Oil and gas delivery giant Enbridge Inc. makes first solar tech investment, throws $10 million into Morgan Solar

Gotta say, I found this a surprising one. Enbridge Inc., the Calgary-based oil/natural gas pipeline and delivery company, is investing $10 million in concentrated solar PV manufacturer Morgan Solar, which is based in Toronto. I say surprising because Enbridge, while it has invested in solar, wind and geothermal projects before — the kind that generate immediate cash flow and come with an acceptable level of risk — has never really put its money behind a greentech play, with the exception of fuel cells. It may be true that $10 million is couch change for this multibillion-dollar corporate giant, but keeping in mind this $10 million could have been spent elsewhere, this is an intriguing move by Enbridge.

Does it want to be in the same club as integrated oil company Cenovus, which has captured many headlines related to its venture investments in everything from fusion power to water desalination technology? Not sure, but perhaps this is the first of more tech investments to come — as sign that corporate capital is playing a more important role in a country where venture capital is hard to come by.

Morgan Solar, mind you, hasn’t had a tough time raising capital. In March 2011 it aimed to raise up to $25 million (U.S.), but with Enbridge joining the party the round is oversubscribed at $28.8 million. The interest in Morgan Solar is understandable. It has developed an inexpensive and innovative light-guide solar optic that captures and directs incoming sunlight into a tiny, high-efficiency, finger-nail sized PV chip, achieving a balance of cost, efficiency, weight, and low-profile (i.e. the system is really thin) that may be unrivaled in the market. The company says its systems cost less to build, ship, deploy and maintain than competing technologies. Indeed, it’s bold enough to say that its Sun Simba product will offer a lower Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) “than solar technologies on the market today, or known to be under development.”

It should be pointed out that Enbridge owns three solar facilities that together represent 100 megawatts of capacity. Most of that comes from its 80 MW Sarnia Solar Project, which until recently was the largest operating PV facility in the world. It’s unclear whether Enbridge eyes using Morgan Solar’s CPV systems in future projects, but the potential certainly exists for collaboration on smaller demonstration projects. The reality, however, is that Enbridge has so far let others take on solar development risks. It then steps in and buys finished, operational projects that are already generating cash.

Morgan has other partners in the mix, some of them strategic. Iberdrola S.A., one of the world’s largest renewable-energy utilities, is a strategic investor, as is Nypro Inc., a contract manufacturer specializing in precision injection molding. Nypro, for example, makes the light-guide optic for Morgan Solar.

Morgan Solar, by the way, was recently named — for the second time — to Corporate Knights’ Next 10 list of most promising Canadian cleantech companies.

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