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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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photo: FERC

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is one of those acronym agencies that regulates a key aspect of the United States economy – the electricity grid – but tends to operate under the radar.

Not any more. With President Barack Obama’s appointment of FERC Comissioner and renewable energy advocate Jon Wellinghoff as the agency’s acting chairman, FERC will play a key role in the administration’s efforts to digitize the nation’s aging analog power grid to promote solar and wind energy while creating green jobs. The largest chunk of the stimulus package devoted to renewable energy – some $54 billion – has been set aside for modernizing the grid.

At a Nov. 18 briefing on Capitol Hill, Wellinghoff showed that he’s been thinking extensively about how to upgrade the grid to connect renewable energy produced in remote areas to population centers on the coasts. “In the whole Midwest of this country there are virtually no high- voltage transmission lines,” he said, displaying Google’s  (GOOG) proposal to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels by 2030.  “If you overlay where the wind is, all the wind is in the middle of this country – all those areas where we do not have sufficient transmission. Hopefully we can get the structure to put renewables on the grid and improve the grid to make it a smart system that can ultimately deliver these resources in an efficient way.”

Wellinghoff in a December interview with EnergyWashington.com advocated reviving domestic manufacturing of big transformers – now made overseas – to support the expansion of high-voltage power lines across the U.S.

On Monday, Wellinghoff called for electric cars to be integrated into the electric grid, according to a report by Dow Jones. He said FERC could structure rates to pay car owners for returning electricity to the grid from their vehicle batteries to help balance the power supply as more solar, wind and other intermittent sources of energy come online.

At the November briefing, Wellinghoff called electric cars part of “the glue” that will hold a green grid together and said the federal government should consider giving automakers like General Moters (GM) and Ford (F) incentives to produce plug-in hybrids.

“To modernize the grid, we need to define our goals and define a national tranmission planning process,” he said. “Let’s do it. We just need to get it done.”

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photo: California Governor’s Office

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday terminated talk that the recession will crimp California’s fight against global warming when he ordered every utility in the state to obtain a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And in a move that will shake up the land rush to build solar power plants in the desert, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of such projects.

“One of the great things about California, of course, is that we always push the envelope,” said Schwarzenegger at startup OptiSolar’s solar cell factory in Sacramento, surrounded by a triptych of solar panels, utility executives and environmentalists. “That is why today I’m proposing that we set our sights even higher. This will be the most aggressive target in the nation.”

California currently requires the state’s Big Three investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – to secure 20% of their electricity from green energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal by 2010. Monday’s move turns what had been a 33% renewables goal into a mandate and extends responsibility for meeting it to every electricity retailer in California.

Utilities, however, have struggled to reach even the 20% target as renewable energy projects become bogged down in California’s extensive environmental review and licensing process that involves a host of state and federal agencies.

Many proposed massive megawatt solar power plants will be built on environmentally sensitive land in the Mojave and Colorado deserts in California, threatening to trigger years-long battles over endangered species and water.

Take, for instance, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, 400-megawatt solar thermal power plant  to be built by Bay Area startup BrightSource Energy on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. BrightSource, which has a 20-year contract to sell the power plant’s electricity to PG&E, is dealing with the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Game, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the agencies that control access to the transmission grid.

Then there’s environmental fights over extending power lines to connect such projects to coastal metropolises. Late last month, state regulators rejected San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to build $1.3 billion transmission line called the Sunrise Powerlink due to the environmental impact of routing it through sensitive desert lands.  A final decision on the project to bring green energy from the Imperial Valley to coastal metropolises will be made next month.

Schwarzenegger’s executive order requires various state agencies to collaborate to create a one-stop shopping permit process to cut in half the time it takes to license a renewable energy project – which now can be a two-year slog. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM also agreed to participate in a Renewable Energy Action Team to expedite the licensing of solar power plants and other green energy projects.

“We will streamline the permitting process and the siting of new plants and transmission lines,” Schwarzenegger said. “We will complete the environmental work up front, dramatically reducing the time and the uncertainty normally associated with any of those projects.”

By March 1, the action team will identify and prioritize those areas of the desert that should be developed first for renewable energy projects based on environmental impacts and access to transmission. The group will also work with another task force that is identifying where power lines should be extended into the desert.

That will affect the fortunes of dozens of solar startups, financiers and speculators — everyone from Goldman Sachs (GS) to Chevron (CVX) — that have filed lease claims on nearly a million areas of desert land that the BLM is opening up for solar power plants. Those with land claims in areas at the top of the list for renewable energy development will find it easier to obtain financing – currently in short supply – to build billion-dollar projects. Those at the bottom of the list may rue the six-figure application fees they paid to stake claims on thousands of acres of desert land.

Behind the optimistic talk and smiles at Monday’s press conference, utility execs and environmentalists who praised the governor’s latest green initiative also signaled that political fights over how to achieve the state’ ambitious renewable energy goals are not over.

“Transmission is absolutely critical to get those renewables from the Imperial Valley,” San Diego Gas & Electric CEO Deborah Reed told the audience. “Assuming a positive decision on Sunrise Powerlink next month, we’ll get to 33% by 2020.”

But when the Nature Conservancy’s Rebecca Shaw took the microphone, she offered a cautionary note. “In our urgency to create a more sustainable future, we must be careful not to destroy the very environment that we are trying to protect,” said Shaw, associate state director for the environmental group.

California’s aggressive renewable energy policies already have had one desired consequence: spurring the creation of green collar jobs. OptiSolar, which earlier this year signed a long-term contract to supply PG&E with 550 megawatts of electricity from a massive photovoltaic solar farm, employs 500 people at its Bay Area headquarters and factory. CEO Randy Goldstein said his company will hire another 1,000 for its new Sacramento factory.

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photo: eSolar

If Wall Street’s implosion can feel remote on the West Coast, where green tech startups largely rely on Silicon Valley venture capital, there may be no escaping the fallout from the credit crunch.

Still, even those renewable energy companies tapping East Coast cash have powered ahead amid the chaos on the Street. Take SolarReserve, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based solar power plant developer. A day after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy last week, the stealth startup announced a $140 million round of funding from investors that included Citigroup (C) and Credit Suisse (CS).

Lehman does hold small stakes in wind turbine maker Clipper Windpower of Carpinteria, Calif., and Ormat Technologies, a Reno, Nev., geothermal developer. “Lehman’s exit from wind is not good news, but it’s not the end of the world,” says Ethan Zindler, head of North American research for New Energy Finance, a London-based research firm. And while Lehman holds stock lent to it from solar cell companies like SunPower (SPWR) and Evergreen Solar – potentially diluting their earnings per share if the stock is not returned – Lehman is not a big player in solar.

That’s not the case with Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS). Both are major solar and wind investors and both were forced this week to reorganize themselves into bank holding companies to stave off shotgun marriages with other institutions. Spokespeople for Goldman and Morgan Stanley told Green Wombat that the firms’ transformation into more conventional commercial banks – at least a two-year process- will not change their green investing strategies.

But if there appears to be little immediate collateral damage from the financial crisis for green tech startups, there are longer-term consequences. Solar power plants, wind farms and other large-scale renewable energy projects require billions of dollars in bank financing.

“Credit is just going to get more expensive,” says Zindler. “We’ve already seen some pull-back for some big solar and wind deals. Bigger developers who have solid balance sheets will be OK but the smaller guys could be in trouble.”

Says Bill Gross, chairman of solar power plant developer eSolar: “I think if you’re going to get project financing, you’re just going to have to show higher returns to get people to take the money out of the mattress.”

But Gross, the founder of Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator Idealab, argues that given soaring electricity demand and fossil fuel prices, large-scale renewable energy projects will be an attractive investment, paricularly since utilities typically sign 20-year contracts for the power they produce. eSolar, which is backed by Google and other investors, has a long-term contract to supply Southern California Edison with 245 megawatts of green electricity. Gross says eSolar has a pipeline of other projects and interest in the company remains high, particularly overseas.

“If you can make projects that can compete with fossil fuels on a parity basis, those projects are going to be financed,” he says, “because they’re safe returns for 20 years and I think money is going to flow to them.”

Rob Lamkin, CEO of solar power plant startup Cool Earth, echoed that sentiment. “The credit crisis does give me pause,” says Lamkin, whose Livermore, Calif.-company has raised $21 million in venture funding and is developing “solar balloons” that use air pressure to concentrate sunlight on solar cells. “But the energy problem is so big that I don’t see problems raising project financing.”

The key for developers of utility-scale projects – particularly solar power plants – will be keeping their costs under control; not an easy thing when deploying new technologies amid a commodities boom.

Dita Bronicki, CEO of geothermal power plant developer Ormat Technologies (ORA), does not anticipate trouble obtaining project financing. “I think the cost of money is going to go up, but a company like Ormat with an operating fleet and operating cash flow will not be as affected,” Bronicki says. “Small companies will find that lenders will be more picky in what they will invest.”

Green entrepreneurs tend to be an optimistic bunch, so it’s not surprising they still think the future looks bright. But they had reason to be sunny this week – amid Wall Street’s meltdown, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed, at long last,  extensions of crucial renewable energy investment tax credits and other goodies to goose green tech, such as a tax credit worth up to $7,500 for buyers of plug-in electric cars. The Senate action now must be reconciled with similar legislation in the House of Representatives.

Solar projects, for instance, would qualify for a 30% investment tax credit through 2016.

“That is one thing that will help project finance,” says Gross. “So many people are sitting on the sidelines right now and if the investment tax credit passes that will help get these projects financed.”

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T. Boone Pickens and Texas may be the kings of Big Wind but California is catching up, buying gigawatts of green electricity from turbines planted on the windswept flatlands of … Oregon.

On Monday, Southern California Edison became the latest Golden State utility to look north, announcing a 20-year contract to buy a whopping 909 megawatts from Caithness Energy’s Shepherd’s Flat project. The 303-turbine wind farm will span two Oregon counties and 30 square miles when it goes online between 2011 and 2012. PG&E (PCG), meanwhile, signed a deal in July for 240 megawatts of wind power from Horizon Wind Energy’s turbine ranch in the same area. That’s on top of 85 megawatts it agreed to buy last year from PPM Energy (now called Iberdrola Renewables) in a neighboring county that’s part of a turbine tier of counties on Oregon’s northern border.  Earlier this month the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power approved a 72-megawatt contract with Willow Creek Energy for wind power from the same area in Oregon.

So why ship electricity a thousand miles down the West Coast when California already plans to add gigawatts of in-state wind energy?  In a word, transmission.

“The beauty of this particular project is that it is already fully permitted and has transmission already available,”  Stuart Hemphill, Southern California Edison’s (EIX) vice president for renewable and alternative power, told Green Wombat.

“Oregon has a terrific wind resource,” he adds. “It far exceeds that in California.”

In December 2006 the utility signed an agreement to purchase 1,500 megawatts from a giant wind farm to be built by a subsidiary of Australia’s Allco Financial Group in Southern California’s Tehachapi region. But the project is dependent on the construction of new transmission lines – often an environmentally contentious and drawn-out process in California.

“It is expected to go online in 2010,” says Hemphill of the wind farm. “We’re just getting the transmission project up and running. The first three segments have been approved and we’re doing the building now.”

With California’s investor-owned utilities facing a 2010 deadline to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources, expect the Oregon green rush to continue.

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With billions of dollars of solar and wind power projects and thousands of green-collar jobs hanging in the balance, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday again failed to extend a key investment tax credit for renewable energy.

Republicans blocked the legislation from coming to the floor, marking the eighth attempt to extend the 30 percent tax credit beyond it’s Jan. 1, 2009, expiration date. The extension is backed by all the state governors save Georgia, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies, Wall Street banks, renewable energy startups, and tech giants like Google (GOOG), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Applied Materials (AMAT).

Utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Edison International (EIX) as well as financiers such as Morgan Stanley (MS) and GE Energy Financial Services (GE), are pushing for an eight-year extension of the investment tax credit to give Big Solar projects enough time to get off the ground and start to achieve economies of scale.

Senate Republicans opposed the legislation, contending it would raise taxes. A list of senators and their votes on the legislation can be found here.

Without the 30 percent tax credit, the viability of several large solar power plant projects remains in doubt. Spanish solar company Abengoa Solar has said it probably will pull out of plans to build a 280-megawatt power plant in Arizona if Congress doesn’t renew the tax credit. Green Wombat happened to have breakfast this morning with a PG&E executive who said that the large solar projects that California utilities are counting on to meet renewable energy mandates would have a hard time securing financing absent the investment tax credit.

First Solar (FSLR) CEO Michael Ahearn said on an earnings call Wednesday afternoon that if the investment tax credit is not extended the thin-film solar module maker would focus its efforts on the European market. “We don’t have massive volumes of solar planned for the U.S. in the short term,” said Ahearn.

Said Rhone Resch, president of the trade group Solar Energy Industries Association, in a statement: “Already companies are putting projects on hold and preparing to send thousands of jobs overseas – real jobs that would otherwise be filled by American workers.”

While Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have have expressed support for increasing the U.S.’s investment in green energy, neither presidential candidate showed up to vote Wednesday on the extension of the tax credit.

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