Read original article in Nashville Business Journal.
Phil Bredesen‘s first Nashville-based solar company grew by supplying power to huge consumers such as Facebook Inc. data centers, General Motors Co. manufacturing plants and Vanderbilt University.
His next Nashville-based solar company is betting that thousands of smaller companies have the same desire to pop up more solar panels across the country.
Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor and Tennessee governor, is one of three co-founders of Clearloop. On Thursday, Clearloop will break ground on its first solar development, located in Jackson, two hours west of Nashville. Clearloop will install some 2,000 panels on about 10 football fields worth of farmland. Once operational next summer, the solar array will generate 1 megawatt of energy a year, enough to power 200 homes in Jackson for 40 years.
Renewable energy isn’t a key piece of Nashville’s economy, though it could turn into one if companies such as Clearloop can take off, making the economy that much more diverse. More companies and major corporations are setting goals for environmental and social impact and making them a more prominent part of how they do business. (Bredesen’s first solar business, Silicon Ranch Corp., ended 2020 by raising $225 million of investor equity at a rare $1 billion valuation.)
“Our thesis is that for every Facebook or Google or Microsoft, there are thousands of companies that want to invest to take climate action for their sustainability goals,” said Clearloop CEO Laura Zapata. “Maybe they’re not comfortable purchasing power for a long period of time. How do we get them to invest, so we can get the capital to build solar projects?”
For Clearloop’s first project, those backers include at least nine companies or people such as:
- Intuit Inc. (Nasdaq: INTU), which makes financial software.
- Vista Equity Partners, an Austin-based firm with $77 billion of assets under management.
- Hello Bello, a company that husband-and-wife actor duo Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard founded to make plant-based baby care products.
- Dropps, which makes eco-friendly pods of dishwasher detergent and other household cleaning products.
- Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell contributed proceeds of Earth Day merchandise sales.
Their motivations are wide-ranging, Zapata said. Dropps is paying to offset the impact of shipping its products and the electricity its employees are using to work from home during the pandemic. Vista Equity Partners is paying to offset emissions from its corporate travel and office operations — while believing that Clearloop will be improving racial equity in a city whose population is about 45% Black, said chairman and CEO Robert Smith.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and events of 2020 made clear there are persistent, structural challenges facing African-Americans, including in the Southeast,” Smith said in a statement. “All communities simultaneously face the existential risks of climate change. This groundbreaking project will address both issues, deploying solar energy into a particularly disadvantaged African-American community and creating local jobs.”
In total, those investors brought just less than $400,000 to the project, Zapata said. She described it as a “down payment” representing at least 30% of project costs, allowing Clearloop to corral the rest of the funds needed for the development. The bulk of that will come from investors who will put money into the development and, in exchange, be able to use the renewable energy tax credits that Clearloop is eligible to receive.
Silicon Ranch will own and operate the Clearloop solar array, which is located next to an existing Silicon Ranch operation. Silicon Ranch is not an investor in Clearloop, though the two companies will partner on this and Clearloop’s next projects, which are aimed at the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, Zapata said.
It’s not clear how many jobs the Jackson operation will involve once operational, Zapata said. It’s across the road from a Tennessee College of Applied Technology campus, and Zapata hopes to work with the school to have electricians in training gain solar expertise.
“We’re honing in on places where the grid is the most carbon intense, and where this sort of investment can be an economic development tool,” she said.
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