In 2009, things could not have looked worse for Toronto-based renewable-energy developer SkyPower Corp. A year earlier, its majority owner, U.S. investment bank Lehman Bros., had collapsed, triggering the global financial crisis. Lehman’s failure kicked the legs out from under SkyPower, which went into bankruptcy protection. Its budding portfolio of Canadian wind and solar assets was sold off.
The solar projects were purchased by California-based real estate and infrastructure fund manager CIM Group, which revamped the company as SkyPower Global. Now, the new entity has become one of the biggest solar developers on the planet, with offices in more than 30 countries and a pipeline of projects adding up to 25,000 megawatts, enough to potentially power tens of millions of homes.
Kerry Adler, who founded SkyPower and has run it since its inception, has become a globe-trotting solar evangelist, signing contracts from Bangladesh to Djibouti to Panama over the past couple of years. If these billions of dollars worth of projects come to fruition, SkyPower solar farms will be sprouting in developing countries around the globe over the next few years.
The list, and size, of deals Mr. Adler has signed with governments and their agencies is staggering. There’s a $5-billion (U.S.) joint venture in Nigeria to build 3,000 MW of utility-scale solar power, a similar-sized four-year project in Egypt, two large projects in the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, a $2.2-billion agreement to build 1,000 MW of solar projects in Kenya and a $4.3-billion deal in Bangladesh, among many others.
While none of these projects has yet been completed, the company expects to have “shovels in the ground” in India, Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria this year, Mr. Adler said.
Still, at this point, all of SkyPower’s operating solar farms remain in Ontario. While the company sold off many of its completed projects to Canadian Solar Inc. over the past few years, it held on to a handful of them.
SkyPower has also applied to build more in Ontario, under a new competitive bidding process that will see contracts go to those firms that can supply power for the lowest cost. SkyPower, like the other bidders, will find out later this week if they get new Ontario contracts.
But the developing world is where SkyPower wants to focus most of its efforts. That makes sense for a company with global ambitions, said Alex Klein, senior director for renewable power at Colorado-based research firm IHS Inc. Until recently, most solar-power development was in North America or Europe, but now “the vast majority of incremental power demand will come from the developing world,” Mr. Klein said. It helps that those regions have a lot of sunshine.
But SkyPower isn’t just a developer; it also acts as a mentor on renewable energy in many countries, Mr. Adler said. “I’ve advised almost a dozen heads of state over the last two years,” he said. “We try to find a streamlined approach to going from an idea that they want renewables to getting panels on the ground.”
Many of these countries have a history of unstable or corrupt governments, but Mr. Adler insists that his firm adheres to the laws and regulations in every country, and to the international rules against bribery and corruption. Indeed “we have walked away from potential opportunities” when there has been a scent of shadiness, he said.
In many of these countries, solar is attractive because it can help replace dirty coal- and diesel-fuelled power plants, and its distributed nature can bring electricity to millions of people who do not currently have access to power. “Solar is a miracle,” Mr. Adler said. “It answers the needs of the less fortunate because it is truly distributed power, at or below grid-parity prices today.”
The one big roadblock to getting more solar on the ground is access to capital, Mr. Adler said. SkyPower has to “scour the world” for lower-cost financing, because interest rates for projects in the developing world are often far higher than in Western countries.
“Even though solar energy is becoming so cost-effective, if we can’t find a way to deliver a lower cost of capital, it doesn’t bode well for these countries because they haven’t solved the biggest problem, which is how they are going to pay for it,” Mr. Adler said.
He is hopeful that a big new market for “green bonds” will help, as will the funds freed up as pension funds divest from fossil-fuel investments.
Mr. Adler is certainly not shy about promoting solar as an investment. Because of huge demand, more efficient panels and lower installation costs, “the best, most stable investment in the world today would be solar energy,” he said. “It is going to be bigger than computer chips, the personal computer or the Internet.”
At the same time, he added, solar can make a dent in poverty by lighting dark areas of the developing world.