Posts Tagged ‘project financing’

photo: Todd Woody

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – For the past four years, the global wind industry has grown at a Google-like 30% clip as wind farm developers and turbine makers met demand for the one renewable energy source that has become competitive with fossil fuels. In the United States alone, new wind capacity will have jumped 50% in 2008.

Now the credit crunch is taking its toll – at least when it comes to forecasts for the industry’s prospects in 2009. Over the past week, analysts and industry insiders have ratcheted back growth predictions due to uncertainty over whether developers will be able to secure financing for the ever-bigger wind farms on the drawing boards.

“There is little visibility into the project finance market over the next 18 months,” wrote HSBC analysts Robert Clover, Charanjit Singh and James Magness in a report issued last week. “Thus far, company management in the wind sector continues to say that it is not experiencing a slowdown in growth, although developers say that finance is more expensive than it was. We do not believe that the long-term growth story has been undermined, but expect a period of reduced growth.”

The HSBC analysts predict the industry won’t grow at all next year. Meanwhile, the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group, also expects a slowdown in 2009.

“Clearly the market’s perception of growth for the wind industry has declined dramatically, but against a backdrop of virtually no industry data points,” the HSBC analysts acknowledged.

Ah, there’s the rub. Aside from the fear of the future that threatens to paralyze just about every industry, absent a complete collapse of capitalism the wind industry would seem poised to continue its run, albeit at a slower pace. (The nascent Big Solar business, in contrast, finds itself in a more precarious situation.)

In the U.S., state mandates that require utilities to obtain a growing percentage of electricity from renewable sources will drive growth for years into the future. That’s the reason you’re seeing plans for gigawatt-sized wind farms like the 4-gigawatt one T. Boone Pickens is building in Texas. As analysts were souring on the industry’s prospects last week, oil giant BP’s (BP) wind subsidiary finalized a deal with California turbine maker Clipper Windpower to build a five-gigawatt project – the world’s largest, sorry T. Boone – in South Dakota. (Of course, that’s little comfort to investors who have seen wind stocks take big hits in recent weeks. Nor is it good news for two U.S. startups that have filed for IPOs –  First Wind and Noble Environmental.)

The wind developers and turbine makers Green Wombat has talked to in recent weeks for an upcoming Fortune magazine story say the long-term impact of the financial crisis remains unknown at this point. A large pipeline of orders for windmills – Danish turbine king Vestas’ orders spiked 52% from the first quarter to the second, according to HSBC – suggests that growth will continue unless wind farm developers start canceling projects – something that hasn’t happened to date.

The wombat happened to be at Clipper’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa, turbine factory on Tuesday and put the question to Bob Gates, the Carpinteria, Calif.-based company’s vice president of operations. Clipper is only one of two U.S. turbine makers, the other being General Electric (GE). (GE acquired its turbine operations from a bankrupt Enron, which itself had bought the business in 1997 from Clipper’s founder.)

“I think growth will be flat next year and that may continue to 2010 and then go back up,” said Gates as workers assembed gigantic drive trains for Clipper’s 2.5-megawatt Liberty turbine. “You have to put in your order for some components a year in advance, so if demand drops in 2009 you’ll have fewer turbines to bring to market in 2010.”

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photo: Ausra

The promise and peril of large-scale renewable energy was on display Thursday as California’s first solar power plant of the 21st century went online near Bakersfield. Under blue skies, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other politicians heralded the five-megawatt Ausra solar station as the vanguard of a new era of alternative energy that would combat the effects of climate change while building a green economy.

Then the CEO of one of the nation’s largest utilities stepped up to the podium and delivered a reality check. “As we all know the capital markets are in disarray,” said PG&E chief Peter Darbee, whose utility has a contract to buy 177 megawatts of electricity from Ausra. “They’re down 40%. The capital markets are going to distinguish between high-risk projects and low-risk projects and the high-risk projects are not going to get financed in the future.”

But he added, “PG&E stands ready to take on the challenge of financing renewables.”

The utility may just have to.

At the solar industry’s big annual conference in San Diego last week, renewable energy executives were euphoric over Congress’ 11th-hour passage this month of an eight-year investment tax credit that would allow big solar power plants to get up and running, eventually allowing for economies of scale crucial to driving down the price of green electricity. Then a dark clouded drifted over the sun-splashed proceedings in the form of three somber-suited men bearing ominous PowerPoint presentations.

The message from Wall Street: The credit crunch will wallop big solar plant projects that need billions of dollars in financing to get built.

Here’s why. It gets a bit arcane but bear with the wombat. The renewable energy legislation passed as part of the financial bailout package allows solar companies to take a 30% tax credit on the cost of building a power plant. Now most of these companies are startups and have no way to monetize, as they say on the Street and in Silicon Valley, those tax credits as they’re not profitable. Instead, a solar company must essentially trade the tax credits to a firm that can use them in exchange for cash to finance construction.

So investors form something called a tax equity partnership, in which they agree to finance, say, a solar power plant in exchange for the tax credits generated by the project. The problem, according Tim Howell, managing director of renewable energy for GE (GE) Energy Financial Services, is that investors’ appetite for tax equity partnerships has taken a nose dive just as the market will be flooded with solar tax credits from a growing number of projects currently being licensed. For instance, he said, 1,000 megawatts of solar projects would generate $1.5 billion in tax credits.

That means there has to be enough investment dollars – or “capacity” in Wall Street lingo – available to buy those tax credits from the solar power companies.  “Competition for tax capacity, which is a scarce resource in tough financial times, is a problem we have to solve,” Howell told a packed ballroom in San Diego.

John Eber, managing director of JPMorgan Capital (JPM), flashed a PowerPoint that showed the total value of the tax equity market at $15 billion last year with 40% going to renewable energy projects, mainly wind. Now that investment banks-which put together the partnerships and sometimes invested their own capital-are all but an extinct species on Wall Street, only an estimated $875 million will be available for all solar projects in 2008. In contrast, he noted, just the solar power plant projects already announced  would need between $6 billion and $8.5 billion in tax equity funding.

“Tax equity is becoming increasingly hard to raise for renewable energy projects,” said Keith Martin, a project finance attorney at the Washington firm Chadbourne & Parke. “Several large institutional investors who put money into renewable energy deals in the last three years have dropped out of the market.”

That, they said, means untried technologies from startups will face higher hurdles to attract investors.

In conversations Green Wombat has had with solar power plant executives over the past couple of weeks, they acknowledge that financing will be much harder to come by but they’re hardly ready to throw in the towel.

“There’s probably a gigawatt of press releases and 200 megawatt of plants that acutally will go live in 2010,” says John Woolard, CEO of Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, which has a contract with PG&E to deliver up to 900 megawatts of electricity.

His point: Despite gigawatts of signed utility deals, only a few power plants will actually be built in the next couple of years when financing is expected to be the toughest to obtain. “In 2011, it’s reasonable that 500 to 600 megawatts could happen,” he says. “Those aren’t big numbers for the tax equity market, but if you believe everything that’s been announced is going to be built, then it is a big market.”

California utilities, however, are counting on that big market to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33% target for 2020. PG&E (PCG), for instance, has signed 20-year power purchase agreements for more than 2.5 gigawatts of solar electricity.

When Congress extended the solar investment tax credit it also lifted a ban on utilities claiming the tax subsidy. Hence PG&E chief Peter Darbee’s statement Thursday that his utility would be willing to make sure its projects get funded by using the company’s considerable capital clout.

“We certainly could look at potentially funding or investing in renewable projects,” PG&E senior vice president Greg Pruett told Green Wombat Thursday. While he said PG&E has no specific projects in mind, it might consider financing construction of solar power plants through a tax equity partnership or a direct investment.

“Say we have a solar thermal company and they have a proven technology and they have done a demonstration plant, but because of the markets they can’t get financing,” says Pruett. “We might consider investing so they can build the plant and get it online.”

He says it’s less likely that PG&E would get into the solar construction business itself.

While it’s anyone’s guess how the markets will shake out by the time solar companies start making the rounds in New York, it’s clear that a shakeup in the nascent solar power plant business is in the offing.

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