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Post-stimulus Financing: Will Renewable Growth Continue?

Money is flowing worldwide for many forms of renewable energy, as the industry presses forward with dramatic growth. CleanEdge reported US$188.1 billion in global revenue for biofuels, solar and wind energy in 2010, a 35.2% surge over 2009. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found that clean energy investment worldwide reached $243 billion in 2010, nearly double the sector investment just four years earlier. And venture capital investment for clean technology in the US rose 54% in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the same period one year earlier, in a trend led by solar energy companies, according to Ernst & Young.

What has buoyed the market? Many in the renewable energy sector thank stimulus funds infused into the industry by governments throughout the world. But will the growth continue as stimulus funding winds down? Will private lenders and investors pick up where government leaves off in a post-stimulus world?

Several deal makers describe the state of today's finance markets and provide their outlook into 2012 and beyond, including how hard - or easy - it is to attract private tax equity, project finance, venture capital and other types of loans and investments. Even as the world economy continues to struggle, renewable energy fares far better than many sectors.

REVIVAL OF U.S. TAX EQUITY?

Jonathon Gross, a principal with US accounting firm Reznick Group and head of the firm's alternative energy practice in North Carolina, helps match renewable energy project developers with investors. He specialises in tax equity investments, where the investor, in effect, buys a project's tax benefits to offset tax liability. Goldman Sachs was one of the more notable tax equity investors before the financial collapse. But when profits dropped after the crash, so did tax liabilities. As a result, tax credits had little value and investors fled.

In response, the US government created a cash grant to help renewable energy projects during this phase. The grant differed from a traditional tax credit in that developers received money up front, rather than after the project was built or operating. This helped renewable energy developers secure project financing when tax equity investors vanished. The grant, however, is being phased out beginning in 2012.

Fortunately, tax investors are returning to the market, said Gross. But, he added, "I don't know if it will be fast enough for the developers who are getting the grant." Gross predicts a dip in US project development in early 2012 when the federal cash grant expires for projects that do not meet certain predevelopment requirements.

Meanwhile, a player known as the tax equity syndicator is increasingly moving into energy. Syndicators, such as Stonehenge Capital Company and Red Stone, connect private equity investors with developers. They more commonly work in low-income housing investment, but syndicators lately have been attracted to state renewable energy credits, Gross said.

Flat Water Wind Farm, a 60-MW Nebraska project, was a recent beneficiary of a tax equity deal. Completed in April 2011, the deal was arranged between U.S. Bancorp (USB), Gestamp Wind North America, Spanish Banco Santander and other lenders. USB has committed more than $400 million of renewable energy tax equity to finance over $800 million of renewable energy projects in the US, primarily in the solar and wind energy markets.

INNOVATIONS, CREDITS AND PROJECT FINANCING

In Europe, it's unclear where the renewable energy sector will find the capital to build enough projects to meet 2020 renewable energy targets. Assuming it will cost about €350 billion to achieve the goals, each of Europe's 40 banks that are active in the sector would need to loan €750 million annually for the next 10 years, according to Ernst & Young's paper, Funding Renewable Energy in a Capital-Constrained World.

What will those sources be? European utilities might fill in some of the gap, but renewable energy will still need alternative pools of equity and debt to finance projects. One source might be industrials, especially those that act as supply chain co-sponsors in the project development phase, said Ernst & Young.

In the US, renewable energy credits are gaining importance in helping developers secure financing. Banks are apt to take an applicant more seriously if it has a long-term contract to sell its RECs to a utility or other credit-worthy buyer (as opposed to selling RECs on the spot market or under short-term deals).

Solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), only available in certain states, are created by solar energy projects. One MWh generated by a solar installation equals one SREC. Utilities and retail suppliers buy the credits from projects and use them to meet state government requirements that a certain amount of the electricity they sell comes from solar.

But there was much talk in Spring 2011 about the collapse of the famed New Jersey SREC market. New Jersey is a crucial market for solar developers in the US, the second largest to California, with an exceptionally mature SREC market, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association's US Solar Market Insight: First Quarter 2011.

New Jersey's SREC was a victim of its own success. The state's high SREC prices attracted so much solar development that the market became oversupplied with SRECS and trading prices plummeted for the credits. SEIA predicts an end to New Jersey's market growth in late 2011/early 2012 as a result of the overheated SREC market.

However, Kent Rowey, head of Freshfields' Americas Energy and Infrastructure practice, says that stories are overblown about the death of New Jersey's SREC market. "Smart traders think that the market has mispriced the SREC, that the forward curve is incorrect," he said.

Why? Too often analysts forecast SREC supply based on the project applications that are before regulatory bodies, and not on the actual projects being built, according to Rowey. This creates an overly high forecast for solar development. In reality, a good number of the projects that are proposed will never be built. Rather than counting applications, savvy financiers conduct their due diligence "the old-fashioned way" - they count rooftops from helicopters to determine what's really being installed. What they are finding is that fewer projects are being built than expected, and therefore fewer SRECs will be available in the future than is now believed. Therefore, the New Jersey SREC market may not be as overheated as some believe.

Beyond SRECs, Rowey sees the overall debt market for renewable energy as buoyant. "If there is any kind of limiting factor, it is probably that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the deal and the work that goes into it," he said. Big banks prefer large loans because it takes just as much work to administer a large loan as a small loan, but the returns are lower.

German commercial banks are leaders in providing debt capital for project finance. Rowey also sees more US banks eyeing renewable energy projects; some are teaming up with pension funds.

"There still is liquidity in the debt market for renewable projects. It is one of the sectors in the infrastructure market that hasn't really been hit as hard," he said. Even though underwriting standards are more stringent since the market crash of 2008, "for the right project and right sponsor, renewable energy is a space where traditional financing is available."

WHAT FINANCIERS LIKE

Michael Lorusso, managing director and group head for US-based CIT Energy, which focuses on project and structured finance, shares this view. He says that if the developer offers a financeable project, the lender will be there. "It is incumbent on the developers to do something that is financeable and not push the market to the point where they are stuck with a project that cannot be financed," Lorusso said.

CIT Energy evaluates projects much the way large banks do. The financing and advisory firm prefers proven technologies and shies away from technology risk. Projects should have equipment contracts with established manufacturers, and a solid construction contract, Lorusso said. Applicants for finance also should produce a power purchase agreement with a solid buyer, like a utility or industrial customer, which minimises the project's price risk in the eyes of the investor. Or the project may use a short-term contract that relies on commodity price hedges with third parties, like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. All government permits must be in place.

Lorusso likes wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as hydroelectricity, although he noted that less hydroelectricity is in development than the other three resources. He is skeptical about biomass because he sees its fuel source as less reliable, or at least harder to quantify through statistical analysis than wind, solar and geothermal. He receives many inquiries for new technologies that use fuel cells, wave energy, biofuels and gasification, but says often they are unproven, unreliable or uneconomic, and therefore not yet good candidates for financing.

Even though wind energy is high on his list of strong investments, Lorusso sees that market slowing. The sentiment is that "the best sites have been taken, the low hanging fruit has been picked," so it's becoming more difficult to develop wind farms, he said. In addition, utilities are less apt to enter into lucrative long-term power sales agreements with wind farms, given today's low natural gas prices and depressed demand for electricity. Solar energy, on the other hand, appears to be more quickly moving toward grid parity. It also offers the promise of adaptable consumer applications as it becomes integrated into shingles, windows and signs, he said.

Not all solar, however, is created equal when it comes to financing. The industry seems to be developing under what Lorusso described as a bifurcated "barbell effect." On one side of the barbell is the proliferation of small rooftop solar installations, almost "real estate plays," he said, that are increasingly aggregated to make them more appealing to financers. On the other side of the barbell are fewer, but massive, utility-scale projects with well-structured deals that attract financial backing. One example is the 392-MW Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, being built in California's Mojave Desert with the help of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy.

While small and large deals make it onto the barbell, mid-sized solar projects often find it hard to secure traditional financing. These $2-3 million installations on commercial roofs lack the economies of scale to attract large banks. As far as the banks are concerned, he said, conducting due diligence on these projects takes too much time for the size of the transaction. Therefore this mid-range solar project often must rely on all equity deals, aggregation, or in some cases small regional banks.

A solar company needs roughly a $20-$50 million pipeline of projects just to catch financiers' attention, said Scott Wiater, president of Standard Solar, the highest ranking renewable energy company on Inc. magazine's top 500 fastest growing American companies for 2010. "It's all about scale, you have to have scale," he said.

Having a signed power purchase agreement is crucial, Wiater added. "The people that offer tax equity and debt - their mindset is we don't want to take any pre-development risk." With a power purchase agreement in hand, a solar company can secure debt financing relatively easily now; tax equity financing less so, he said. "You can find tax equity, but it is expensive."

Meanwhile, Standard Solar has seen an uptick in the number of commercial enterprises that install solar panels to hedge against future energy rate hikes. Some of these deals are all cash and others operate under power purchase agreements. 'We are seeing just normal commercial customers installing fairly large systems,' he said, adding, "If natural gas pricing wasn't as low as it is, we would have much more business. But with that said, we can still be competitive even with the currently depressed energy prices."

COMMUNITY BANKS FOR SMALL PROJECTS

For the truly small renewable project, conventional financing can be extremely hard to find. But small specialised or community banks are increasingly filling this niche by lending to ventures that have a hard time accessing conventional capital. Many of these banks function as non-profit institutions that do not have to answer to shareholders, so focus on investments with social impact, such as day care centers or schools. For such projects, "there are a world of government programmes that aren't going to go anywhere, that are not in danger of being zeroed. We have been looking for how to take those tools and put capital in the green economy," said Melissa Malkin-Weber, green initiatives manager for Self-Help Credit Union, nonprofit community development lender, real estate developer, and credit union with offices in California, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.

For example, in the US small renewable energy projects can take advantage of the new markets tax credit, set up in 2000 for real estate construction and renovation in low-income areas. "Renewable energy looks a lot like commercial real estate from an underwriting perspective," she said.

Renewable energy developers, such as solar installers, can use such credits to attract private capital. The developer can parlay the credit into a below-market interest rate and more flexible loan term. Loans can be as small as $5000, although the sweet spot tends to be $75,000 to $10 million, she said.

YOUNG AND UNSUBSIDISED

New technologies, those just getting off the ground, typically seek out a different kind of investor than those already accepted by commercial markets. Still unproven, and not ready for full-scale commercial deployment, these technologies often look to angel investors, venture capitalists and government funding.

The good news is that an increasing amount of VC money has been flowing to renewables. In the US, investors in new technologies look to renewable energy as the "next major economic transformation frontier," according to Venture Capital's Role in the US Renewable Energy Sector, a white paper by the US Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance. Before 2005, renewable energy accounted for two percent of VC investment in the US; by 2010 it had reached 15 percent.

China, too, with its growing appetite for clean energy, can be a rich launching point for new renewable energy technology, according to Stephen Edkins, partner in Diverso, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist firm that specialises in connecting technology innovators with opportunity in China. Diverso's clients included Ilika, a clean-tech materials company that works in energy storage, and TMO Renewables, the developer of a new process for converting biomass into fuel ethanol. Both are based in the UK.

Direct subsidy is difficult to come by in China, and that's just fine with Diverso. Much like other VCs, Diverso looks for technology that can stand on its own.

"Technological innovation is about allowing renewable energy to be competitive in the absence of subsidy," said Edkins. While direct subsidies may be hard to come by in China, the government backs renewable energy in other ways, particularly through favourable terms from its state-owned banks, which "act as a lever," Edkins said.

Opportunity is great for new technology in China's hungry energy market, but also daunting. The language barrier alone can stymie outside businesses, according to Diverso.

Brian Kinane, managing director at Yorkville Advisors, also works with junior energy companies, but in Europe, where the challenges are different. "Equity markets are difficult to access for companies at present. Many investors are concerned that there is correction coming in the market. There is a feeling that the market has had quite a high run-up and now there is a greater sense of volatility," he said.

This slowdown is being spurred by government austerity measures throughout Europe, as well as talk that China's economy is cooling. The correction is expected to be temporary, with a positive economic trend reasserting itself, but investors "don't want to be caught up in that correction," he said.

Longer term, Europe's renewable energy finance sector is likely to benefit from Germany's decision to close down its nuclear power stations, he added.

HELP FROM EXPORT BANKS

Meanwhile, government export credit agencies, such as the US' Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank), Export Development Canada and Germany's Hermes Cover, have been filling in the financing gaps for equipment suppliers. Export banks are especially well suited for small transactions that hold little interest to conventional lenders.

For example, Ex-Im Bank offers a streamlined application process known as Renewable Express. Solyndra saw its financing processed in just 41 days. The manufacturer used the programme to finance its sale of solar panels to an international supermarket chain in Belgium. The June 2011 deal offered Solynda not only a favourable interest rate, but also a long financing term. The US export bank guaranteed an 18-year €7.7 million loan ($10.3 million) to finance panels for the 3 MW project.

NOT A BUBBLE

Kathleen Marshall, managing director at Green Solar Finance, says that stimulus funding did what it set out to do. Financing is again available for renewable energy. "What we are seeing is tremendous movement on almost all fronts,' she said. "We're seeing many more financial entrants coming in - philanthropic investors, insurance and bank lenders." She credits much of the movement to the cash grant offered in lieu of a tax credit. "It provided a strong initial catalyst to start moving things. I think what it really did is it created scale. It created tremendous scale and success in getting projects done."

Ultimately, though, for a financing deal to work it takes "tremendous collaboration," she said. If a subsidy goes away, parties must be willing to be flexible and realistic about yields. And then "a deal will get done," she said. In any case, whether stimulus money stays or goes, what's clear to renewable energy investors now is that this industry is "not a bubble - the horses are out of the gate and they are running," Marshall said.

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