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Morgan Stanley Backs $300 Million Rooftop Solar Investment Fund

By Cassandra Sweet Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES Morgan Stanley (MS) has put together a $300 million fund to invest in rooftop solar-power systems to be installed on U.S. homes in a deal with two clean-energy firms and Zions Bancorp (ZION). The fund will support about 8,000 residential rooftop solar systems, which will be installed by various solar-panel installers through contracts arranged by Clean Power Finance, a solar-power financing firm backed by Google Inc. (GOOG). Zions Bancorp will provide debt financing for the fund. Developing and owning solar-panel systems have become far more profitable than making the equipment. Investors can take advantage of federal and state subsidies, such as tax credits, while prices for solar panels have plunged over the last two years. In California, Arizona, New Jersey and other states that have solar incentives, rooftop solar projects can have an advantage over large solar farms because they compete against retail electricity prices. Those prices tend to be much higher than wholesale power prices that utilities pay for electricity from solar farms and other power plants. Manufacturers of solar panels have seen their profits and stock prices decline, as panel prices have fallen amid a global supply glut. Those who build and buy solar-panel systems, however, enjoy lower prices for panels and other components, while taking advantage of government subsidies, including a federal tax credit equal to 30% of the cost of each system and fees that utilities in several states are required to pay for rooftop solar power through net-metering programs. "Companies in the downstream part of the [solar industry] are seeing their businesses flourish," said Kristian Hanelt, a senior vice president at Clean Power Finance in San Francisco. Clean Power Finance has an electronic platform with sales software and other online tools that solar-panel installers use to sell solar systems to customers. Solar-panel installers and developers also sign long-term contracts with homeowners to have solar-panel generators installed on their roofs. The homeowners then pay a set amount per month in lieu of their utility bill, which is usually less than what they would pay their utility. The solar systems are then bundled together and sold to investors. In the deal with Morgan Stanley, Clean Power Finance and solar developer Main Street Power will market the homeowner contracts, handle the net-metering agreements with utilities and manage the rooftop solar systems. The solar systems will be installed on homes in California and Arizona initially, with homes in others states to be added later, said Hanelt. -By Cassandra Sweet, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-439-6468; cassandra.sweet@dowjones.com

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