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Commercial-scale solar developers pocket funding

Venture capital firms pony up the money as they diversify beyond strictly technology-oriented green-tech companies.

Two solar project developers this week raised funds to install commercial and utility scale projects from a somewhat unlikely source: venture capital firms.

On Friday, Tioga Energy said it has raised $20 million to build out its business of providing project financing for commercial and municipal solar installations, such as schools and businesses. Investors included solar wafer manufacturer MEMC and venture capital companies NGEN Partners, Nth Power, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

SunBorne Energy Holdings on Wednesday disclosed that it has secured $5.2 million in funding from venture-capital company General Catalyst. It plans to develop utility-scale solar projects in India, including a planned solar thermal project in the state of Gujarat.

Although they are addressing different customers, both companies are in the business of renewable energy project development, where they build, own, and then maintain solar installations.That model is typically used for non-residential solar because third-party financing makes investment far more attractive to prospective customers such as businesses and utilities.

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Tioga Energy provides power purchase agreements in which the customer doesn't have to pay the upfront cost of the solar panels. Instead, it purchases the electricity generated by the panels from Tioga, which finances the installation and manages ongoing operation.

Financing renewable energy projects is typically done by banks or companies specialized in project financing, but that source of money has dried up in the economic downturn. Venture capitalists, meanwhile, have typically stayed clear of project finance because they seek bigger financial returns by investing in technology or business model innovations.

But General Catalyst is starting to look at project development companies as part of its mix of investments, said investor Bilal Zuberi in his blog. "Strong execution, plus control over a scarce resource, allows a developer to not just create value from projects on the ground but also from future pipeline of projects," he said.

The series B round for Tioga Energy will serve to finance construction and development of new projects. NGEN Partner Steve Parry in a statement said it invested in Tioga's series B round with MEMC to accelerate the adoption of green technology and renewable energy.