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Getting the Band Back Together: E3i Tosses Hat Into Utility-scale Solar PV Ring

Regions continue to hungrily build out utility-scale solar PV projects worldwide. Utility-scale installations this year already exceed a record 6 GWp and are on track to top 8 GWp, up from 5.6 GWp in 2012 and 3.6 GWp in 2011. That's a market value of " well over $10 billion," says Wiki-Solar founder Philip Wolfe, which tracks this sector.

As interest in these projects surges, engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms are clamoring to help build them, from solar companies that have moved downstream (First Solar, SunPower, SunEdison) to more traditional solar builders (Juwi, Martifer) to larger general EPC firms who are quickly establishing a foothold (Bechtel, Fluor).

Most of E3 International's founders and executive team comes from First Solar, including its CEO Jim Lamon, who led First Solar's EPC business until his departure in August 2012. After a year-long noncompete period, much of that former team that helped shape the U.S.' utility-scale solar PV market is reassembling, armed with "north of $10 billion of power plants" in their collective resumes, he said.

Lamon explained the company started out targeting a smaller defined band of "utility-scale" solar PV, around 5 MW and up to 50 MW, but quickly they've reset and expanded their sights on bigger goals, "in the 25-MW range up to 400 MW," he said. They'll only work with poly/mono-crystalline silicon technology (not thin-film) because of the technology's current efficiency levels and roadmap-promised improvements, and they'll be module-agnostic among top-tier vendors.

E3i's plan is to verticalize just the right amount in both directions. The company "is not nor do we intend to be a developer," but will offer support and guidance for those developers, Lamon said, such as first-hand knowledge of sensitive environmental mitigation issues, to help developers navigate more smoothly, squeeze development times down, and realize better returns. It's all about knowing "the lever that'll move the IRR without moving the cost point that far," he said. "There's a way to manage that, to make their concerns go away, but at the same time without a lot of impact to the overall budget." At the other end of the scale, E3i will work through to a 3-5 year operations & maintenance (O&M) package, but without large overhead of bigger EPC firms. "It's not a typical EPC that can work from front-end development support all the way through that five-year O&M wrap," Lamon said.

E3i is currently backed by its founders and some angel funding has been enough to build out the company's infrastructure "ahead of schedule," Lamon said. Now they're in "fairly deep discussions" with two venture-capital proposals — and have turned down several other offers — to help expand capacity and their balance sheets, but they don't need it to start bringing in business, he added.

Prospective customers are currently solely in the Southwest and Southeast U.S., sized around 20 MW up to above 100 MW, all of whom knew E3i's execs from past solar or fossil-fuel deals, Lamon said. The company already been shortlisted on nine deals for what Lamon called "a nice volume of work," and he projects the company will start its first utility-scale solar PV project by mid-2014. Based on what he's seen from potential customers, business for 2014 "looks good" including some that's "below the radar," while prospects for 2015 and 2016 are "very strong." Future goals are to expand into the northeast U.S. and Canada, Lamon said, and perhaps eventually into Australia and the Middle East.

Is there a sweet-spot for any company looking to get into utility-scale solar EPC? "The barrier to entry for an experienced team like E3i is fairly low," opined Wade Shafer, senior research analyst for IHS. The best opportunities in the 20-30 MW range, projects that independent developers have been winning in California, he explained, while securing the EPC business for hundred-megawatt projects will be tougher since that's where more vertically integrated players (including First Solar) are entrenched. Still, there are large projects out there seeking PPAs that will eventually need contractors, notably California's investor-owned utilities that need to shore up their final RPS compliance, he added. There's also some opportunity for moving into longer-term O&M contracts or system performance guarantees to compete with other EPCs that offer the full package.

Lead image: Solar power plant in construction, via Shutterstock

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