Infocast’s Wind Finance & Investment Summit Soundbites

Mayer Brown - Tax Equity Times
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Below are soundbites from panelists who spoke at Infocast’s Wind Finance & Investment Summit on February 6 and 7 in Carlsbad, CA.  The attendance at the event appeared strong, and the mood was generally optimistic.

Despite the title of the conference being wind, many of the panelists touched on solar and storage, so readers who do not work in the wind industry may nonetheless find some points of interest below.

The soundbites are edited for clarity and are organized by topic, rather than in chronological order.  They were prepared without the benefit of a transcript or recording.

Topics covered below include the tax equity market, the 2020 soft deadline for the full production tax credit (“PTC”), the impact of the PTC phase out, PG&E’s bankruptcy, storage and more.

State of the Tax Equity Market

“There was $12 billion of combined wind and solar tax equity investment in 2018.  This up from $10 billion of tax equity investment in 2017; however, the actual new volume was down in 2018 as $3 billion of the $12 billion in 2018 was secondary market transactions” (i.e., one tax equity investor selling down to another tax equity investor).  Managing Director, Money Center Bank

“Tax equity has done well in terms of how it has worked out for the banks that invested in it.”  Tax Equity Head, Corporate Investor

The 2020 Soft Deadline to Place Wind Projects in Service to Qualify for the Full PTC

To qualify for a full PTC (i.e., 2.4 cents per kWh), a wind project must have “started construction,” as defined in IRS guidance, in 2016; further, to avoid demonstrating “continuous efforts” or “continuous work,” as applicable based on the method of starting construction, the wind project must be placed in service by the end of 2020.  Therefore, the end of 2020 is a “soft” PTC deadline for wind projects to be placed in service. 

It is a “soft” deadline as the project owner always has the option of demonstrating “continuous efforts” or “continuous work,” as applicable, to qualify for a full PTC or accepting a reduced PTC based on starting construction in a later year (e.g., 80% or 1.92 per kWh for a project that started construction in 2017). Our analysis of these highly technical rules is available at Update on IRS Notice 2016-31.    

“There will be some flexibility this year to have the tax equity’s commitment to invest stretch out to the end of 2020.”  Managing Director, Boutique Advisor

Some tax equity investors have been reluctant to provide an investment commitment that extends beyond one year, so this advisor is suggesting that in 2019 that tax equity investors will sign commitments to invest in wind projects that last until the end of 2020. 

“You need to make real investment decisions today in order to make 2020 placed in service occur.” Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer“The market for 2020 construction is getting extraordinarily tight.”  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

“Turbine supply and construction crews for 2020 projects are getting scarce.”  Managing Director, Consumer Bank

“Don’t think of the deadline as December 31, 2020; think of it as December 1, 2020 as the construction lenders are going to want some cushion.” Managing Director, Corporate Investor

“We did the work to prepare for 2020 in 2018.” CEO, US Renewable Energy Developer

“We still have 2020 projects that we are trying to find homes for.” Director of Origination, US Renewables Arm of European Utility

“Most of my focus is on 2020.  I haven’t seen much demand for [projects to be placed in service in] 2021 as people are really focused on 2020 and the 100 percent PTC.”  Director of Origination, US Renewables Arm of European Utility

“The risk the developer takes with respect to missing milestones is in excess of the liquidated damages that would be owed by the construction contractor.  The developer and the contractor have to work together to avoid mutually assured destruction.” CEO, Midwest Utility Scale Developer

“2020 is like the sale of the decade.  There is a bit of front loading happening due to the PTC phase out.”  Executive, Unregulated Arm of a Utility Holding Company

The Impact of the Phase Out of the PTC

“In reality, prices for wind power aren’t going to rise in 2021. You’ll have to find other savings, particularly in the capital stack, to make up for the reduced PTC.”  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

“The cash equity and debt markets are competitive. Tax equity is concentrated in a limited group of folks.  Those folks will want to continue to invest.  Tax equity will be less” of the capital stack.   Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

“If you swap out tax equity for debt and cash equity, you are going to get a lower weighted average cost of capital” (“WACC”).  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

This statement only makes sense to me if one views tax equity as outside the sponsor’s capital stack, so one compares the cost of debt and sponsor equity with and without the structuring constraints insisted upon by tax equity investors. In that context, the cost of debt and sponsor equity is, of course, less without tax equity than with tax equity; however, such a calculation ignores the large portion of the capital stack filled by tax equity. How is that portion of the cost of the project going to be funded? And what will the WACC ramifications of that funding be?

“When the phase out of the PTC was adopted, my company got what it wanted.  But then you have to look and ask will we really be able to [develop wind] with a lower [or zero PTC].  We don’t know the answer to that question yet.” CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“As the PTC is phased out, manufacturing, construction and financing will no longer be scheduled around PTC deadlines.  That will make for improvements in efficiency.”  CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“I feel better now about 2022 than I did a few years ago about 2021.  We have solid projects to be sold in 2022.” CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“My focus has shifted to a post-2020 world where we are trying to add pipeline.”  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

The economics of wind projects have “four levers: (i) power purchase agreement (“PPA”) pricing, (ii) financing costs, (iii) turbine costs and (iv) balance of plant (“BOP”) costs.  We’ll probably see a steady cost decline for turbines and BOP.”  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

“Manufacturers are coming up with bigger turbines, so the project gets a better price per kW.  That will help mitigate the fall out of the PTC phase out.”  Executive, Unregulated Arm of a Utility Holding Company

It is “hard to engage customer about buying power from a 2021 project.”  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

Tax Reform

 “We did see some players exit the tax equity market due to BEAT; most folks seem to have solved their BEAT concerns and are back in the market.”  Managing Director, Boutique Advisor

If you want to know more about BEAT, a discussion of it is included in this blog post.

“It took us six months [in 2018] to figure out what the impact of tax reform was on our bank.  We are going to be very active in the ta equity market going forward.”  Managing Director, Consumer Bank

Political Prospects

“Folks are pleased about the amount of megawatts of green power that we are doing.  But to de-carbonize the economy, we need to be doing multiples of what we are doing.”  Vice President, Business Development, Clean Energy Developer

“There is a potential that within the phase out timeline that the PTC will be made more usable.  It depends on politics.”  CEO, Independent Wind Developer

This appears to be a comment about either (i) repealing the passive activity loss in Section 469 with respect to the PTCs or (ii) allowing PTCs to be “sold” for cash with a simple bill of sale.  The first change would bring individuals (e.g., doctors and lawyers) into the tax equity market and exponentially increase the supply of tax appetite.  The second would eliminate the need for complicated and expensive tax equity transactions.

Congress experimented with the second idea in the early 1980s with “tax benefit transfer leases” for the investment tax credit (“ITC”) that applied to new equipment broadly, and there was public outrage when large corporations used the ITC to zero out their federal tax liabilities without having skin in the game. 

For almost forty years, Congress (or more specifically the congressional tax staffers) have consistently opposed individuals acting as tax equity investors.  When individuals were not subject to such limitations, it resulted in IRS audits, law suits and other ugliness.  As many individuals (or even their financial advisors) lacked the tax and financial knowledge to distinguish the lucrative opportunity from the transaction that was too good to be true. 

“There are states teeing up renewable portfolio standards (“RPS”) to fill in the PTC gap.  In the short term, those efforts are being driven by blue state governors; in the long term, you will see will see red states too that have [good] wind” resources.  CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“The PTC makes the playing field more fair given there is no price on carbon.  A price on carbon is years away, until then a PTC is a way to keep the playing field level.”  Director of Origination, US Renewables Arm of European Utility

“Some Republican senators are choosing to use a carbon tax as a counterpoint to the Green New Deal being advanced by some Democrats.”  CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“A RPS still makes sense in a carbon tax world.  A carbon tax and RPS can work together to create the world we are hoping for.”  Director of Origination, US Renewables Arm of European Utility

PG&E’s Bankruptcy

PG&E filed for bankruptcy on January 29. There are indications that it may try to terminate or modify some of the over 300 PPAs PG&E is obligated under to the extent they have materially higher pricing than would be available in today’s market.  PPAs for wind and solar are particularly in PG&E’s sights as they are more expensive than natural gas PPAs.  Many sponsors and financiers have exposure to this risk.

Many loan agreements provide that “if the offtaker files for bankruptcy, that is not resolved in 60 to 90 days, then dividends [to the equity holders of the project company] are blocked [(even if the debt service is being paid)].  If you are [in the position of such an equity holder and are] offered to terminate the PPA [by PG&E] for [a payment equal to] the present value of the remaining payments [in excess of current market pricing], [the blocking of the distributions] may cause you to take that.”  Audience Member

“We are watching PG&E closely, but we don’t see any ripple effects yet.  I think [the bankruptcy of] PG&E will be solved because it will send a bad message about the California market if it is not.  I think the governor may get involved.”  President, US Renewables Arm of a European Utility

“In a long-term contract, a lot can happen to the credit picture from where you start.”  CEO, Wind & Solar Sponsor

To learn more about issues for PPA stakeholders in PG&E’s bankruptcy, please see three recent white papers from my colleagues: Possible Consequences for PPAs in PG&E’s Bankruptcy, FERC Concurrent Jurisdiction Over PPA Rejections and PPAs and the Automatic Bankruptcy Stay

Storage

“Storage is inevitable.  Timing is the question.”   CEO, Midwest Utility Scale Developer

“We are not seeing storage with wind as storage with wind does not qualify for the ITC.”    Executive, Unregulated Arm of a Utility Holding Company

That statement is true, unless the owner of the wind project elects to claim the ITC in lieu of the PTC.  Generally, for an onshore wind project, the present value of the PTC is greater than the ITC.  However, for offshore wind, the ITC is typically preferred; this makes offshore wind and storage a good pairing.  This is discussed further in US Offshore Firms to Avoid Onshore Hurdles

“We haven’t yet developed storage.  There is a role for storage and wind, but storage tends to be lumped with solar due to the ITC.  Storage for wind takes away the intermittency, which is huge.”  CEO, Midwest Utility Scale Developer

“Storage and solar has more urgency to it because solar quickly cannibalizes pricing.  Wind due to its production pattern does not do that.  You have to approach these markets from a multi-technology perspective.  You can’t just be wind, storage or solar.”  CEO, US Renewable Energy Developer

“Solar is more predictable, so storage makes sense with solar: you can store two hours every day for the late afternoon.  Wind’s intermittency makes that type of planning more difficult.” President, US Renewables Arm of a European Utility

“Storage could be a transmission solution.  You can deploy storage a lot faster than you can build transmission.”  Executive, Unregulated Arm of a Utility Holding Company

Non-Traditional Offtakers

“Historically, it has been difficult for co-ops and municipal utilities to own renewables, so they have opted for PPAs which is great.”  CEO, Independent Wind Developer

This difficulty comes from the tax status of municipal utilities and co-ops.  Due to their tax status, they do not need the tax credits and depreciation themselves. Further, there are tax rules that constrain their ability to partner with or lease from tax equity investors. Accordingly, they have generally opted to purchase power under PPAs that then allow the sponsor to raise financing based on the financial strength of the PPA.

“A lot of commercial and industrial (“C&I”) customers want to buy power in ten megawatt increments, but wind does not come in ten megawatt increments.  There would be efficiency if small C&I customers could aggregate their demand for wind.  You have an anchor customer that signs a contract.  Then small customer sign up at the same terms and pricing.”  Executive, Unregulated Arm of a Utility Holding Company

Future Demand for Wind Power

“Sustainability goals aren’t going anywhere for corporate offtakers.  For utilities, coal retirement and load growth will keep them procuring” wind.”  Director of Origination, US Renewables Arm of European Utility

“There is demand from utilities and corporates that have big clean power goals that they are not close to reaching.”  CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“Feeling good about wind as an asset class replacing coal.” CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“Post-2020, is solar going to eat into the wind market’s share or will the pie grow for both?  We are optimistic for wind.”  Director of Origination, US Renewables Arm of European Utility

“We have a lot of uncertainty around the future of wind right now.” CEO, Independent Wind Developer

“As utilities get more comfortable with wind, there is a push for them owning wind directly, but it depends on the region.”  Executive, Unregulated Arm of a Utility Holding Company

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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