Signal Energy wins its biggest solar project

Signal Energy wins its biggest solar project

February 17th, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Signal Energy CEO Ben Fischer stands stands in his office Tuesday morning.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


JD Wind Farms, Panhandle, Texas, 180 megawatts

Enel Wind Farm, Rocky Ridge, Okla., 149 megawatts

Forest Creek Wind Farm, Big Spring, Texas, 124 megawatts

St. Leon Wind Farm, Manitoba, Canada, 120 megawatts

Snyder Wind Farm, Snyder, Texas, 63 megawatts

Digby Wind Project, Nova Scotia, 30 megawatts

Spectrum Solar Facility, Clark County, Nev., 30 megawatts

Hopi Solar Project, Carlsbad, N.M., 10 megawatts

Tennessee Solar Farm, Brownsville, Tenn., 5 megawatts

Green Acres Solar Farm, Sacramento, Calif., 4.5 megawatts

Source: Signal Energy


Signal Energy was named the No. 2 solar installer of 2012 by Solar Power World magazine, second only to First Solar. The "Top 100 Solar Contractors" list names public and privately owned companies according to their annual and total solar photovoltaic megawatt installations.

Ben Fischer quips that years ago he headed a company that helped power plants handle their waste products and was "green before it was cool to be green."

Today, Fischer is chief executive of Signal Energy, a Chattanooga business named the nation's No. 2 installer of solar arrays in 2012 by Solar Power World magazine.

"What it's about is stewardship," said Fischer, whose company recently won a contract to build its largest solar project ever -- a 311-acre solar farm in Nevada.

Signal Energy, a subsidiary of Chattanooga-based construction giant EMJ Corp., has gone from a startup in 2005 to doing more than $100 million in business last year, he said.

Plans are to grow that number in 2013, Fischer said in a recent interview in his East Brainerd office.

"We expect that the next few years will be record-setting years," he said.

Signal designs and constructs utility-scale renewable energy projects, finishing more than 40 solar and wind power jobs so far.

With about 125 employees, including 30 in Chattanooga, it draws on the resources of parent EMJ, which builds shopping centers, schools and other projects.

Also, over a year ago, Barnhart Crane & Rigging Co. of Memphis became a part owner and helps provide even more resources for Signal, Fischer said.

"We have the same values and the same vision," he said.

Fischer, who has overseen Signal since its startup eight years ago, headed his own business starting in the early 1990s that recycled industrial waste products into energy. He was looking at renewable resources even at that time.

At Signal Energy, the company's work last year was about evenly split between solar and wind, Fischer said. That flexibility has helped the company as government incentives wind down in one business segment or the other.

While both solar and wind manufacturers in the United States have seen fortunes wax and wane, Signal has prospered in the niche of designing and building the large-scale renewable energy projects, Fischer said.

"Being a manufacturer in the U.S. in these industries is very difficult," he said. "We're not a manufacturer. We've been able to grow in that utility-scale sector."

Also, the company does electrical substation and transmission work, which acts as a good business hedge. In addition, Fischer said Signal Energy focuses heavily on quality and safety.

"By doing that, it saves time, effort and money," he said.

Fischer said, for example, that the Nevada project will use solar panels which move and track the sun during the day, giving the project dramatically higher output than static photovoltaic units.

The 30 megawatt project will go up for Atlanta-based energy titan Southern Co. and Turner Renewable Energy, a company led by Georgia billionaire and former McCallie School boarding student Ted Turner.

Tim Leljedal, a Southern Co. spokesman, said the utility is in a joint venture with Turner to pursue large-scale solar projects and the Spectrum Solar Facility outside Las Vegas is its third.

"There's no single solution to meet our customers' energy needs," he said. "It takes a combination of energy resources. Solar is an important part of our long-term energy mix."

The partnership will sell the power produced by the Spectrum project, to be finished later this year, to NV Energy Co. headquartered in Las Vegas under a long-term agreement, Leljedal said. He said the project's cost hasn't been publicly disclosed.

Fischer said the Spectrum array will be at least three times as large as the solar park recently constructed next to Chattanooga's Volks-wagen plant, which is the biggest in Tennessee.

Signal Energy has built even larger wind projects than the Spectrum Solar Facility.

Signal has built solar and wind farms across the nation and worked in Canada as well. The CEO said the company also is looking at other international sites.

When the business started, Fischer said, there was a lot of talk about conservation and environmental stewardship, and that's still a key.

Because the sun rises every day and it can be tracked with great accuracy, solar costs and outputs are predictable over a 20-year period, he said.

"A renewable plant is like a bond in a portfolio," Fischer said.

A factor helping solar jobs is that project costs are down sharply as polysilicon prices, a key ingredient in photovoltaic panels, are down by 90 percent in the past five years. Also, the scale of manufacturing such a big project also cuts costs, Fischer said. He said that Signal's installation costs are less than half compared to just three years ago.

Fischer bemoaned what he said is the lack of an energy policy in the United States. He added that there are a lot of tax incentives built in the code for existing energy sectors such as oil and gas. Those don't have to be renewed on a frequent basis, while incentives for wind and solar require reapprovals, he said.