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recurent-energy

Another day, another solar deal. San Francisco’s Recurrent Energy on Wednesday will announce that it is acquiring a 350-megawatt portfolio of photovoltaic projects from UPC Solar of Chicago as the industry continues to consolidate.

“Since the financial crisis set in last year we’ve kept an eye out for opportunities to pick up a pipeline of projects,” Recurrent CEO Arno Harris told Green Wombat. “You’re seeing companies like Recurrent that are well-capitalized take advantage of the market consolidation.”

Recurrent, which last year scored $75 million in funding from private equity firm Hudson Clean Energy Partners, installs large-scale solar arrays on commercial rooftops and at government facilities and then sells the electricity generated back to the hosts under long-term power purchase agreements.

The deal puts Recurrent in the power plant business as UPC’s portfolio includes a number of 10-megawatt projects in Ontario designed to take advantage of the province’s generous feed-in tariff for solar farms. “It’s a significant addition to our project pipeline,” Harris said. The projects are in various stages of development but Recurrent expects that 100 megawatts will be completed by 2012. The company stands to benefit from an expected decline in the price of solar panels this year.

Harris declined to reveal the financial terms of the deal but said that Recurrent is putting relatively little money up front. “We wrote a small check to compensate UPC Solar for the work done so far and we’ve committed to continue funding projects,” Harris said. “Then they’ll get a bonus paid at end for completed projects.”

The deal follows thin-film solar company First Solar’s (FSLR)’s $400 million acquisition this month of Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar’s 1,850 megawatt pipeline of photovoltaic power projects, including a 550-megawatt power plant to be built for California utility PG&E (PCG). The same day as the OptiSolar deal, Spanish solar developer Fotowatio bought San Francisco solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures’ project portfolio.

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First Solar Electric, 701 El Dorado Valley Dr., Boulder City, NV
photo: First Solar

In the second big solar deal of the day, First Solar on Monday announced it was acquiring rival thin-film photovoltaic startup OptiSolar’s solar power plant projects in an all-stock transaction worth $400 million.

The acquisition vaults First Solar into the ranks of big solar power plant developers, giving it control of a 550-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm — the world’s largest — OptiSolar is building for utility PG&E (PCG) as well as 1,300 megawatts’ worth of projects in the pipeline. The deal also includes federal land claims OptiSolar filed on 136,000 acres in the Southwest desert that could support power plants generating 19,000 megawatts of solar electricity.

First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said 6,500 megawatts of those projects are in the front of the line in the “transmission queue” to connect to the power grid, allowing solar farms to be rapidly deployed over the next couple of years.

“This package in total would be very hard to replicate, if at all,” Ahearn said Monday afternoon during a conference call. “That positions us ideally to be the player in the U.S. utility market.”

OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat that OptiSolar will now focus on its solar cell manufacturing operations. “We needed to find a way to realize value for our shareholders,” he said. “This is a wonderful fit. We developed what we think is the largest power plant pipeline while First Solar developed the lowest cost thin-film technology.”

Silicon Valley-based OptiSolar quickly became a leader in the nascent solar power plant market but stalled as the financial crisis hit, forcing the company to halt work on a solar cell factory and lay off half its workers last November. Bernheimer said OptiSolar has applied for a $300 million federal loan guarantee to restart and expand its manufacturing operations.

He said OptiSolar CEO Randy Goldstein will join First Solar, along with about 30 other employees, when the deal closes.

First Solar (FSLR), backed by Wal-Mart’s (WMT) Walton family, has become become known as the Google (GOOG) of solar for its stratospheric stock price. The Tempe, Ariz.-based company jumped into the solar power plant market last year with deals to build small-scale solar power plants for Sempre Energy (SRE) and Southern California Edison (EIX).

The OptiSolar deal follows by hours the sale of solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures’ solar portfolio to Spanish solar developer Fotowatio.  “There’s a shakeout in the marketplace and there’s opportunities for consolidation,” MMA Renewable Ventures CEO Matt Cheney presciently told Green Wombat Monday morning

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topaz-solar-farm-app

In the green stimulus sweepstakes, big potential winners are companies like Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar.

The solar-cell maker came out of nowhere last year to score a deal with utility PG&E to build the world’s largest photovolaic power plant, a 550-megawatt monster that would cover some 9 1/2 square miles on California’s central coast. OptiSolar subsequently began construction of a factory in Sacramento to produce the thousands of thin-film solar panels needed for the project. Then the economy tanked and as financing dried up, OptiSolar laid off half its workforce – some 300 employees – and halted construction of the Sacramento facility.

With a Colorado solar company executive joining President Barack Obama as he signed the $787 billion stimulus legislation into law Tuesday at a solar-powered museum in Denver, OptiSolar and other renewable energy companies stalled by the financial crisis may see their fortunes revive. The package allows builders of big renewable energy projects to apply for a government cash grant to cover 30% of construction costs in lieu of claiming a 30% investment tax credit. A dearth of investors who finance solar power plants and wind farms in exchange for the tax credits has put in jeopardy green energy projects planned for the desert Southwest and the Great Plains. The cash grant would shave about $300 million off the projected $1 billion price tag for OptiSolar’s Topaz Solar Farm.

The stimulus package also includes $2.3 billion to fund a 30% manufacturing tax credit for equipment used to make components for green energy projects, a provision OptiSolar can tap to help finance its solar cell factories. And the company may be able to take advantage of the legislation’s government loan guarantees for large renewable energy projects.

“It will lower the cost of the factory we’re building in Sacramento and make it easier to attract financing,” OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat, noting the company’s priority is to complete the facility and begin production of solar panels. “The factory is more than shovel ready – our shovels are hanging on the wall where we put them when we had stop work in November.” (OptiSolar currently manufactures solar modules at its Hayward, Calif., plant.)

Fred Morse, senior adviser to Spanish solar energy giant Abengoa, says the stimulus package puts back on track a $1 billion, 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant the company will build outside Phoenix to produce electricity for utility Arizona Public Service. “With the stimulus bill we’re very confident we’ll be able to finance the project,” says Morse. He says Abengoa expects to use the government loan guarantees to obtain debt financing to fund construction of the project and then apply for the 30% cash refund. “I think the entire industry is very optimistic that these two aspects of the stimulus package, the grants and the temporary loan guarantees, should allow a lot of projects to be built.”

Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development for MMA Renewable Ventures, agrees. “I expect the government grants to attract new investors,” says McLanahan, whose San Francisco firm finances and owns commercial and utility-scale solar projects.

There are some strings attached, though.

To qualify for the cash grants, developers need to start shoveling dirt by Dec. 31, 2010. That means only a handful of big solar thermal power plants planned for California, for instance, are likely to make it through a complicated two-year licensing process in time to break ground by the deadline. One of those could be the first phase of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah power plant on the California-Nevada border. But BrightSource’s biggest projects, part of a 1,300 megawatt deal signed with Southern California Edison (EIX) last week, won’t start coming online until 2013 at the earliest.

Another Big Solar project, Stirling Energy Systems’ 750-megawatt solar dish farm for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), will be racing to meet the 2010 deadline. The project is in the middle of a long environmental review by the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which currently is scheduled to stretch into 2010.

SolarReserve CEO Terry Murphy says his Santa Monica-based startup has a couple of solar power plant projects in the works that should be able to take advantage of the stimulus provisions. “The likelihood of us being able to close on a financial deal has increased,” Murphy says.

Solar analyst Nathan Bullard of research firm New Energy Finance expects the stimulus package to prompt a push for large photovoltaic power projects. That’s because in California such solar farms – which essentially take rooftop solar panels and mount them in huge arrays on the ground – do not need approval from the California Energy Commission and can be built relatively quickly.

That’s good news for companies like thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which builds smaller scale photovoltaic power plants, and SunPower (SPWRA), which has a long-term contract with PG&E (PCG) for the electricity generated from a planned 250-megawatt PV solar farm to be built near OptiSolar’s project.

“It’s great for PV because you can definitely can get construction done by the end of 2010,” says Bullard. “It’s also good news for smaller and mid-sized developers who couldn’t access tax-equity financing.”

The catch, however, is that renewable energy companies still must raise money from investors in a credit-crunched market to cover construction costs, as the government doesn’t pay out the cash until 60 days after a solar power plant or wind farm goes online. And as McLanahan points out, the cost of raising capital from private equity investors is typically higher and will add to the cost of renewable energy projects. Those costs will only rise if the government is late in paying out refunds.

MMA Renewable finances large commercial arrays and solar power plants and then sells the electricity under long-term contracts to customers who host the solar systems. The loan guarantee provision of the stimulus legislation will help secure financing from investors skittish that some of MMA Renewable’s customers may default on their agreements, according to McLanahan.

Says Murphy: “The fact that we’re getting iron into the ground and getting things moving helps us.”

The wind industry also stands to gain from the stimulus package through a three-year extension of the production tax credit for generating renewable electricity as well as the government cash grants and manufacturing tax credit. Despite a record year for wind farm construction in 2008, projects have come to a standstill in recent months as the financial crisis froze development and forced the European-dominated industry to lay off workers.

“I think it’s good down payment on what needs to happen,” says Doug Pertz, CEO of Clipper Windpower, one of two U.S. wind turbine makers. “A lot more needs to be done but I think this will start to bring a lot of people back into the marketplace.”

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first-solar-11

With Big Solar thermal power plants bogged down in bureaucracy and facing environmental and financial hurdles, utilities are turning to smaller-scale thin-film solar stations that can be built in a matter of months.

In late December, PG&E (PCG), for instance, signed a 20-year contract for electricity generated  from a 10-megawatt thin-film solar power plant in Nevada owned by energy giant Sempra (SRE) that was officially dedicated on Thursday. The solar farm was built by First Solar (FSLR) in a scant six months. Meanwhile, the utility’s nearly two gigawatts worth of deals with solar thermal power companies won’t start producing power for another two years at the earliest. (Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric signed agreements with solar dish developer Stirling Energy Systems for 1.75 gigawatts in 2005 and those projects are just now beginning to move through the regulatory approval process.) And the financial crisis has made it more difficult for solar thermal developers to obtain the billions of dollars needed to finance the construction of a massive megawatt power plant.

Solar thermal power plants typically use miles of mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine. Photovoltaic (or PV) solar farms essentially take solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. (Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing layers of photovoltaic materials on glass or flexible materials.)

“In terms of construction, photovoltaic tends to have a much faster development and construction track,” Roy Kuga, PG&E’s vice president for energy supply, told Green Wombat. “There is a segment of mid-sized projects – in the two to 20 megawatt size – where PV shows a distinct advantage in that market. There’s a huge potential for the PV market to expand.”

That’s good news for companies like First Solar – the Tempe, Ariz.-based company backed by the Walton family that is often called the Google of solar for its stock price and market prowess – and SunPower (SPWRA), the Silicon Valley solar cell maker that’s moved into the power plant-building business.

The speed at which the Sempra-First Solar project went online owes much to the fact that it was built on the site of an existing fossil fuel power plant. “It was already permitted for power generation, transmission existed and it did not have to go through the laborious California permitting process,” says Reese Tisdale, a solar analyst with Emerging Energy Research. “As such, First Solar was able to essentially plug and play.”

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, says he expects utilities increasingly to bet on smaller-scale photovoltaic farms to help meet state mandates to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Just this week, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said his utility plans to invest in solar power plant projects rather than just buy the power they produce.

“I think a utility could easily integrate, technically and financially, 100 megawatts of PV,” Bullard says.  If something is falling behind on your big solar thermal projects, you can plug in PV. I think you’ll see more of this with California utilities and I expect to see it more in Florida and North Carolina. It’s a great runaround to issues of siting and transmission.”

That’s because in California photovoltaic power plants do not need approval from the California Energy Commission. And smaller-scale plants take up far less land and can be built close to existing transmission lines. Most large solar thermal power plants typically are planned for the Mojave Desert and require the construction of expensive power lines to connect them to the grid.

The modular nature of PV solar farms means they can begin generating electricity as each segment is completed while a solar thermal plant only goes online once the entire project is finished.

“Certainly there is a sweet spot in which the project is large enough to gain advantages of scale,” says Tisdale. “Also, these small-to-mid-size systems can be spread about a transmission network, instead of at one site.”

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solarcells

photo: Southern California Edison

While demand for solar panels is expected to continue to grow by double-digits in the years ahead, 2009 could be a make-or-break year for some companies, according to an analysis from HSBC Global Research.

After grappling with a shortage of polysilicon – the base material of conventional solar cells – for the past couple years, the industry now faces falling prices. The spot market for polysilicon has plummeted 35% since October, writes HSBC alternative energy analyst Christine Wang, who predicts prices will fall 30% next year.

That’s bad news for solar module makers who locked in long-term contracts at higher prices – which looked like a smart move when polysilicon was in short supply and prices rising rapidly. “The winners will likely be the companies with competitive cost structures, scale, good product  quality, strong balance sheets, and strong customer relationships,” according to Wang. “We believe that new entrants and small players will suffer the most as they lack brand recognition.”

The culprits are the usual suspects – the global financial crisis as well as some cutbacks in subsidies from countries like Spain. Solar cell companies that have rapidly ramped up production over the past two years now may be saddled with too many high-priced products.

Wang downgraded Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) and set a price target of $4.50 – down sharply from HSBC’s earlier target of $55. Suntech was trading at near $10 Monday afternoon but still nearly 90% off its 2008 high.  (SunPower (SPWRA), First Solar (FSLR) and other solar cell makers have also seen their share prices nose-dive.) “High portion of polysilicon based on contract prices will hurt Suntech,” writes Wang, who estimated that 80% of Suntech’s polysilicon supply is locked into contracts “on less favorable fixed prices.”

Falling panel prices is good news for solar system installers like Sungevity and Akeena Solar (AKNS) and their residential and commercial customers. When Green Wombat ran into Akeena CEO Barry Cinnamon in San Francisco at the announcement of Better Place’s Bay Area electric car project, he said he was in no rush to enter into long-term contracts with solar cell suppliers as he expects prices will continue to fall in 2009.

Still, not all the news is gloomy for the industry. Wang expects that the financial crisis won’t derail government support for solar, given climate change pressures and state mandates to increase the use of renewable energy. The move by utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) to sign long-term contracts for electricity from photovoltaic power plants will also keep demand high in coming years.

Wang projects solar cell demand will grow 45% between 2008 and 2012. “Developed countries are increasingly focused on environmental protection and curtailing the causes of climate change, and we do not believe this trend will shift just because of a (hopefully) short-term financial crisis,” she wrote.

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The economy may be all trick and no treat, but you wouldn’t know it from First Solar, one of the few public solar cell makers and thus a bellwether for the industry. This week the Tempe, Ariz.-based company reported solid third-quarter earnings and unveiled two deals that mark a big expansion in the U.S. market.

It agreed to supply solar installer SolarCity with 100 megawatts of thin-film modules and made a $25 million investment in the Silicon Valley startup – which represents a 10% stake, valuing SolarCity at $250 million. The other deal didn’t get much attention – it was buried in the earnings report – but is significant nonetheless. First Solar (FSLR) will team up with utility giant Edison International (EIX)‘s power plant subsidiary, Edison Mission Energy, to develop large-scale solar power stations. (First Solar just completed a 2.4 megawatt project for Southern California Edison as part of the utility’s 250-megawatt commercial rooftop initiative and will finish by year’s end a 12-megawatt solar power plant in Nevada for Sempra (SRE).)

“By combining Mission’s extensive track record of power project development with First Solar’s low-cost systems and construction capability, we believe we’ve created a powerful engine for future growth in the U.S. utilities segment,” First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said during the company’s earnings call Wednesday, according to a transcript published by the Seeking Alpha business blog.

But it was Ahearn’s comments on the European market – 85% of First Solar’s business is in Germany, for instance – that is of most interest to investors.

While he predicts the European market will remain strong – First Solar expects its 2009 net sales to range from $2 billion to $2.1 billion, up from $1.22 to $1.24 for 2008 – he did note some red flags, particularly for utility-scale solar power stations.

“Our review indicates that solar projects lending outside of Germany has essentially stopped for the time being,” Ahearn said. “Today, we have identified potential financial risk in our customer base that represent approximately 15% to 20% of our planned sales in Europe in 2009.”

“We believe most of our European customers outside of Germany have sufficient balance sheet strength to bridge any near-term projects delays,” he added.

During the Solar Power International conference in San Diego this month, there was much buzz that solar companies that had ramped up their production capacity over the past couple of years would be hit by an oversupply of solar modules just as customers get crunched by the credit crisis.

But Ahearn told analysts on Wednesday that First Solar’s thin-film modules – which are made by depositing solar cells on plates of glass and use minimal amounts of expensive silicon – would continue to sell for less than conventional cells and thus remain attractive to customers. “We therefore assume that any price competition is unlikely to have a sustained impact on First Solar,”  he said.

Despite First Solar’s moves into the U.S. market, Ahearn acknowledged the immediate future is uncertain. While Congress extended a key investment tax credit for eight years as part of the financial bailout package, investors have lost their appetite for tax equity partnerships that would buy those credits from solar companies in exchange for financing the construction of power plants.

“In the short-term, our review indicates that the traditional investors in tax equity – financial institutions – have largely stopped participating,” Ahearn said. “We assume some of these investors will return to the market in 2009, but the timing and future cost of this funding is difficult to predict. The possibility of more expensive tax equity and its impact on solar electricity prices for both new and pending projects remains a major uncertainty going into 2009.”

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In a move that will bring thin-film solar panels to the U.S. residential market, First Solar has signed a deal to provide installer SolarCity with 100 megawatts’ worth of solar arrays over the next five years. First Solar is also investing $25 million into SolarCity, the Silicon Valley startup backed by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk.

This is First Solar’s initial foray into the home market — and apparently the first of any thin-film solar module maker. Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing solar cells on sheets of glass or flexible material and use little of the expensive silicon that forms the heart of more bulky conventional solar modules. That makes thin-film panels cheaper, although they are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. And thin is in for homeowners who prefer less-obtrusive panels on their roofs.

SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive told Green Wombat that First Solar’s more economical panels will allow the company to expand to the East Coast and other areas that do not heavily subsidize solar. SolarCity installs solar panels at no cost to the homeowner and then leases them back for a monthly charge. “What matters is not efficiency but cost per kilowatt-hour,” Rive says, noting that solar programs like California’s reduce rebates to panel makers as the number of installations increase. “We need solutions that address declining subsidies.”

Added SolarCity communications director Jonathan  Bass: “When we talk to customers their four biggest priorities are cost, cost, cost and aesthetics.”

Beginning in early 2009, SolarCity will start receiving 20 megawatts’ worth of First Solar panels a year. Rive won’t disclose how many megawatts SolarCity currently installs annually, but 20 megawatts would seem to represent a significant expansion of the startup’s operations. Over the past two years, SolarCity has installed solar arrays for 2,500 homes and small businesses and a spokeswoman says the First Solar deal would supply enough panels for about 5,000 homes a year.

The deal also marks a move to diversify on the part of Tempe-Ariz.-based First Solar (FSLR)  — known as the Google (GOOG) of solar for its once-stratospheric stock price. The company, backed by Wal-Mart’s (WMT) Walton family, had primarily focused on the overseas commercial rooftop market. This year though First Solar has signed deals to build thin-film solar power plants for utilities like Southern California Edison (EIX) and Sempra (SRE).

First Solar on Wednesday reported that third quarter revenues rose 30% to $348.7 million from the second quarter and was up 119% from the year-ago quarter. Profit spiked 42% to $99.3 million from the second quarter and increased nearly 116% from a year ago.

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photos: SolarWorld

HILLSBORO, Ore. – A solar cell factory has sprouted in Oregon’s Silicon Forest amid the region’s old-growth semiconductor plants. And who is providing these well-paid, high-tech green jobs, investing in America rather than fleeing to Asia to set up shop? The Germans.

Bonn-based SolarWorld AG on Friday officially flips the switch on the United States’ largest solar cell plant. (See the Fortune video here.) The company, the world’s fifth largest solar cell manufacturer, has recycled a former Komatsu factory built to produce silicon wafers for the chip industry  Last week, SolarWorld America president Boris Klebensberger gave Green Wombat a sneak peak at the new Hillsboro plant and talked about why a German company, whose domestic solar market is the planet’s largest, is pursuing a made-in-America strategy. (SolarWorld’s German rival Solon AG, meanwhile, on Friday opened a smaller solar module plant in Tucson, Ariz.)

“I know a lot of people will say, ‘You idiot, Boris. You can’t manufacture in the U.S.,’ ” says Klebensberger, 39, who sports a hoop earring and has a penchant for saying what’s on his mind.

That has been the conventional wisdom. While thin-film solar companies like First Solar (FSLR), Solyndra and Energy Conversion Devices (ENER) have built factories in the U.S., traditional silicon-based module makers such as SunPower (SPWRA) have outsourced production overseas.

But SolarWorld is counting on its expertise in manufacturing in high-cost Germany and its new American branding to give it a competitive advantage. “Made in America is a very big selling point,” says SolarWorld marketing director Anne Schneider. “Customers like that.”

Like other solar cell makers, SolarWorld is trying to build a brand around an increasingly commoditized product. “Even in a commodity business this is a brand,” says Klebensberger. “If you have to choose between two products that are technologically the same,  you’ll probably choose the one made in the U.S.”

SolarWorld jumped into the U.S. market in 2006 when it acquired Royal Dutch Shell’s solar cell factory in Camarillo, Calif., and a silicon ingot plant in Vancouver, Wash. “This was an opportunity for SolarWorld to establish itself in the U.S. market very quickly and get an employee base,” says Klebensberger, who also serves as COO of SolarWorld’s global operations.

The company was founded in 1998 by, as Klebensberger puts it, “five crazy guys who people thought were on drugs” when they said they were going into the solar business. (Klebensberger was employee No. 7.) But Germany’s lucrative incentives for renewable energy quickly turned the nation into a solar powerhouse and SolarWorld went public in 1999. Revenues – $931 million last year – have been growing around 30%-40% annually and the company has a market cap of $3.1 billion.

SolarWorld saw a potentially huge opportunity in the U.S. but the Shell plant was relatively small – producing 80 megawatts of solar cells annually – so Klebensberger went shopping for a new factory. He ruled out California – too expensive – before settling on Hillsboro, 20 miles west of Portland.

The cost of living was reasonable – at least compared to California – and Oregon is on the forefront of promoting sustainability and the green economy. And just as importantly, Intel (INTC) and other chip companies had opened semiconductor factories, or fabs, in the area in the 1980s and ’90s. “A lot of our workforce came from established chip companies or those that closed their fabs,” says Klebensberger, sipping tea from a coffee cup emblazoned with “Got Silicon?”

“The manufacturing and product is different but the raw starting material is the same and there’s a lot of similarity in the equipment,” adds Gordon Bisner, vice president of operations and a chip industry veteran. “There’s a lot of the same skill sets from a maintenance and engineering standpoint and understanding the basic manufacturing principles and what it takes to manufacture a product successfully in the United States.”

Klebensberger’s team found an old Komatsu silicon wafer fab that had stood empty for years. They bought the 480,000-square foot building for $40 million last year and began retrofitting it. “We needed a quick ramp-up,” says Klebensberger. “This business is all about speed.”

The retrofit took about 15 months – though the minimalist gray industrial decor of the Komatsu era remains. When fully built out in a couple of years, the plant will produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar cells annually and employ 1,400 workers. In the meantime, the target is 100 megawatts by the end of 2008, and 250 megawatts in 2009.

In one corner of the building, a room of steel vats cook up polysilicon, producing eight-foot-long silicon ingots in the shape of giant silver pencils. Those ingots are taken to another room where wiresaw machines slice them into wafers. The wafers then travel down a conveyor belt where robots wash them and scan for imperfections.

“What’s critical here is the equipment,” says Bisner over the hum of the machines. “Our competitive advantage is how we use the equipment, how can we get every little bit of photovoltaic cell out of the end of the line. It takes equipment, it takes technology and it takes people too.”

In an adjoining room, the wafers are imprinted with contacts and transformed into photovoltaic cells. Depending on customer demand, SolarWorld will sell both silicon wafers and finished cells. The company currently gets 10% to 15% of its revenues from the U.S.

SolarWorld isn’t the only solar company wanting a made-in-America label. Sanyo this week announced it will build a solar cell factory in Salem, south of Portland. And Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) earlier this month acquired a California-based solar installer and announced a joint venture with San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) to build solar power plants. Suntech chief strategy officer Steven Chan told Green Wombat this week that Suntech will likely open factories in the U.S. within a couple years.

Says Klebensberger, “We provide green jobs. We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”

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Photos: Solyndra

SAN FRANCISCO – The chatter of the Financial District types who lunch at One Market is a bit deafening, so I’m sure I’ve misheard when Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet tells me how much funding his stealth solar startup has raised. “You said $60 million, right?” I ask.

“$600 million,” he replies.

That pile of cash from investors ranging from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to Richard Branson to the Walton family wasn’t the only big number Solyndra revealed to Green Wombat in anticipation of the solar panel manufacturer’s public debut Tuesday after operating undercover for more than three years. “We have $1.2 billion in orders under contract,” says Kelly Truman, the Fremont, Calif.-based company’s vice president for marketing and business development.

The stealth startup is a Silicon Valley archetype, along with the baby-faced Web 2.0 mogul and the millionaire stock-option secretary. But perhaps no company in recent memory has managed to hire more than 500 people and build a state-of-the-art thin-film solar factory – in plain view of one of the Valley’s busiest freeways – without attracting much attention beyond a few enterprising green business blogs.

Thin-film solar has been something of a Holy Grail in Silicon Valley, with high-profile startups like Nanosolar – with nearly $500 million in funding itself – all vying to be first to market with copper indium gallium selenide solar cells. CIGS cells can essentially be printed on flexible materials or glass without using expensive silicon. While such solar cells are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, production costs are expected to be significantly lower than making traditional silicon-based modules. (Thin-film companies like First Solar (FSLR) – also backed by the Waltons – use an older technology.)

Yet Solyndra bursts onto the scene with a factory operating 24/7 and a billion-dollar book of business. The reason for Solyndra’s secrecy – and success with investors and customers – is sitting in a bazooka-sized cylinder propped up beside Truman at the restaurant. He pulls out a long, black glass tube that is darkened by a coating of solar cells.

The cylindrical shape is the key, according to CEO Gronet. Conventional rooftop solar panels must be tilted to absorb direct sunlight as they aren’t efficient at producing electricity from diffuse light. But the round Solyndra module collects sunlight from all angles, including rays reflected from rooftops. That allows the modules, 40 to a panel,  to sit flat and packed tightly together on commercial rooftops, maximizing the amount of space for power production.

“We can cover twice as much roofspace as conventional solar panels and they can be installed in one-third the time,” says Gronet, a boyish 46-year-old who holds a Stanford Ph.D. in semiconductor processing and was an 11-year veteran of chip equipment maker Applied Materials (AMAT) before he started Solyndra in May 2005.

And because air flows through the panels they stay cooler and don’t need to be attached to the roof to withstand strong winds. That means installers simply clip on mounting stands and then snap the panels together like Legos.

“For flat commercial rooftops this is game-changing technology,” said Manfred Bachler, chief technical officer at European solar installation giant Phoenix Solar, in a statement.

Solyndra’s target is the 30 billion square feet of flat roofspace found on big box stores and other buildings in the U.S., according to Navigant Consulting – a potential $650 billion solar market.  The emerging business model is for a solar developer to finance, install and operate a commercial solar array and then sell the electricity to the rooftop owner. Solyndra’s business is to supply the solar panels to the installers, a market crowded with competitors like SunPower (SPWRA) and Suntech (STP).

A good chunk of the $600 million the company has raised has gone toward building its 300,000-square-foot solar fab. A video Gronet and Truman played for me shows a highly automated factory, with robotic assembly lines and robot carts moving the solar modules through the production process.

The fab – which can produce 110 megawatts’ worth of solar cells a year – already is shipping panels to big customers like Solar Power in the U.S. and Germany’s Phoenix Solar – three-quarters of its $1.2 billion in orders are destined for European companies. Solyndra is in the process of obtaining permits for a second 420-megawatt fab in Fremont; upon its completion, Solyndra would become one of the biggest solar cell manufacturers in North America. (Gronet says a third fab will be built in Europe, Asia or the Middle East.)

That has helped Solyndra attract a long list of investors, from Silicon Valley VCs like CMEA and US Venture Partners to Madrone Capital – the Walton family’s (WMT) private equity fund – and Masdar, the Abu Dhabi company whose mission is to transform the oil-rich emirate into a green tech powerhouse. Another high-profile investor is Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund.

“We looked at 117 solar companies and have made two investments, including Solyndra,” says Anup Jacob, a partner at Virgin Green Fund and a Solyndra board member. “Dr. Chris Gronet and his team came out of Applied Materials and really took the best and brightest of Silicon Valley. They’re great scientists and operations people.”

Jacob told Green Wombat that Virgin hired Stanford scientists to evaluate Solyndra’s technology and engineering firms to vet its solar factory. “Because we’re late-stage investors, we were able to look at all their major competitors,” he says. “There’s a number of well-heeled solar companies that have said they are going to do a lot of things but haven’t delivered.”

Virgin concluded that Solyndra could make good on its promise to make solar competitive with traditional sources of electricity. “As a rooftop owner, all you care about is how much electricity you can get from your rooftop at the cheapest price possible,” he says.

One challenge, he adds, was keeping mum about Solyndra. “I gotta tell you that Richard Branson is a guy who loves to talk about what’s he’s doing and it was real effort to honor Solyndra’s wishes to keep quiet.”

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In another sign that the financial crisis is not slowing the solar industry, Suntech, the giant Chinese solar module maker, made a big move into the United States market on Thursday. The company announced a joint venure with green energy financier MMA Renewable Ventures to build solar power plants and said it would acquire California-based solar installer EI Solutions.

Founded in 2001, Suntech (STP) recently overtook its Japanese and German rivals to become the world’s largest solar cell producer. The company has focused on the lucrative European market and only opened a U.S. outpost, in San Francisco, last year.  The joint venture with MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA) – called Gemini Solar – will build photovoltaic power plants bigger than 10 megawatts.

Most solar panels are produced for commercial and residential rooftops, but in recent months utilities have been signing deals for massive megawatt photovoltaic power plants. Silicon Valley’s SunPower (SPWRA) is building a 250-megawatt PV power station for PG&E (PCG) while Bay Area startup OptiSolar inked a contract with the San Francisco-based utility for a 550-megawatt thin-film solar power plant. First Solar (FSLR), a Tempe, Ariz.-based thin-film company, has contracts with Southern California Edision (EIX) and Sempre to build smaller-scale solar power plants.

Suntech’s purchase of EI Solutions gives it entree into the growing market for commercial rooftop solar systems. EI has installed large solar arrays for Google, Disney, Sony and other corporations.

“Suntech views the long-term prospects for the U.S. solar market as excellent and growing,” said Suntech CEO  Zhengrong Shi in a statement.

Other overseas investors seem to share that sentiment, credit crunch or not.  On Wednesday, Canadian, Australian and British investors lead a $60.6 million round of funding for Silicon Valley solar power plant builder Ausra. “So far the equity market for renewable energy has not been affected by the financial crisis,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat.

The solar industry got more good news Wednesday night when the U.S. Senate passed a bailout bill that included extensions of crucial renewable energy investment and production tax credits that were set to expire at the end of the year.

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