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Renewable Energy Firms May Buy Old Ford Plant

Green energy advocates have been saying it all along: If the industry gets a chance, it will recreate the manufacturing base in America. So far, that thesis has been hard to prove. They need a really clear example -- an example like two renewable energy companies buying Ford's shuttered Wixom plant in Michigan and refilling it with workers, as just reported in the Detroit Free Press.

Purchasing and repurposing the plant would cost $725 million to start, which is a rather hefty price tag for any renewable energy company, most of which still haven't grown past being small- and mid-sized companies. But my first worry on reading the story, that the plan would turn out to be a pipe dream, has somewhat allayed by looking up the two companies involved.

One is Clairvoyant Energy, a Spanish company with an operating office in Santa Barbara, California. It's not the best known company on this side of the Atlantic, but Clairvoyant can lay claim to one of the biggest rooftop solar installations in the world, a 12 megawatt panel deployment on a General Motors plant in Zaragoza, Spain.

Clairvoyant would appear to have good uses for an old auto plant; it manufactures its own solar array components, which involve a lot of steel and plastic, much like cars. And it has some income to help fund the acquisition. The GM installation alone cost over $70 million (although another company was also involved).

The second company interested in the Ford plant is Xtreme Power, a Texas-based power storage company. And this is where the story gets interesting. Clairvoyant makes big solar installations. Xtreme, for its part, says it can provide cheap utility-scale storage for renewables. Going in on a plant together would be a savvy synergy play for the two companies.

But neither one appears to be commenting much on the deal yet, and for good reason. To fill the 4.7 million square feet of the plant, Clairvoyant and Xtreme would need other partners. Money is also a big issue. They will be requiring on Federal loan guarantees to get the project going, but the loan process has been somewhat slow and even more opaque, to date.

Michigan's politicians will certainly be cheering the plant on, though. At its peak, it employed 5,000 people, but Ford closed the plant in 2007 and nobody has been quite sure what to do with it since.

And just for the record, while this might be a first example of renewable energy companies trying to buy an old auto plant outright, they wouldn't be the first to give former auto workers new jobs. I reported on Infinia trying to do the same for Fortune Small Business in March, and plenty of other companies are also interested in retooling plants.

Image credit: The Ford Foundation