Wisconsin solar developer looks to expand to Chicago

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Seeking to capitalize on Illinois’ burgeoning solar market and the city’s robust, diverse talent pool in the energy sector, SunVest Solar is opening a new office in downtown Chicago to support its growing team.

Illinois’ Community Solar Garden and Distributed Generation programs, as well as “Solar for All,” which seek to promote the fair and equitable development of solar in low- and moderate-income communities, have spurred the expansion from SunVest’s roots in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Bram Walters, chief executive officer, told pv magazine USA.

In addition to the Inflation Reduction Act’s enhanced investment tax credit structure with adders that can add up to a more than 40% ITC, as well as the standalone storage ITC, SunVest Solar is also looking to install energy storage across a greater percentage of its development pipeline of future projects, Walters noted.

After an investment career spanning close to two decades, most recently as partner of the company’s equity sponsor, Euclid Capital, Walters took the reins of SunVest in December as CEO after serving as interim chief financial officer and on the company’s board since 2020.

SunVest Solar was formed in 2009 by Matt Neumann, a residential real estate developer from Wisconsin. His second-generation home building and development companies have developed and built over 6,000 homes in Wisconsin. Seeing an opportunity to add solar to homes, Neumann decided to start a solar company with the idea that the company would expand into commercial, industrial, and small utility-scale solar projects.

Mark Neumann (left) and son Matt Neumann (right) have been involved in the Midwest real estate and solar market for decades. (Neumann Companies)

In November 2020, Euclid lined up a $50 million equity investment in SunVest that guaranteed financing for the company’s strong development pipeline, as the company was heavily involved in distributed generation projects, including community solar, as well as some utility solar projects, Walters said.

That initial investment “provided the building blocks and support to help the platform scale up to more than 50 employees,” Walters said about investing in company founder Matt Neumann’s Midwest-based solar development business. Following the investment, Neumann segued into the role of executive chairman at SunVest.

Euclid had a distributed generation solar project portfolio assembled at the time, which fused with SunVest’s industry-leading pipeline of community solar and small utility-scale projects, to create a vertically integrated development platform, Walters said.

Entering 2023 with 53 full-time employees, SunVest is in hiring mode and hopes to get to 75 employees by summer, as the company seeks to expand its concentration of development resources from 14 states with a 1.5 GW project pipeline.

With states such as Illinois and New Mexico adding new sources of community solar projects, Walters said he expects the company’s 2025 pipeline to double to 3 GW from its current threshold, with an expectation to have 215 MW of operating assets under management by the end of this year.

On the supply side, the company, like other developers, continues to see a challenging lead time environment, Walters said.  SunVest has adapted to become increasingly strategic and forward-looking over the last few years in terms of modules, inverters and other components sourced.

SunVest has installed systems using Canadian Solar and Heliene modules. The company has used racking hardware from Array Technologies on multiple ground-mounted projects.

In the Midwest, SunVest developed solar canopies, ballasted landfill sites, ground mount and rooftop commercial projects for small businesses, municipal utilities, non-profits and educational institutions. WEC Group’s We Energies utility, Alliant Energy, and the Elkhorn Rural Public Utilities, are a few of the utility counterparties the company has worked with to install projects.

Solar apprenticeship

SunVest is also preparing for future workforce needs. In 2022, the company acquired Chicago electrical contractor ReThink Electric, which provides electrical services for residential, commercial, and community solar projects. The contractor remains a separate entity but is a sister company to SunVest.

ReThink operates one of the only Department of Labor-licensed electrical apprenticeship programs in Illinois, Walters said. The program applies to the IRA as it requires every solar project >1MW employ a number of licensed apprentices. SunVest’s ReThink program can help developers nationwide meet this key requirement, he said.

ReThink operates under a strong culture of diversity, and today over 50% of the company’s workforce identifies as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). This social inclusion attribute positions ReThink well to prepare for Illinois’ diversity requirements in the growing solar market, Walters said.

New markets 

SunVest’s 8 MW Elkhorn portfolio, which consists of three community solar projects for the Elkhorn Rural Public Power District in Battle Creek, Neb., is an example of a project that could qualify for adders under the IRA that promote the development of distributed generation assets in regions of stranded grid transmission and distribution capacity, Walters said.

Assets such as Elkhorn, which received funding from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) program, can qualify for different federal incentives such as RUS and certain IRA adders, while alleviating the need of the offtake counter-party or utility from having to make a costly T&D upgrade, he said.  The RUS electric program provides funding to support demand-side management, energy efficiency and conservation programs, plus on-and off-grid renewable energy system deployments to rural customers.

SunVest is seeking to continue building upon its core Midwest markets like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska, and also expand into new markets like New Mexico and Maine.  Many of these projects can qualify for adders under the IRA program. The company’s 3 MW to 20 MW size range for projects is a good fit for upper New England where the developer has worked on three projects in Maine, with several more in the pipeline.

Besides Walters and Neumann, Tim Polz, the company’s chief development officer Tim Polz, spent over 15 years constructing solar and wind projects at SoCore Energy, Midwest Wind Energy and Geronimo Energy, now operated by National Grid.

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