June 21, 2011 / 8:43 PM / 6 years ago

CleanPath sets $800 million fund to invest in solar

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Renewable energy investment firm CleanPath LLC will pour more than $800 million into large photovoltaic solar projects in North America, the company said on Tuesday.

The company's new fund is expected to invest in more than 1,000 megawatts of solar power plants over the next five years. The plants will range in size from 5 MW to over 100 MW.

Since the financial crisis, financing has been a major bottleneck for big solar projects that many see as critical to driving down the cost of the emissions-free power source.

The tax equity market, the key financing tool used by solar developers, has recovered in the years since the collapse of major player Lehman Brothers. In that market, developers sell the future tax benefits of the project to a financial partner who uses them to reduce tax liability.

But solar financing activity is still not at the levels enjoyed prior to the crisis.

"We are looking to do things that are not being done," CleanPath Chief Executive Matt Cheney said in an interview. "There is certainly an opportunity here."

Given the high risk associated with financing the later stages of big solar projects, Cheney said CleanPath expected to generate returns of more than 15 percent.

"If you are developing a large-scale solar farm, the checks that you have to write for PPA reservations and transmission deposits and things like that are into the millions," he said. "It may in fact be difficult for many development shops to finance those later stage deposits and other things. We are writing the big checks."

Cheney and Chief Financial Officer Karin Berardo formerly worked with MMA Renewables Ventures, an energy investment firm that was sold to Spain's Fotowatio.

Cheney, in particular, founded Renewable Ventures in 2004 and managed that company's sale to MuniMae before orchestrating the sale to Fotowatio in 2009.

This time around, Cheney said his San Francisco-based company will be focused on developing and investing in projects that will eventually be sold.

"We came to the realization that there were a lot of buyers looking to own these built assets," Cheney said.

In recent years companies such as NRG Energy Inc, Macquarie Group Ltd and others have been adding solar projects to their portfolios.

Additional reporting by Matt Daily, editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Gary Hill

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