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Posts Tagged ‘MMA Renewable Ventures’

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photo: WorldWater & Solar Technologies

The consolidation of the solar industry got underway Monday with the acquisition of San Francisco-based green energy financier MMA Renewable Ventures by Spanish solar developer Fotowatio.

The Madrid-based company will purchase most of MMA Renewable’s solar assets – including the world largest photovoltaic power plant and its pipeline of projects – making it one of the biggest solar developers in the United States.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

MMA Renewable CEO Matt Cheney told Green Wombat that he’ll continue as CEO of what will be called, for now, Renewable Ventures and that his staff will be joining him. MMA Renewable Ventures was a subsidiary of Municipal Mortgage & Equity, which has been hit hard by the financial crisis.

Fotowatio, on the other hand, scored $350 million in funding last July from General Electric (GE) and Grupo Corporativo Landon. “You’re taking a very robust player in the European market see how much opportunity and potential there is in the U.S. market,” says Cheney. “It’ll produce one of the biggest, if not the biggest, independent solar power producers. It’s the story of consolidation.”

MMA Renewable Ventures raises funds to invest in big commercial solar arrays and photovoltaic power plant projects. The company finances the construction of solar systems by companies like SunPower (SPWRA) and retains ownership of the arrays, selling the electricity under long-term power purchase agreements.

Last year MMA Renewable and Chinese solar giant Suntech (STP) created a joint venture called Gemini Solar to build large-scale photovoltaic power plants.  Cheney said Gemini will continue under Fotowatio.

When the deal closes, Fotowatio will gain 35 megawatts of solar projects in the U.S. with another 400 megawatts under development.

Cheney says the Fotowatio acquisition is a sign of the times as the global economic crisis and falling prices for solar cells disrupts the renewable energy market. “There’s a shakeout in the marketplace and there’s opportunities for consolidation.”

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photo: WorldWater & Solar Technologies

As the financial crisis short-circuits the ambitions of green tech companies, solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures is pushing ahead with raising its fifth fund. Meanwhile, its solar power plant joint venture with Chinese solar cell maker Suntech – Gemini Solar Development – has been selected by utility Austin Energy to build a 30-megawatt solar farm in Texas.

The San Francisco-based firm just completed its $200 million Solar Fund III, which invested in 20.6 megawatts of photovoltaic solar arrays for companies like Macy’s, the Gap, Lowe’s and utility FPL (FPL) as well as the Denver International Airport. MMA Renewable (MMAB.PK) provides the financing for the installation of large commercial solar arrays on big box stores and other locations while retaining ownership of the systems. The electricity produced is sold to the building owner under a long-term contract.

“The good news is that we can raise another fund in a tough market,” MMA Renewable Ventures CEO Matt Cheney told Green Wombat, adding that the company aims to raise $200 million or more for Solar Fund V.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Many of the Wall Street banks that invested in big solar systems are no more and demand for the tax credits generated by the projects has fallen faster than the Dow Jones as most companies aren’t piling up much tax liability these days.

“The ones that are left are being very picky and asking a lot,” says Cheney, adding that banks and other investors are demanding higher returns on their investments. Still, he notes, past MMA Renewable investors like Wells Fargo (WFC) remain relatively healthy. “If you look at every country in Europe and the U.S., there are good examples of financing institutions that were less impacted by the financial crisis, which is a deep one,” he says.

One possible source of new tax-equity investment may come from well-capitalized utilities that, thanks to a change to the tax laws Congress made last October, can now claim tax credits for solar projects. PG&E (PCG) CEO Peter Darbee, for instance, has said his utility plans to invest in solar power plants.

A new and potentially bigger worry is whether MMA Renewable customers – big box retailers and the like – will be survive the financial crisis. MMA Renewable’s business is built on long-term power purchase contracts – as long as 20 years – that provide a predictable and steady revenue stream to investors.

“Would you buy a corporate bond from a large U.S. company that went out 20 years today?” Cheney asks. “You would most likely tell me that’s a long time. You don’t know if you want to take that risk beyond five or ten years. That’s the equation that’s present in the marketplace today.”

In California, at least, demand for solar has remained strong: This week state regulators reported that installed solar systems more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year.

One bright spot may be the market for smaller-scale photovoltaic power plants and MMA Renewable’s Gemini joint venture with Suntech (STP).  The Austin Energy project still must be approved by the city of Austin, but Cheney says Gemini is in the midst of negotiations with other utilities as well.

When SunPower (SPWRA) reported record fourth-quarter earnings Thursday, CEO Tom Werner said the Silicon Valley solar cell maker was shifting resources to its power plant building business in 2009 and had 1,000 megawatts of projects on the drawing boards.

There was just one catch:  money. “We have a strong pipeline of projects fully permitted, or with permits in process, that will be buildable,” Werner said, ” when financing becomes available.”

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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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photo: Southern California Edison

When Southern California Edison unveiled plans to install 250 megawatts’ worth of solar panels on warehouse roofs back in March, it was hailed as a ground-breaking move. In one fell swoop, the giant utility would cut the cost of photovoltaic power, expand the solar market and kick-start efforts to transform untold acres of sun-baked commercial roof space into mini-power plants.

There’s just one problem: the solar industry is fighting the billion-dollar plan. In briefs filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, solar companies, industry trade groups and consumer advocates argue that allowing a utility to own and operate such massive green megawattage will crowd out competitors who can’t hope to compete with a project financed by Edison’s ratepayers.  (In California, shareholders of investor-owned utilities are guaranteed a rate of return for approved projects, while utility customers bear a portion of the costs in the form of higher rates.)

The five-year plan “would establish SCE as the monopoly developer of commercial-scale distributed solar in its service territory,” wrote Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco company that sells solar electricity to commercial customers. “This would irreparably impair the development of a competitive solar industry.”

Southern California Edison (EIX) is the first utility in the United States to propose such a “distributed generation” scheme and the dispute is being watched closely as a test case for the viability of producing renewable electicity from hundreds of millions of square feet of commercial rooftops. Such systems can be plugged directly into existing transmission lines and tend to generate the most solar power when electricity demand spikes – typically on summer afternoons when people crank their air conditioners. Having such green energy on tap would save utilities from having to build expensive and planet-warming fossil fuel-powered “peaker plants” that sit idle except when demand suddenly rises.

Even critics hail Edison’s move as “bold” and “visionary” and no one disputes that in California the development of big rooftop solar has lagged. For instance, the state’s $3.3 billion “million solar roofs” initiative is designed to put smaller-scale solar panels on homes and businesses and provides generous rebates for systems under 1 megawatt. At the other end of the scale, the state’s big utilities have been signing contracts to buy electricity from solar thermal power plants to be built in the desert. Left out of the subsidy game are incentives for the 1-to-2 megawatt arrays well-suited for commercial buildings.

Southern California Edison says it’s filling that gap and will energize the solar industry, not crush it. The utility plans to lease 65 million square feet of commercial rooftop space in the “Inland Empire” region of Southern California for solar arrays that would generate enough electricity to power 162,000 homes.

“SCE’s financial stability and business reputation will increase the probability that 250 MW of solar PV systems will be available to meet the state’s solar rooftop goals over the next five years,” the utility’s attorneys wrote in a brief filed with the utilities commission, which must approve the program. “In so doing, a solar PV program can improve efficiencies … to reduce costs and jump start the competitiveness of solar PV for widespread application on California roofs.”

There’s no doubt the program will be a boon for solar module makers. For instance, thin-film solar cell company First Solar (FSLR) is supplying 33,000 panels for the program’s first project, a 600,000-square-foot roof array in the inland city of Fontana. However, Southern California Edison intends to contract for union labor to install the solar systems and tap its own capital and a rate hike to finance the project. That won’t leave many opportunities for solar installers and financiers like SunPower (SPWR), SunEdison and MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA).

“Even though this program is kind of taking bread out of our own mouth, the demand for solar will keep going up,” says Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development at MMA Renewable Ventures, a San Francisco firm that finances commercial solar arrays.

“What they have announced is extremely visionary,” McLanahan tells Green Wombat. “It’s game changing and opens up whole new realms of what solar can do. That’s exciting.”  On the other hand, he says, “It’s certainly possible that a young, growing industry that is pretty fragmented could be hurt by this rather than helped.”

A solution advanced by some solar industry critics is for Southern California Edison to open up the entire program to competitive bidding, not just the procurement of solar panels. The utility vehemently opposes the idea, arguing it would work against the economies of scale it says it can bring to the program.

Whether regulators will approve Southern California Edison’s request for a rate hike to pay for the initiative – and at electricity rates that are significantly higher than those set for other solar programs – remains to be seen. The commission’s own ratepayer advocate has questioned whether utility customers will get their money’s worth.

The utilities commission is unlikely to issue a final decision until next year. In the meantime, you can bet the state’s other big utilities – PG&E (PCG) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – and solar companies will be watching to see whether the sky’s the limit for big rooftop solar or whether a ceiling is about to be placed on the industry’s ambitions.

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