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German officials planning solar project have whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — A group of German firms say they'll take further steps to bring a solar equipment factory and energy farm to Pinellas County after three days of "successful," high-powered meetings this week.

At a Rays game, a high-brow reception and a series of closed-door meetings, the German business consortium presented its vision for making St. Petersburg a hub for solar energy to officials from the city, county and state.

The group wants to use the 247-acre former Toytown landfill site as the possible home for a solar energy farm, said Heino Ackert, whose company, NEP New Energy Project & Finance of Berlin, is one of three that would develop the project.

"That is what is going on in Germany in many cases," Ackert said about building a solar farm atop a landfill.

In addition, the group wants to set up a plant that manufactures solar products near the Pinellas Technical Education Centers in Midtown. Ackert said it envisions the plant expanding so it can ship solar products throughout the Americas.

"I think the city is very positive because they expect to see the creation of jobs," Ackert said. "They are offering help of any kind."

The number of jobs would include 160 at the manufacturing operation as well as another 100 with the solar farm. Ackert also expects the project would help grow other businesses in the area.

Uwe Sterling, a German investor with long ties to St. Petersburg who is part of the project, said they see St. Petersburg as an ideal location for setting up a major solar operation.

"You have the best conditions of all: a lot of vacant land, sunshine every day," Sterling said.

During their visit, the group of three businesses signed confidentiality agreements with government officials, generally a first step if taxpayer incentives are sought.

Mike Meidel, economic development director for Pinellas County, met with the consortium but declined comment because of the agreement.

The visit began Monday with meetings with Mayor Bill Foster and other city officials. The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce hosted a reception Tuesday at SRI International.

There was no discussion of specific dollar amounts for investment.

Ackert is a well-heeled lawyer from Berlin who has been forging business relationships with the West for the last decade. He also has been working on solar projects for the last 10 years.

What makes the proposition of Ackert setting up operations in St. Petersburg even more appealing is that coming from Germany, he brings knowledge of some of the world's cutting-edge technology in renewable energy.

Since the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, Germany announced plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. Germany already has shut down eight nuclear plants.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch voiced enthusiasm about the project but noted that it is "very preliminary."

"It's an exciting concept," Welch said. "There are a lot details to work through."

City Council member Karl Nurse said one hurdle might be that Florida lacks a renewable energy policy, like 29 other states in the nation. The policies help solar businesses generate enough money to make a profit.

"They clearly want to come," Nurse said. "It's complicated because Florida is a state that doesn't have a system where anybody can sell power to the power company at a price that makes sense to do this."

Nurse, president of Bay Tech Label, said one of the proposals includes installing solar panels on roof tops, an urban design plan that is one of the group's specialties.

"The first one that comes off the line, you can put it on my roof, and I'll do it," he said.

Mario Farias, the managing director of Farias Marketing Group who has been handling the development of the business effort in the United States, said the meetings this week were better than they had hoped.

Farias said the state's lack of a renewable energy policy will not hinder the project.

"We see it as an opportunity," Farias said.

A news conference about the project is scheduled for 1 p.m. today at the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce with Farias and Jeff Adams, vice president of Griffin Contracting, which would be the locally licensed contractor for the solar project.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

German officials planning solar project have whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg 06/29/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 11:17pm]
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