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The Crowded Field of Solar Project Development

Tenaska, an independent power producer of fossil fuel stripes, moved into the solar energy business earlier this year with a project to be built by First Solar. It's now expanding its solar portfolio and today announced the acquisition of a 160-MW project in California.

Tenaska Solar Ventures bought the project called Silverleaf, from Agile Energy for an undisclosed sum. The proposed solar farm is set to rise on 1,100 acres of agricultural land in Imperial Valley in inland southern California. Tenaska wants to start building Silverleaf in 2014 and hopes to complete it a year later. Imperial Valley is also where Tenaska is developing two other solar farms.

Silverleaf is the third announced project for Tenaska, which earlier this year hired First Solar to build and operate the 130-MW project and is working on another, 150-MW project in Imperival Valley as well.

The field of solar project development has gotten a lot more crowded in the past two years, particularly as solar panel prices have collapsed and manufacturers seek more lucrative sources of revenues. Canadian Solar, GCL-Poly Energy, Trina Solar and Hanwha Group are among the list of Chinese and Korean solar equipment manufacturers who have moved into the project development realm. OCI, a silicon maker in Korea, bought Cornerstone Power Development last year to enter the project development business, and it won that 400 MW intallation deal with San Antonio's CPS Energy earliert this year. SunPower and First Solar already have found success in using their solar panels for large-scale solar farms that they also develop and sell. 

Meanwhile, a number of long-time electric power producers or utilities also are getting into the game. NRG Energy, which has invested in mega solar farms developed and built by others, started its own project development arm and, specifically, a solar engineering and construction business called Sunora. Sunora, based in Phoenix, is a joint venture between NRG and silicon wafer maker GCL, and it announced the opening of a factory to pre-assemble solar panels with mounting systems before shipping them to a construction site. Sunora aims to win business from solar farm developers other than NRG.

The term “project development” is quite broad. It could start with a blank piece of paper and fill in the perquisites, from scouting and securing a project site, sketching out the size and technology choice of the power plant, obtaining permits and financing to overseeing the construction and sales of electricity to utilities. Some of the new entrants in the project development field haven’t quite decided on what in-house expertise they want to cultivate and what they want to outsource, said Boris Schubert, CEO of Q-Cells North America. That was the extent of Schubert’s answer when I asked him earlier this month whether Q-Cells had been talking business with any of the Chinese and Korean solar panel makers who have announced plans to enter the project development space.

Q-Cells North America offers engineering, procurement and construction services and recently completed two projects totalling 30 MW in California for Pacific Gas and Electric. The company also has built projects in Ontario Canada. And on Monday, it announced a contract with SolarVision to build a 5-MW project in Ohio.

Q-Cells North America has been keen to stress that it’s able and willing to take on more projects even though its future is a bit uncertain its parent company in Germany struggles to figure out its fate. Q-Cells the parent company, once the world’s largest solar cell maker, filed for bankruptcy in April this year. It just announced yesterday that it had gotten a take-over offer from Hanwha. Today, reports emerged that Isofoton of Spain also wants to buy Q-Cells, Q-Cells’ creditors are scheduled to meet this Wednesday to consider the bids and perhaps reach a decision.

Tenaska is a power plant owner, and it doesn’t have an in-house crew to engineer and build solar farms. For the Silverleaf project, it expects Agile to shepherd the project only through the permitting process. The project then presents a good opportunity for solar construction firms. Tenaska still has to line up a buyer of the solar electricity from Silverleaf. 

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Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring. In addition to Renewable En...

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