason we bought it,” the doctor says as we pile into the Volvo and head into the desert to visit the site. After about five miles we turn off the road and come to a stop in a rocky patch of desert framed by low-slung mountains and buttes. Doyle quizzes the physician about water rights, endangered species, and access to transmission lines before moving out of earshot to talk dollars. The whole process takes only about 20 minutes – the two sides ultimately decide not to do a deal – and then Doyle is on to visit the next potential property.

Such is the land frenzy that farmers in Arizona were paid $45 million for 1,920 acres by Spanish solar company Abengoa so that it could build a 280-megawatt power plant; the land had an assessed value of a few hundred thousand dollars. The company also plunked down $30 million for 3,000 acres in the California Mojave that had traded hands for $1.25 million nine years earlier. That prompted developer Scott Martin to put his adjacent 300-acre parcel – land he had bought only a few months earlier for $457,500 – on the market for $3 million. Also for sale: a $15 million, 3,000-acre tract near Palm Springs, which Martin began shopping around to solar executives like Ausra’s Perry Fontana. When I join Fontana to check out the site, a onetime World War II air base outside the Mojave ghost town of Rice, he says, “I probably get three calls a day from brokers or landowners.” As if on cue, his Bluetooth earpiece lights up with a cold call from a broker peddling some land near Needles.

***

Green energy is not about to get a green light from all environmentalists. “We’re going to challenge these big solar projects, and there’s going to be tremendous environmental battles,” says veteran California activist Phil Klasky, a member of several green groups who helped lead a campaign in the 1990s that scuttled a radioactive-waste dump planned in tortoise territory in the Mojave. “Large solar arrays will have an impact on surrounding critical habitat for the desert tortoise and other threatened species. We have to fight global warming, but just because it’s solar doesn’t make it right.”

The developers are worried about resistance. “I remember the spotted owl,” says Fred Morse, a former Department of Energy official who is a senior advisor to Abengoa’s U.S. operations. The widespread logging of ancient forests, home to the northern spotted owl, set off epic environmental fights in the 1980s and ’90s. As Morse puts it, “The Mohave ground squirrel or the desert tortoise – any one of them could become a cause.”

Solar energy companies may make for less tempting targets than timber barons, but development of the desert has never been attempted on such a scale. The result is that some environmentalists find themselves anguished over which side to take. “We’ve had our share of conflicts over endangered species in this state, no doubt about it,” says Kevin Hunting, a biologist and a deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game, which enforces the state endangered-species laws. “We’re actively looking to strike that critical balance between the state’s renewable-energy goals and conserving species that are vulnerable. It’s challenging.”

California wildlife regulators, for instance, have peppered Ausra with requests for more biological surveys on the site of a 177-megawatt solar power plant to be built in San Luis Obispo County. The feds could also require Ausra to prepare a plan to protect the San Joaquin kit fox, a process that could take years and shred the project’s economic viability.

Worse for developers, state and federal law require wildlife officials to consider the total impact of multiple projects when weighing whether to approve any individual facility. Next door to Ausra’s solar farm, for example, is OptiSolar’s planned 550-megawatt power plant, which would cover 9 1/2 square miles of potential endangered-species habitat with solar panels. Will the regulators approve one? Both? Nobody knows.

In the meantime, the solar land rush is unlikely to cool down. Which is why Morse wants to keep quiet Abengoa’s $30 million real estate deal. The company is applying to build a 250-megawatt solar power plant on the site, and it may be in the market for more land. “We don’t want to publicize that purchase,” he says, “as the speculators will be coming out of the woodwork.”

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Nearly three years ago, two Southern California utilities caused a stir when they announced deals to buy up to 1.75 gigawatts of electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix. The company had developed a Stirling solar dish – a 38-foot-high, 40-foot-wide mirrored structure that looks like a big shiny satellite receiver. The dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate electricity.

Plans called for as many as 70,000 solar dishes to carpet the desert. For Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – both facing a state mandate to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 – it was a big gamble. As the years ticked by and Stirling tinkered with its technology, competitors like Ausra, BrightSource Energy and Solel came out of stealth mode and stole the limelight, signing deals with PG&E (PCG) and filing applications with California regulators to build solar power plants. By the time I visited Stirling’s test site in New Mexico in March 2007 for a Business 2.0 feature story, industry insiders were telling me – privately, of course – that Stirling would never make it; Stirling dishes were just too complex and too expensive to compete against more traditional solar technologies.

That may or may not end up being true, but Stirling has moved to silence the naysayers by filing a license application with the California Energy Commission for its first solar power plant – the world’s largest – a 30,000-dish, 750-megawatt project to be built 100 miles east of San Diego on 6,100 acres of federal land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. (A energy commission licence application – an extremely detailed and expensive document; Stirling’s runs 2,600 pages – is considered a sign that a project has the wherewithal to move forward.)

The first phase of the SES Solar Two project will consist of 12,000 SunCatcher dishes generating 300 megawatts for San Diego Gas & Electric. While the Stirling solar dish is more complex and contains more moving parts than other solar thermal technologies – which use mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam to drive a standard electricity-generating turbine – or photovoltaic panels like those found on rooftops, it also offers some distinct advantages. For one thing, it’s the most efficient solar thermal technology, converting sunlight into electricity at a 31.25% rate.  Each 25-kilowatt dish is in fact a self-contained mini-power plant that can start generating electricity – and cash – as soon as it is installed. Stirling will build 1.5-megawatt clusters of 60 dishes that will begin paying for themselves as each pod goes online. A conventional solar thermal power plant, of course, must be completely built out – which can take a year or two depending on size – before generating electricity.

The 750-megawatt Stirling project will also use relatively little water – no small matter in the desert – compared to other solar thermal plants. According to Stirling, SES Solar Two will consume 33 acre-feet of water – to wash the dishs’ mirrors – which is equivalent to the annual water use of 33 Southern California households. In contrast, a solar power plant to be built by BrightSource Energy that is nearly half the size is projected to use 100 acre-feet of water annually while a 177-megawatt Ausra plant would use 22 acre-feet, according to the companies’ license applications.

Still, there’s some big hurdles for Stirling to overcome. While it did score a whopping $100 million in funding in April from Irish renewable energy company NTR, the company will need billions in project financing to build Solar Two. And the project’s second 450-megawatt phase is dependent on the utility completing a controversial new transmission line through the desert called the Sunrise Powerlink. Depending on how fast the project is approved, construction is expected to begin in 2009 and last more than three years.

The other big unknown is what environmental opposition may develop. Within 10 miles of the SES Solar Two site are proposals to build solar power plants on an additional 51,457 acres of BLM land. Then there are the wildlife issues. Several California-listed “species of special concern” have been found on the Stirling site, including the burrowing owl, flat-tailed horned lizard and the California horned lark.

Regardless it’s a big step forward for Stirling. As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement, “This groundbreaking solar energy project is a perfect example of the clean renewable energy California can and will generate to meet our long-term energy and climate change goals.”

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Israeli solar power plant developer Solel announced Monday it has scored $105 million in funding from London-based investment firm Ecofin — yet another sign that the market for large-scale solar energy projects is reaching critical mass.

Solel last July signed the world’s largest solar power deal when it agreed to supply California utility PG&E (PCG) with 553 megawatts of green electricity to be produced by a massive solar thermal power plant to be built in the Mojave Desert. The company’s solar trough technology is also used in nine solar power plants (photo above) that were built in the Southern California desert in the 1980s. (In a solar trough power plant, long rows of parabolic mirrors focus the sun’s rays on tubes of liquid suspended over the arrays to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

Raising $105 million is impressive and it’s certainly a big number. But given that a 500-megawatt solar power plant can easily cost $1 billion or more to build, it’s a relative drop in the bucket. However, it will allow Solel to move forward with the project and line up project financing for the PG&E plant while it negotiates more deals with other utilities — it won’t say which, but likely candidates are Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE).

Competitors BrightSource Energy and Ausra have solar power plant applications before the California Energy Commission and have signed or are negotiating power purchase agreements with PG&E.

“Everyone is realizing that the market is there for thousands of megawatts of peaking power,” Solel CEO Avi Brenmiller recently told Green Wombat. “As time goes by we see energy prices rising and utilities are focusing their efforts to get solar thermal power because this is the right solution in the southwest United States.”

The Ecofin investment in Solel is notable also given the uncertainty surrounding solar power at the moment due to Congress’ failure to extend the solar investment tax credit in the recently enacted energy bill. The 30 percent credit is considered crucial to help solar energy companies secure financing for power plants and achieve economies of scale. The tax credit expires at the end of 2008 but solar energy proponents and their allies on Wall Street say they’re confident that Congress will take up legislation this session to extend it for as long as eight years.

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