eSolar has been focusing increasingly on building large-scale plants in the U.S., and shedding plans to do the same overseas. Just last week, it announced that it sold its rights to build 500 megawatts worth of solar-thermal plants to NRG Energy for $10 million in equity. Now it’s licensing its technology to Indian power company Acme Group, which will use it to build solar-thermal plants in India capable of producing 1,000 megawatts. In exchange, Acme will invest $30 million in Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar.
The company is not giving up on plant construction projects like many of its peers — who have turned their attention to less-risky solar equipment sales. Silicon Valley firms Ausra and Optisolar have chosen this route, more out of necessity than strategy in today’s economic climate. The frozen credit market has made it all but impossible for smaller energy companies to cobble together the massive funds needed for plant construction and operation.
But eSolar remains in a position to continue building plants, and will apply the cash from the deal with Acme to fund current projects in the U.S., according to chief executive officer Bill Gross. There are many advantages to plant construction, despite the heavy price tag. Companies who do it successfully are able to draw revenue from ongoing contracts with utilities and enjoy a fairly consistent stream of income. Equipment sales are much more susceptible to the ups and downs of the market, and the competition is much thicker, driving down prices.
This may be gloomy news for the solar startup community, but is pretty advantageous for larger, well-funded companies shopping for contracts and technology at bargain prices. In a recent example, First Solar, the definitive leader in the thin-film business, just acquired a batch of solar construction projects from Hayward, Calif.-based Optisolar for $400 million in stock. Its buy included a $1 billion, 550-megawatt solar facility in California (along with a contract with Pacific Gas & Electric) and 19-gigawatts-worth of fields throughout the southwest. And Spanish renewable energy giant Fotowatio just purchased the full solar project portfolio of struggling MMA Renewable Ventures, including an existing 14-megawatt plant in Nevada. MMA is known for financing solar facility construction, retaining ownership and selling the electricity to large utilities. Its buyout will make Fotowatio one of the biggest solar developers in the U.S., even though it’s not even based here.
As for eSolar, it’s hard at work on a demonstration solar-thermal plant in southern California, which it will use as a model for the commercial-scale plants it still hopes to roll out in the future.