As reported By Christopher Martin Bloomberg News 3/21/12

NEW YORK – U.S. solar developers are luring cash at record rates from investors ranging from Warren Buffett to Google and KKR by offering returns on projects four times those available for Treasury securities.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., together with the biggest Internet search company, private equity companies, and insurers MetLife Inc. and John Hancock Life Insurance Co., poured more than $500 million into renewable energy in the last year. That’s the most ever for companies outside the club of banks and specialist lenders that traditionally back solar energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data.

Once so risky that only government backing could draw private capital, solar projects now are making returns of about 15 percent, according to Stanford University’s Center for Energy Policy and Finance. That has attracted a wider community of investors eager to cash in on earnings stronger than those for infrastructure projects such as toll roads and pipelines. “A solar power project with a long-term sales agreement could be viewed as a machine that generates revenue,” said Marty Klepper, an attorney at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, which helped arrange a solar deal for Buffett. “It’s an attractive investment for any firm, not just those in energy.”

With 30-year Treasuries yielding about 3.4 percent, investors are seeking safe places to park their money for years at a higher return. Solar energy fits the bill, with predictable cash flows guaranteed by contract for two decades or more. Those deals may be even more lucrative because many were signed before the cost of solar panels plunged 50 percent last year.

Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. agreed to buy the Topaz Solar Farm in California from First Solar Inc. on Dec. 7. The project’s development budget is estimated at $2.4 billion and it may generate a 16.3 percent return on investment by selling power to PG&E Corp. at about $150 a megawatt-hour through a 25-year contract, according to New Energy Finance calculations. It will have 550 megawatts of capacity and is expected to go into operation in 2015, making it one of the world’s biggest photovoltaic plants.

“After tax, you’re looking at returns in the 10 percent to 15 percent range” for solar projects, said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Stanford center. “The beauty of solar is, once you make the capital investment, you’ve got free fuel and very low operating costs.”

The long-term nature of solar power purchase deals makes them similar to some bonds. And because a solar farm is a tangible asset, these investments also function much like those for infrastructure projects, with cash flows comparable to toll roads, bridges and pipelines, said Stefan Heck, a director at McKinsey & Co. in New York who leads the firm’s clean-tech work. Once a project starts producing power, investors can earn a return that’s “higher than most bonds,” he said. “There are a lot of pension funds with long-term horizons that are very interested in this space.”

Governments remain the biggest backers of the solar industry; President Obama’s administration suffered criticism for investing in Solyndra, a solar manufacturer that went bankrupt last year. Worldwide, the U.S. Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank was the biggest asset-finance lender for renewable energy companies in the past year, arranging 12 deals worth $11.2 billion, according to New Energy Finance. The Brazilian development bank BNDES, Bank of America, and Banco Santander followed.

In 2009, solar technology was so unfamiliar that few banks would back projects that required billions in upfront investment and wouldn’t begin producing revenue for years, Klepper said. The biggest financiers for the industry that year were Madrid- based Santander, HSH Nordbank of Hamburg and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria of Bilbao, Spain, New Energy Finance said.

That year, the Energy Department began funding a program to guarantee loans for solar farms and other renewable energy projects that supported almost $35 billion in financing before winding down in September. The government’s endorsement assuaged investors’ concerns and built up a bigger community of people who understand how to make money from solar deals, said Arno Harris, chief executive officer of Sharp Corp.’s renewable power development unit Recurrent Energy.

“Solar is now bankable,” Harris said. “When solar was perceived as more risky, it required a premium,” and now it’s “becoming part of a much broader capital market.”

Long-term power-purchase contracts are the key to making solar a reliable investment, Harris said. Utilities in sunny states such as California, Arizona, and Nevada have agreed to pay premiums for electricity generated by sunshine.

Read more: http://www.philly.com/philly/business/homepage/20120321_Solar_returns_beat_Treasuries__drawing_investors_from_Buffett_to_Google.html#ixzz1plWe9SD0
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Solar makes sense

May 31, 2011

As reported in Philadelphia Inquire May 30, 2011
With Pennsylvania
boasting the nation’s second largest number of solar-industry jobs, state
officials would be foolish to let the sun set on such a nascent but promising
industry. But that could happen due to a temporary mismatch between solar-energy
financing and market demand.

The construction of more than 4,000 solar projects has been a roaring
success, responsible for generating several thousand jobs at 600 solar
businesses. Growing that industry from scratch, with state and federal aid, also
boosted the use of nonpolluting and renewable energy. That will be particularly
helpful in meeting summer’s peak demand.

Yet, the boom in solar projects has outpaced the amount of solar energy
utilities are required to buy under the state’s alternative-energy rules. That
has depressed the value of solar-energy credits needed to provide a return on
photovoltaic solar systems, which have a steep, up-front price tag.

The best way for state officials to spur solar to new heights would be to
boost the modest solar-energy standard – now far lower than neighboring states,
at only 0.5 percent – by 2021. But last year, that idea ran into strong
opposition from Exelon and other utilities, coal producers, and business groups
– and a certain Republican candidate for governor.

Fortunately, a fellow Republican, State Rep. Chris Ross from Chester County,
unveiled a legislative proposal Tuesday that should be more to Gov. Corbett’s
liking. Ross would accelerate the amount of solar energy utilities are required
to purchase for the next few years, but leave the overall standard at just 0.5
percent. He would also follow other states by barring out-of-state solar
producers contributing to the solar glut in Pennsylvania.

The Ross proposal amounts to a tweak, but one that could be critical to
maintaining the state’s foothold in solar energy. Corbett and Republican
legislative leaders could fall back on tea-party ideological antagonism toward
so-called government mandates – or they could prove themselves progressive
enough to embrace a modest plan that makes sense for the state’s 21st-century
economy.

The California-based solar leasing firm Sungevity announced a deal on Monday with home improvement giant Lowe’s that could make obtaining a personalized estimate for installing solar panels a push-button affair at Lowe’s outlets.

The deal gives Lowe’s just under a 20 percent stake in Sungevity, according to a solar industry source, though neither company would discuss specific dollar figures.

Under the agreement, scheduled to launch in 30 Lowe’s stores in California in July, customers will be able to access kiosks equipped with Sugevity’s iQuote system, a Web-based application that allows homeowners to simply enter their address and receive a firm installation estimate within 24 hours, eliminating the expense of an on-site visit.

The system combines aerial and satellite image analysis with research by Sungevity engineers at the company’s Oakland headquarters to assess the geometry of a home’s rooftop, its disposition to the sun at different times of day and year and any potential occlusions presented by nearby vegetation or built objects.

In addition to an installation estimate, customers can also get a visual rendering of their home with solar panels installed. And if interested parties provide information on typical power usage, such as an account number or past electric bills, the iQuote system can estimate potential savings expected from using the equipment.

The iQuote system can already be used online, and the company’s founder, Danny Kennedy, estimated that roughly 25,000 users had taken it for a test drive, though only about 1,500 of those had been converted to sales.

The deal with Lowe’s, Kennedy said, could help Sungevity — a petite player in the solar leasing market compared to bigger players like SolarCity of San Mateo, Calif., or San Francisco-based SunRun, which raised $200 million in financing earlier this month — significantly expand its reach.

“This will help us to get in front of thousands more customers, in front of middle America,” Kennedy told The Huffington Post. “We’ll be taking it to the ‘burbs, as it were.”

Despite tough economic times and often uncertain economic incentives, a number of analyses predict a boom year for solar power in 2011.

A report published in December by IDC Energy Insights, a market research firm based in Framingham, Mass., estimated following a healthy 2010, the solar market in North America could well see two gigawatts of solar power installations this year.

Jay Holman, the report’s lead analyst, told The Huffington Post that those numbers had been revised somewhat, but that 2011 was still expected to bring in 1.6 gigawatts of new solar installations, roughly double the 2010 total.

Part of the reason for America’s interest in solar energy may be a decline in the robust incentives the once drew a deluge of equipment and installations to the European market, particularly countries like Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy, Holman said. Those countries have begun to scale back their subsidies, forcing companies to look to other markets.

Meanwhile, federal tax incentives, including a 30 percent tax cash grant extended through the end of 2011, have helped keep solar alive. Several states have healthy incentives in place as well, including the eight states where the Sungevity/Lowes deal will eventually be rolled out: Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Holman also said solar leasing companies like Sungevity, SunRun and Solar City, which retain ownership of the equipment while reducing or, in many cases, eliminating the up-front installation costs, also help drive the expansion of solar power.

“Obviously, we’re obsessed with being customer-focused,” said Kennedy. “We hope that this deal will make going solar as easy as shopping for light bulbs.”

SOUTH PHILADELPHIA – November 18, 2010 (WPVI) — When you think of the Eagles you think GREEN – and we’re not just talking about the

The Eagles organization has long been committed to the environment and energy sustainability. Well, today the Eagles will take a bold move when they make Lincoln Financial Field the first major sports stadium in the world to generate its own electricity.

In the coming months the Linc will be outfitted with approximately eighty 20-foot tall spiral shaped wind turbines on the top rim of the stadium and 2,500 solar panels on the façade. Along with the state of the art power system, energy will be generated on-site.

The project will cost an estimated $30-million, but the Eagles expect to save an estimated $60-million in energy costs in the coming years.

The stadium will generate enough electricity to power 26,000 homes – far more than needed to power the stadium. So, the Eagles will be selling excess electricity back to the local power grid.

Two hundred people are expected to be employed to design and install the system. Six hundred more jobs are expected to be created because the Eagles are committed to using people from the local community through contractors and vendors.

More information on the project is scheduled to be released later today at Lincoln Financial Field by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

by Julie Dengler 05.MAR.10
It’s a bird, it’s a plane — it’s a solar panel?
Residents of many local towns may have recently noticed panels being installed about 15 feet up on residential utility and street-light poles. The panels are five feet by two and half feet, and weigh about 60 pounds. By the end of 2013, 200,000 panels will have been installed throughout New Jersey.

PSE&G sources say that their “investment is the largest pole-attached solar installation in the world … New Jersey has more installed solar capacity than any state except California.” New Jersey estimates its solar power capacity at 40 megawatts of “pole-mounted solar.” Karen Johnson, media spokesperson for the company, estimates one megawatt as enough energy to power approximately 800 homes.
The work is part of a renewable energy program approved for PSE&G by federal regulators last July. It is called Solar 4 All, and is estimated to be a $515 million investment on the part of PSE&G in New Jersey over the next three years. The goal of the program is to move the state closer to meeting an energy master plan requirement of 4.4% (or 80 megawatts) of solar energy use in the electric grid by 2020.
PSE&G says, “The installations will be paid for by PSE&G electric customers. The first year bill impact for the average residential customer will be roughly 10 cents a month.”
Currently, panels are being placed on pre-selected PSE&G-owned utility and street light poles only. Negotiations to share space with Verizon-owned poles are planned.
According to the PSE&G fact sheet on the installation (available at http://www.PSEG.com), poles that qualify for the panel meet several criteria, besides being owned by the utility company. PSE&G is selecting poles that can support the units, face in a southerly direction and have no more than one transformer already on the pole.
The Retrospect caught up with two contracted installers from Riggs Distler and Company, Inc. this week, while they installed a new panel on a pole on Haddon Avenue. Derwin Booker said that the project is keeping his union, and the contractor he works for, busy. While he has been working on installs in Collingswood and Haddon Township, he also worked on the recent installs along Kings Highway in Cherry Hill.
All of the panels are equipped with GPS (Global Positioning Satellite receivers), and each faces exactly 193 degrees south-southwest in order to maximize solar power collection, explained Booker. He said that specific poles were selected from the millions of utility and street poles throughout New Jersey. The panels are equipped with what he called an aggregator, which communicates the collection rates of 10 to 15 panels at a time, back to a main data collection site, so that the rate of energy per cluster of panels can be measured and tracked.
All of the solar energy collected by the panels flows back into the electronic grid as power. Booker commented that the additional energy generated can help in heavy electrical use periods – like summertime, when air conditioners are running — when service is at risk of brown-outs.
Additionally, PSE&G explains, “The installations will generate Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). PSE&G will sell any SRECs it generates to offset program costs. PSE&G will sell the power into the PJM (Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland) wholesale grid and will receive federal tax credits – which will also be used to offset the cost to customers.”

– Copyright 2010 The Retrospect

As reported in Courier Post

DURANGO, COLO. — The sun had just crested the distant ridge of the Rocky Mountains, but already it was producing enough power for the electric meter on the side of the Smiley Building to spin backward.

For the Shaw brothers, who converted the downtown arts building and community center into a miniature solar power plant two years ago, each reverse rotation subtracts from their monthly electric bill. It also means the building at that moment is producing more electricity from the sun than it needs.

 “Backward is good,” said John Shaw, who now runs Shaw Solar and Energy Conservation, a local solar installation company.

 Good for whom? 

As La Plata County in southwestern Colorado looks to shift to cleaner sources of energy, solar is becoming the power source of choice even though it still produces only a small fraction of the region’s electricity. It’s being nudged along by tax credits and rebates, a growing concern about the gases heating up the planet, and the region’s plentiful sunshine.

 The natural gas industry, which produces more gas here than nearly every other county in Colorado, has been relegated to the shadows.

 Tougher state environmental regulations and lower natural gas prices have slowed many new drilling permits. As a result, production — and the jobs that come with it — have leveled off.

With the county and city drawing up plans to reduce the emissions blamed for global warming and Congress weighing the first mandatory limits, the industry once again finds itself on the losing side of the debate.

 A recent greenhouse-gas inventory of La Plata County found that the thousands of natural gas pumps and processing plants dotting the landscape are the single largest source of heat-trapping pollution locally.

 That has the industry bracing for a hit on two fronts if federal legislation passes.

 First, it will have to reduce emissions from its production equipment to meet pollution limits, which will drive up costs. Second, as the county’s largest consumer of electricity, gas companies probably will see energy bills rise as the local power cooperative is forced to cut gases released from its coal-fired power plants or purchase credits from other companies that reduce emissions.

“Being able to put solar systems on homes is great, you take something off the grid, it is as good as conserving,” said Christi Zeller, the executive director of the La Plata Energy Council, a trade group representing about two dozen companies that produce the methane gas trapped within coal buried underground.

“But the reality is we still need natural gas, so embrace our industry like you are embracing wind, solar and the renewables,” she said.

It’s a refrain echoed on the national level, where the industry, displeased with the climate bill passed by the House this summer, is trying to raise its profile as the Senate works on its version of the legislation.

In March, about two dozen of the largest independent gas producers started America’s Natural Gas Alliance. In ads in major publications in 32 states, the group has pressed the case that natural gas is a cleaner-burning alternative to coal and can help bridge the transition from fossil fuels to pollution-free sources such as wind and solar.

 “Every industry thinks every other industry is getting all the breaks. All of us are concerned that we are not getting any consideration at all from people claiming they are trying to reduce the carbon footprint,” said Bob Zahradnik, the operating director for the Southern Ute tribe’s business arm, which includes the tribes’ gas and oil production companies. None is in the alliance.

 Politicians from energy-diverse states such as Colorado are trying to avoid getting caught in the middle. They’re working to make sure that the final bill doesn’t favor some types of energy produced back home over others.

 At a town hall meeting in Durango in late August, Sen. Mark Udall, who described himself as one of the biggest proponents of renewable energy, assured the crowd that natural gas wouldn’t be forgotten.

“Renewables are our future — but we also need to continue to invest in natural gas,” said Udall, D-Colo.

 Much more than energy is at stake. Local and state governments across the country also depend on taxes paid by natural gas companies to fund schools, repair roads and pay other bills.

In La Plata County alone, the industry is responsible for hundreds of jobs and pays for more than half of the property taxes. In addition, about 6,000 residents who own the mineral rights beneath their property get a monthly royalty check from the companies harvesting oil and gas.

 “Solar cannot do that. Wind cannot do that,” said Zeller, whose mother is one of the royalty recipients. In July, she received a check for $458.92, far less than the $1,787.30 she was paid the same month last year, when natural gas prices were much higher.

 Solar, by contrast, costs money.

Earlier this year, the city of Durango scaled back the amount of green power it was purchasing from the local electric cooperative because of the price. The additional $65,000 it was paying for power helped the cooperative, which is largely reliant on coal, to invest in solar power and other renewables.

 “It is a premium. It is an additional cost,” said Greg Caton, the assistant city manager.

Instead, the city decided to use the money to develop its own solar projects at its water treatment plant and public swimming pool. The effort will reduce the amount of power it gets from sources that contribute to global warming and make the city eligible for a $3,000 rebate from the La Plata Electric Association.

Yes, the power company will pay the city to use less of its power. That’s because the solar will count toward a state mandate to boost renewable energy production.

“In the typical business model, it doesn’t work,” said Greg Munro, the cooperative’s executive director. “Why would I give rebates to somebody buying someone else’s shoes?”

The same upfront costs have prevented homeowners from jumping on the solar bandwagon despite the tax credits, rebates and lower electricity bills.

 Most of Shaw’s customers can’t afford to install enough solar to cover 100 percent of their homes’ electricity needs, which is one reason why solar supplies just a fraction of the power the county needs.

 The higher fossil-fuel prices that could come with climate legislation would make it more competitive.

 “You can’t drive an industry on people doing the right thing. The best thing for this country is if gas were $10 a gallon,” said Shaw, as he watched two of his three full-time workers install the last solar panels on a barn outside town.

 The private residence, nestled in a remote canyon, probably will produce more power from the sun than it will use, causing its meter to spin in reverse like the Smiley Building’s. The cost, however, is steep: more than $500,000.

As reported in Green Inc.

The price of rooftop solar panels has fallen drastically, as I reported in The New York Times on Thursday. But for some homeowners, the upfront costs remain prohibitive.

Indeed, many readers have remarked on the article’s opening anecdote, about a homeowner in the Houston area who installed a 64-panel, $77,000 system (before the 30 percent federal tax credit) for his amply sized house and garage.

One way to bring the initial costs down would be to put smaller arrays on homes. After all, if financial constraints are a consideration, why put dozens of panels on your home when you could put just one or two?

One reason has long been the inverter — the piece of a solar-power system that converts the direct current voltage produced by the panels to accelerating alternating current, which runs through the home. Right now, according to Glenn Harris, the chief executive of the consulting firm SunCentric, it is hard to find an inverter small enough to handle just one solar panel.

But microinverters — which fit on a single panel — are on their way.

Enphase Energy, a company based in California, has shipped 50,000 microinverters since last August, according to Raghu Belur, one of the company’s founders. Each costs about $200, and can be paired with a single solar panel and popped on the roof.

(Single solar panels, producing on the order of 200 watts, can be had for less than $1,000 — though that won’t do much to augment most household power needs.)

 “It is the key to enabling what’s called do-it-yourself-ers,” said Mr. Belur, though he says that it is wise to hire a licensed electrician to make the final connection. (Enphase says that its microinverters do eliminate high-voltage direct current, so there is less danger of a nasty electric shock.)

 “We’re specifying Enphase microinverters in our residential designs more and more often,” said Ryan Hunter, of the Texas installer Meridian Solar, in an e-mail message. The Enphase systems allow for greater flexibility, he said, and are “more shade tolerant in limited spaces.”

 Enphase officials say that having an inverter on each panel increases the efficiency of the solar array. On traditional systems, lower output from one panel — because of dust or leaves accumulating, for example — can affect the performance of every panel in the set. But the microinverters preserve the independence of each panel, so that the panels do not revert to the lowest common denominator of output.

Right now, Enphase microinverters do not come attached to panels. But by the middle of next year, big-box stores, Mr. Harris of SuncCentric predicted, will be stocking solar panels with the microinverters strapped on.

“The real magic is you don’t have to spend $20,000 to $30,000 to get a solar system,” he said.

Should you like to know more about your investment in Solar leave  comment or email  george@hbsadvantage.com

by Jerry James Stone, San Francisco, CA on 09.10.09

Science & Technology

Google’s developing new solar tech that will drop the cost from 18 cents a kW-h to just under 5. At least, it’s hoping to.

Just like everybody else, Google’s disappointed by the industry’s lack of innovation so they’ve decided just to do it themselves. At least that’s what Google’s Bill Weihl said today at the Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit hosted by Reuter’s right here in San Francisco.

Not too surprising. Google builds its own servers since commercial servers are too expensive. The company makes cheap janky ones and just lets its homegrown software handle the outages.

Google engineers have primarily been focused on solar thermal technology. Weihl hopes they can cut the cost of making heliostats by at least a factor of two, but “ideally a factor of three or four.”

“We’ve been looking at very unusual materials for the mirrors both for the reflective surface as well as the substrate that the mirror is mounted on,” said Weihl.

The search engine giant started investing in renewable energy back in 2007. Along with solar thermal tech, the company is also interested in gas turbines that could run on solar power rather than natural gas–a name change might be in order.

Whatever the technology turns out to be, their main interest is the cost. They want to create a renewable energy that has a lower price point than coal. In doing so, they have invested about $50 million in the industry so far.

“Typically what we’re seeing is $2.50 to $4 a watt (for) capital cost,” Weihl said. “So a 250 megawatt installation would be $600 million to a $1 billion. It’s a lot of money.”

Google hopes to showcase the technology within a few months. It must first sustain accelerated testing to show its resistance to decades of harsh desert conditions.

One thing’s for sure…I look forward to seeing what they’ll come up with.

By Andrew Maykuth

Inquirer Staff Writer

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission yesterday approved a Peco Energy Co. proposal to buy solar-energy credits for 10 years, which officials expect will substantially boost the nascent market for renewable energy.

The ruling allows the Philadelphia utility to begin buying alternative-energy credits to comply with a law that forces utilities to derive a gradually increasing portion of their power from renewable-energy sources.

PUC chairman James H. Cawley commended Peco “for taking the initiative to kick-start the process.” The state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act requires electrical utilities to buy 18 percent of their power from alternative-energy sources by 2020.

The market for solar alternative-energy credits has been “very thin and very illiquid” because the laws requiring utilities to buy solar power are only starting to kick in, according to Mike Freeman, senior originator of Exelon Generation Co. L.L.C., the wholesale power arm of Peco’s parent company, Exelon Corp.

Peco’s planned purchase of 80,000 credits over 10 years – each credit represents one megawatt-hour of power, or about as much as a residential customer would consume in a summer – should provide a strong signal to solar builders about the value of their projects, which will assist long-term financing.

“This is a fairly significant event in the solar world,” Freeman said of the decision.

Renewable-energy credits are sold by electric generators for every one megawatt-hour of renewable power they produce, apart from the income they derive from selling the electricity itself.

Peco said it would competitively purchase the credits through requests for proposals. The energy must be generated within the area served by the regional grid, PJM Interconnection L.L.C., which covers parts of 13 states.

Though the market for the credits is not fully established, the PUC estimates their value at $230 each – and some experts say the price will probably exceed $300 each. That means Peco’s investment could exceed $24 million.