BlueChip Energy Lines Up Solar Cell Maker as Equity Investor in Florida Solar Farm

Florida lacks a renewable portfolio standard, so it doesn’t make it easy for solar project developers to build utility-scale plants. One company, BlueChip Energy, is trying to do that, and announced on Tuesday a new investor in the 120-megawatt (MW) solar farm that it is working on. Taiwanese silicon solar cell maker Neo Solar Power will provide 10 MW of cells in exchange for an equity stake.

BlueChip claims it’s seeking to line up similar agreements with other solar equipment manufacturers for the 40-MW, first phase of Sorrento, so that it can skip seeking project financing from financial institutions. If BlueChip is successful, Sorrento would certainly be a departure from the usual way a large-scale solar project gets financed.

BlueChip plans to use its own panel assembly business, Advanced Solar Photonics, to assemble Neo Solar’s cells into panels, BlueChip said. The Florida company announced its plan to develop Sorrento in March this year and signed a power purchase agreement with Progress Energy. The March announcement talked about 40 MW for Sorrento, but the company appears to have expanded that to 120 MW since.

BlueChip is a bit of a mystery. The company doesn’t list its executives or members of its advisory board on its website, though it quoted some of its executives in previous press releases.  

The company has been developing a 10-MW solar project in Florida, and last year inked a power purchase agreement with Progress Energy for that amount. Progress Energy’s spokeswoman, Suzanne Grant, confirmed that the utility signed a 10-MW agreement with BlueChip last December, and another 40-MW deal in March this year.

The agreements are non-binding and have no set delivery dates, she said. Florida doesn’t require its utilities to buy any specific form of energy, so there is no budget set aside to pay for renewable energy, which tends to cost more than power from conventional sources such as coal and natural gas.

As a result, when BlueChip starts to deliver electricity to Progress, Progress will pay BlueChip for the amount it would otherwise spend on producing power itself. Progress, which serves retail customers not only in Florida but also in North Carolina and South Carolina, owns coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower plants.

Progress is interested in adding more solar to its energy mix and has signed power purchase agreements for about 400 MW of solar in Florida, said Progress spokesman Scott Sutton. The company also runs a solar incentive program called SunSense for residential and commercial installations in Florida and the Carolinas.

The Florida program is strictly a rebate to help defray the upfront installation cost. SunSense in the Carolinas offers upfront rebates for residential customers and a performance-based incentive for commercial customers.  The performance-based program offers $0.18 per kilowatt-hour, which is three times more than what Progress spends producing its own electricity, said Sutton said.

BlueChip seems to be making progress with the 10-MW project it calls Rinehart Solar Farm. The company said in a press release last month that it had completed 1.2 MW of the project and was building another 800 kW. The solar panels are on the rooftop of its corporate offices and manufacturing plant in Lake Mary. The company said it’s using the solar electricity onsite. When it will deliver power to Progress is unclear. We’ve contacted BlueChip about the Rinehart and Sorrento projects and will update the story if we hear back.

For the Sorrento Solar Farm, BlueChip is hoping to line up other investors for the first 40-MW phase. Grant said Progress could buy more than 40 MW from Sorrento because the utility is looking for more solar power. 

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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 Energy World, she writes for Earth2tech/GigaOm, Forbes,Technology Review (MIT) and PV Magazine. You can reach her at uciliawang@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @UciliaWang

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