Beltline Energy LLC

Beltline EnergyBy Chris Kelsch

In 2005, the federal government introduced a 30 percent construction tax credit for businesses and homeowners looking to erect solar panels to generate energy. And while states like California took the early lead in developing solar sites, various states followed with mandates that their utilities buy a certain amount of solar power.

Georgia Power, Georgia’s largest utility, furthered that state’s renewable energy push in 2011 with the Large-Scale Solar (LSS) initiative, in 2013 with its advanced Solar Initiative (ASI), and in 2016 with its Renewable Energy Development Initiative (REDI). It committed to buy over a gigawatt of power generated by the sun and introduced incentives to encourage the use of solar power.

As a result, in a state with plenty of sun, inexpensive land and plenty of rural counties, Georgia’s solar energy industry was created quickly, and its growth has remained in high gear. Many startups were launched, and one of those was Beltline Energy. Founded in 2013, Beltline is a regional leader in solar project development that specializes in the build, construction and management of solar power infrastructure projects.

Stephen Elkind, co-founder and managing partner with Beltline, has been involved with all of the company’s projects since its launch. “One of the things we are very good at is mitigating risk,” Elkind says. “We are in the purest sense a developer. We look for opportunities and de-risk those opportunities.” Beltline box

Elkind is referring to Beltline’s process of finding good opportunities for development. The criteria for a successful solar farm remain fairly basic: strong sun, large amounts of relatively flat land and proximity to a viable electrical infrastructure. And according to Elkind, its presence in Georgia has made a huge difference. “We have really keyed in on the fact that we are a very local business,” Elkind notes. “And this type of work definitely requires a local presence.”

Origination Process

In addition to a strong local presence, securing solar development opportunities also requires two other elements: experience and due diligence, both of which Beltline also provides.

Each landowner relationship is initiated with an introductory meeting where Beltline gives a thorough review of how the solar program would impact the landowner’s property. Beltline conducts a battery of tests to determine whether the property is suitable for solar development.

Once due diligence is completed, a custom contract is created between the landowner and Beltline Energy. Land option agreements are customized to each landowner’s specific land usage requirements, and it isn’t uncommon to see 20- and 30-year lease agreements.

Beltline’s site viability analysis and due diligence process typically ensure that each land tract it develops is optimally positioned as a viable foundation for a long term contract to sell power “We spend a lot of time on early stage origination,” Elkind explains. “ We figure out where solar plants should be located, and then develop a facility that harnesses that power.”

Entrepreneurial Background

Elkind’s ability to find solar development opportunities likely stems from his background in finance. He was an investment banker at Bear Stearns, focusing on the acquisition and valuation of companies. He began looking for opportunities to combine his technical and finance backgrounds, and ended up working for OCI Solar Power, a solar power development firm out of Atlanta that subsequently moved to San Antonio, Texas.

When the Georgia market began to take off, he leapt at the opportunity to start Beltline Energy. It is a position that offers fulfillment on two levels: being simultaneously involved in a start-up and at the forefront of new technology. “It’s definitely exciting for us,” Elkind explains. “There is definitely cachet for being environmentally responsible.” In the last three years, Elkind estimates that Beltline has developed roughly $500 million in solar development projects.

And while the Georgia market has been lucrative, Elkind would like to eventually see Beltline expand geographically. “Our plan is to be a domestic developer, not just in the Southeast,” Elkind says. “We have already started to deploy our resources and explore international projects as well.”

Lean and Green

Though off to a strong start, Elkind envisions a company that will maintain a lean focus; indeed, it currently employs only four people. “We make good use of our resources effectively,” Elkind explains. “We are very nimble in responding to the market, and the nature of development is that you don’t need a large team.”

With a lean and nimble team, the need for a steady group of strategic partners becomes even more crucial. “Developing strong relationships has been our lifeblood,” Elkind says. “Our customers and our suppliers are both local, and it’s a critical point for success. They are people we trust and have been in the trenches with. Our focus is ‘consistency with transparency.’”

According to Elkind, there is another advantage to keeping a small staff. “We are a strong believer in the professional development of our employees,” Elkind notes. “And our business can be laser-focused on people’s roles. We take a proactive approach to developing our employees, and everyone loves coming to work.”

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