Changes are afoot at one of the largest U.S. solar developers.
In the past week, California-based 8minutenergy completed the 328-megawatt Mount Signal 3 plant ahead of schedule. The Calexico plant's 2.8 million Series 4 thin-film panels from First Solar will supply power to utility Southern California Edison.
Separately, founder Tom Buttgenbach bought out founder and CEO Martin Hermann for ownership and control of the company. Buttgenbach now serves as president and CEO.
The change in ownership was spurred by a differences in strategic vision after nearly a decade of co-leadership, including about whether to go global or stay in the U.S., Buttgenbach said.
“The future of solar is going to be huge in the United States,” he said. “My firm belief is we need to be absolutely focused on this huge opportunity in front of us.”
As such, he plans to extract the company from a few projects it had begun in India and Bangladesh.
Tuesday, Buttgenbach announced he had secured $200 million from J. P. Morgan Asset Management, Upper Bay Infrastructure Partners and himself to finance development of a 10.7 gigawatt pipeline, which increasingly features energy storage.
The addition of storage allows more opportunities to compete on engineering and design, he said, compared to the relatively straightforward process of PV design.
“It becomes a fun sandbox of lots of parameters to optimize that we didn’t have in the past,” said Buttgenbach, who holds a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the California Institute of Technology.
The company is negotiating several large battery contracts; the first will be in California, Buttgenbach noted, but he declined to elaborate on the name or timeline.
8minutenergy otherwise distinguishes itself by clustering multiple projects in the same area, to stretch the operational learnings from the first project. As a privately held entity, 8minutenergy can take its time bringing projects to market compared to a company that has to post quick returns for shareholders. It typically develops greenfield projects and sells them by the time construction starts.
“When you buy a project that’s half done, you inherit a lot of stuff that you either know about before and you pay less for, or you find out later and kick yourself,” Buttgenbach said.
The company has been successful at early stage development and playing the long game, said Colin Smith, a senior analyst covering utility-scale solar at Wood Mackenzie.
“The market for solar is definitely promising for the next decade, so doubling down on the U.S. is not a bad play,” he said.
As a privately held firm, 8minutenergy doesn’t have access to the kind of balance sheet that multinationals like Enel or Engie can leverage. But scale is important for cost efficiencies.
The $200 million will fill in the gap. Structured as a joint venture that owns the projects, the money will allow the developers to tackle more than they otherwise could, in exchange for a chunk of the profits.
The company also announced it will begin construction in April on the 280 megawatt Holstein project in Texas. That one doesn't have a buyer yet, but will be located to the east of the wind congestion on the Texas grid, giving it a more favorable path to market.
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