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Warren Buffett Should IPO MidAmerican Energy Now

In late 2011, when First Solar broke ground on its Topaz and Agua Caliente to take advantage of the final throes of a Department of Energy loan guarantee program, MidAmerican Energy stepped up to invest in the plants and the corresponding return that will be generated over the life of their power purchase contracts with utilities like Southern California Edison and NRG Energy. [Other large utilities like Exelon (NYSE:EXC) have also joined the mix.]

While the solar plant business of First Solar and SunPower is still uncertain in the absence of DoE loan guarantees, their Antelope Valley projects outside of Los Angeles and similar ones in California's Mojave Desert will be a test as to whether the US solar business survives.

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In the new ordering of the solar world, First Solar or SunPower break ground on projects with a power purchase agreement in place, sell the plant to the likes of MidAmerican, and get contracted to maintain the plants over their lifespan.

The strategy is to move away from competing with highly subsidized Chinese panel manufacturers, who've pushed panel prices lower on wholesale markets.

The transition comes at a time when states like California will essentially force utilities to become a big investor in solar or other renewable energy generation, as the state tries to meet a mandate of a one-third renewable energy mix by 2020. With stakes in three of the nation's largest solar plants, MidAmerican appears to be in a leading position as the plants come online in 2014 and 2015.

MidAmerican's solar energy deals now include ownership of SunPower's 579-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar project worth a reported $2.5 billion, First Solar's $2 billion 550-megawatt Topaz plant ,and a 49% stake in another plant built by the company called Agua Caliente, which is projected to generate 290-megawatts of solar energy.

In total, MidAmerican says its plants will create hundreds, if not thousands, of green energy jobs, while pumping roughly a billion dollars total into local economies. The plants will also replace millions in carbon dioxide emissions annually, in aggregate.

Meanwhile, the company is also the largest wind power producer in the US and it's recently taken stakes in large General Electric-built wind farms. MidAmerican also has geothermal and hydroelectric businesses, and by way of its green energy portfolio, has power purchase agreements with some top utilities including Southern California Edison, NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG), and Hawaiian Electric (NYSE:HE).

All told, by 2015, MidAmerican will be a leading green energy player in the US. However, as US solar manufacturers complete controversial DoE backed financed plants in some political circles, their survival will depend on a next round of investment, this time likely without billions in government loans.

Berkshire's MidAmerican Energy and similar solar moves made by Exelon and others may be the investments that prove whether or not the green energy sector makes financial sense. Meanwhile, outside of California, most states are yet to map out renewable energy generation goals as climate change recedes from President Obama and Congress's agenda.

Out in public markets, MidAmerican Energy could be the sort of capitalist spokesperson for the renewable energy industry, which still suffers from the cloud of Solyndra and a politically charged stimulus program, in addition to the disappointing stock performance of First Solar and SunPower.

An analogy would be Elon Musk's Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), which appears to be making an investor case for the mass electric car. Musk also recently IPO'ed a solar investment called SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY), which makes rooftop solar systems that can power small businesses and individual households. One day he may also be responsible for the first space shuttle stock.

Still, as with the banking industry in 2008, green energy needs a spokesperson -- and there appears to be no one more vocal or better positioned than Warren Buffett.

With the financial crisis largely resolved and a partisan debate on the taxation of the rich also in the rear-view mirror, Buffett may also be on the lookout for a new cause.

For more on Warren Buffett's investments, see why he may direct his elephant M&A guns at utilities. Also see four investors who could pick up the "Oracle of Omaha's" investing mantle.

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