SunEdison Installs Solar Panels On Kohl's Rooftops
Employees of SunEdison install photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of a Kohl's Department Store. Photograph by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Financial Turmoil at SunEdison Imperils Solar Projects Worldwide

Apr 09, 2016

In November, solar energy giant SunEdison reported that its project pipeline had grown by 75% in just a year, the result of an aggressive growth strategy.

Now, five months later, many of those projects are imperiled as SunEdison reportedly prepares to declare bankruptcy.

SunEdison's rapid growth in planned capacity—from 4.5 gigawatts to 7.9 GW in 12 months, according to a company press release—was propelled by an acquisition spree and aggressive underbidding of rivals on projects. Put in perspective, a typical nuclear power plant has a capacity of 1 GW.

Among the deals now in question is a solar plant under construction for the central Texas community of Georgetown. SunEdison initially told officials there it would self-finance the project, but now wants to make alternative funding arrangements.

At SunEdison's request, the city last month authorized financing through Morgan Stanley (ms), but the financial services firm has yet to agree to the arrangement.

In February, Hawaiian Electric Company (he) cited project delays in canceling a contract with SunEdison to purchase power from three solar facilities the company was building on the island of Oahu.

And last month, TerraForm Global (glbl)—a related company set up to own and operate clean energy assets developed overseas by SunEdison—warned of delays in construction on two projects in Uruguay and a wind venture in India. Another of SunEdison's Indian ventures, a 500 megawatt solar plant that is one of the country's biggest forays into renewable energy, has not yet broken ground. Industry sources said it will likely be re-bid unless another company steps in to buy it.

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SunEdison declined to comment on the number and status of its unfinished deals. Company releases and news reports suggest the company has dozens of projects in development, ranging from massive power plants to small rooftop arrays.

The company has already sold off some large ventures, including its portion of the massive Beacon Solar project going up in California's Mojave desert, which Swiss investment firm Capital Dynamics bought last month.

SunEdison and First Reserve—which jointly own the huge 156 MW Comanche Solar plant underway in Colorado—asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in March for expedited approval to sell that project. The FERC filing said the parties had identified three potential buyers.

First Reserve, which financed the plant but never intended to be a long-term owner, declined to comment.

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SunEdison was until recently the nation's fastest growing renewable energy developer, but the company now faces a cash crunch and $12 billion in debt, according to regulatory filings. Its shares have fallen about 98% over the past 12 months.

In March, SunEdison warned that it could not yet file its annual financial results for 2015 because it was investigating former executives' allegations that the company's disclosures of liquidity were incorrect. The company also said in filings that it faces scrutiny from regulators at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over a failed deal and other issues. [ID: nL3N1735EJ]

A SunEdison bankruptcy would rank among the largest by asset value involving a non-financial company in a decade, according to bankruptcydata.com.

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When the city of Georgetown signed on with SunEdison last year, city leaders announced they had taken the final step toward a power supply entirely independent of fossil fuels.

If negotiations drag on—or Morgan Stanley balks at financing the deal—Georgetown may have to look elsewhere for power. Keeping its commitment to all-renewable power by 2017 might require piecing together power contracts from other projects while it seeks a new long-term solution. Morgan Stanley declined to comment.

"I literally have a book at the office with Plan A, Plan B, Plan C," said Chris Foster, a manager at Georgetown's municipal utility. "We'll just flip the page if that happens."

In the suburban Los Angeles community of Duarte, the school district's Chief Facilities Officer Brad Patterson said he is wary but hopeful that the solar parking canopies planned for four schools will go up as planned.

He said SunEdison officials told him they have lined up an investor willing to buy the unfinished Duarte project along with others underway in California school systems.

Still, Patterson is consulting lawyers on the district's options.

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After the Hawaiian Electric Company canceled its contract with SunEdison, it said it would consider offers from other companies to complete the three planned projects.

The solar company objected, saying it had already spent $42 million on construction. SunEdison proposed to sell the projects back to D.E. Shaw Group—the same investors that had sold them to SunEdison just a year earlier. Projects in Utah and California are also tied up in that transaction.

The Hawaiian utility has objected to such a sale over concerns that it could get bogged down in a SunEdison bankruptcy—especially because D.E. Shaw would be a creditor in those proceedings. D.E. Shaw had no comment on the situation.

"Those projects could be tied up for a long time," said Hawaiian Electric spokesman Darren Pai. "It was important to us to keep jurisdiction of these projects in Hawaii and not have the projects involved in a bankruptcy."

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