Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Investors not shying away from solar power - San Francisco Chronicle

Stion, a new solar manufacturer in San Jose, has raised a total of $234.6 million from venture capitalists and other investors.

Solyndra notwithstanding, some investors are still willing to bet big money on solar power.

Google, for example, reported Tuesday that it will invest $94 million to help build four solar power plants near Sacramento.

And Stion, a San Jose startup that makes thin-film solar cells, said Tuesday that it has raised another $130 million in private investments, much of it from Korean private equity funds.

The high-profile bankruptcy of Fremont's Solyndra in September prompted intense scrutiny of all manner of solar companies and projects, particularly those involved in manufacturing. A flood of inexpensive solar cells pouring from new factories in China has undercut many American solar businesses, pushing several into bankruptcy.

But the plunge in solar-cell prices has been a boon to developers of solar power plants.

The four plants that Google will fund - along with investors Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. - will be built by San Francisco's Recurrent Energy, a subsidiary of Sharp Corp. The plants will sell their electricity to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and should begin operations next year. Three are already under construction.

"The declining cost of solar has really driven demand for us, in our business," said Arno Harris, Recurrent's CEO. "I would say unequivocally that there's a ton of interest in investing in these projects."

Google has already invested in solar-thermal power plants, which use mirrors to concentrate sunlight, generate steam and turn turbines. But the Recurrent project marks the first time the Internet search giant has invested in power plants that use photovoltaic panels, which generate electricity directly from sunlight.

Google's clean-energy investments have now topped $915 million. The company reported in November that it was pulling the plug on an ambitious four-year research effort to make renewable power cheaper than coal, but it has not stopped investing in the sector.

Stion, meanwhile, has now raised a total of $234.6 million from venture capitalists and other investors. The company will use some of the most recent funding to expand its solar-module manufacturing facility in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Stion also will create a subsidiary in Korea to build a factory there, supplying thin-film solar modules to growing markets in Asia. One of the lead investors in Stion's new financing round is Avaco, a Korean company that makes thin-film processing equipment.

"Solar has always been a global business, and this investment enables Stion to address market demand in Asia and beyond," said Chet Farris, Stion's CEO. "We have added world-class investors as well as a strategic partner with deep technical expertise."