by Francis Hodsoll, Jon Hillis and Melody S. Gee
Melody S. Gee is a business and technical writer in St. Louis, MO.
Next spring, SolUnesco will celebrate five years as one of our state’s leading solar developers. As we reflect on our growth and the excitement of upcoming projects, we wanted to share the story of our beginnings: two passionate developers, a well-timed market opportunity, and deep commitment to best practices.
Seizing Opportunity from the Beginning
In 2015, Jon Hillis and Francis Hodsoll were independently working in construction and consulting, respectively. That year, they collaborated in support of state legislation that found solar energy to be in the public interest, and thus set a 500MW goal for the electrical regulator. When the legislation passed, Jon and Francis recognized the opportunity immediately—the potential opening in the market for clean, renewable energy, and for the state of Virginia to be on the forefront of bringing jobs and tax revenue to the state. In April of 2015, SolUnesco was created.
Forming Strong Partnerships
Immediately, SolUnesco targeted several markets in Virginia, pursued real estate deals, and cultivated partnerships with local community governments. From the beginning, the company knew it needed strong relationships, agility, and an eye for smart timing, in order to grow into one of the most recognized and reputable solar developers in the state. SolUnesco’s approach struck a balance between measured and caution and informed risk, looking for potential where others might not.
In late 2015, we encountered fellow solar developers from One Energy at an industry conference. We began sharing about our projects, processes for engaging landowners, and best practices for controlling land for upcoming development. Soon, we created a partnership and co-developed six solar projects with One Energy.
A Sudden Change in Plans
Then, in the spring of 2016, SunEdison declared bankruptcy. At the time, One Energy had sold multiple projects to SunEdison, which they suddenly needed to shift their focus to. Recognizing this major development could mean a setback for our Virginia projects, we approached One Energy with a plan: we proposed to buy back all of SolUnesco’s projects.
It would be a win-win, allowing One Energy to focus on their pressing challenges of the moment, and giving SolUnesco the opportunity to keep the projects we believed were viable. Of course, we needed to find buyers for those projects—we didn’t have the capital on hand to purchase them outright. So, we offered to buy back the rights to those projects, giving us some time to source new owners and return One Energy’s investment to them.
Developing Our Expertise as Boots on the Ground
Our networking led us to executives at Brookfield and Sol Systems, both well-timed encounters that led to the sale of six One Energy projects—two to Brookfield and four to Sol Systems. In general, we enter into contractual relationships whereby the project owner provides funding, technical and project development expertise, and we provide local boots on the ground, representing the projects to counties and stakeholders, working with landowners, and obtaining local permits. SolUnesco specializes in developing a network in the communities where we have projects.
Between 2016 and today, projects have matured, shifted, and successfully sold, as our partnerships have continued to develop and strengthen. Our ultimate focus has always been on developing projects with high potential and local benefits. So, when we noticed that one project sold to Sol Systems wasn’t expected to move forward, our research led us to believe the best move would be to buy it back and develop it ourselves. Eventually, we sold that project (along with three others we had developed) to Apex Clean Energy. And we’re currently in the process of buying back a fourth project from Sol Systems. At SolUnesco, we research our market thoroughly to ensure our projects have the highest chance of success.
What Sets Us Apart
In five years, we’ve learned more than a few things about what it takes to be a major player in the utility-scale solar industry. Our agility is a particular point of pride. Solar projects like ours require vision and long-term investments, along with the ability to adapt to unforeseen changes. We’ve honed our ability to pivot and follow through with our commitments with both focus and flexibility.
Our other strength and passion is engaging with local communities, including landowners, planning commissions, boards of supervisors, county administrators, and other stakeholders. We are, at heart, good neighbors who are committed to being present with the communities we hope will benefit from solar development. To illustrate: SolUnesco spearheaded the creation of SHINE a unique public-private partnership that trains local workers in Southside Virginia to work in constructing utility-scale solar facilities. Further, we educate local businesses about opportunities and ensure they are well positioned to benefit from the tens of millions of dollars in local investment. SolUnesco also sits at the negotiating table with Virginia counties to develop tax policies that balance maximizing local fiscal benefits with keeping solar energy price competitive. We dedicate a great deal of time to both maximizing local benefits and building local relationships.
We do our homework and stay informed on crucial issues that impact solar in our communities—local tax policy, environmental concerns, viewsheds, and more—because we care about who we work with. We know that the successes of our projects rest on the strength of our local relationships. In multiple counties, our relationships with our landowners and key stakeholders have allowed us to more effectively demonstrate local benefits to local governing bodies. Over the years, many of our contacts have become good friends.
The Future for SolUnesco
Today, SolUnesco has twelve projects in active development, covering approximately 12,000 acres in Virginia. As development progresses, these projects will deliver continued benefits and returns for the local communities. Looking toward the future, we’re excited to take our real estate development model and market savvy into new markets both within and beyond Virginia. With a well-honed and continuously developing process, we know what it takes to push into the next market, and the next one beyond that.