Renewable Energy Finance

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted June 30, 2009

The following is derived from an update I sent to readers of the Alternative Energy Speculator upon my return from the Renewable Energy Finance Forum Wall Street, minus the premium stock information.

"It's never been better and it's never been worse."

That was the line ACORE President Michael Eckhart used to open the sixth annual Renewable Energy Finance Forum Wall Street.

ACORE is the American Council on Renewable Energy, a well-respected member-based organization that has been pushing renewable energy in DC for nearly a decade.

It was the perfect line to convey the current market climate.

The REFF Wall Street

Whenever I return from a conference, I always like to pass on what I've learned.

This is my third year attending the REFF, and it's grown to be one of my favorite cleantech events. Not because I learn about public companies—there are only a few there, and the conference is about finance—but because I walk away with a clear picture of the internal state of the industry from top to bottom.

Ormat (NYSE: ORA) and SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWRA) were there, but only to talk about access to capital from the public perspective. It's really all about where we are now, where we need to be, and where the hell all the money is going to come from to get us there.

Here's what I learned.

The Best of Times

There's a new, clean energy focused administration. Finally.

Green sentiment is growing to a boil both at the consumer and corporate level, with even behemoths like Wal-Mart greening their supply chain and giants like GE, Google, and IBM leveraging their know-how to get in on the action. This thing is real. We knew that.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus) has dedicated $56 billion to clean energy and efficiency via grants and tax benefits, and offered clear tax policy guidance for the industry.

There is meaningful and significant energy and climate legislation in front of Congress (passed the House since writing). For possibly the first time ever, the energy bill at hand seriously considers its environmental implications.

Indeed, for those of us with skin in this game, much ground has been covered in just a short time. It wasn't long ago when we were distraught over whether or not the investment tax credit (ITC) and production tax credit (PTC) would be extended.


Now, as was noted at the forum, that seems like ancient history. And we have much bigger issues than whether or not we're going to get tax break extensions.

Yes, the congressional majority and president are on our side. Yes, the stimulus money is going to help out in a big way. Yes, it looks as though the social sentiment is finally starting to shift.

But more importantly, with banks still unwilling to lend, where, exactly, is the money coming from to build the next solar plant? To get the financing for the next wind farm?

And for Green Chip investors, how is that going to affect the valuations of stocks?

The Worst of Times

Financial crisis. Recession. Withdrawal of lending. Loss of tax equity. Slow closing of deals. Stimulus money not being spent yet.

For all the things going for us, there are an equal amount going against.

For starters, banks are unwilling to lend until the government releases detailed guidelines about how the stimulus money is to be spent, because included in that money are loan guarantees.

The rules for those loans are still being written, and the financing structures and mechanisms still being devised. And the banks aren't willing to lend until all that's figured out.

So you can see the stalemate emerging. The banking industry is counting on government guidance before it lends to clean energy energy projects. This is because the government has thrown so much money out there that it's now a de facto lender, and its actions must be taken into account by banks when financing projects.

Neil Auerbach of Hudson Clean Energy Partners had the following questions, just to name a few:

  • Do grant proceeds count as equity?

  • Will grant proceeds serve as security?

  • Can project developers use both grants and loan guarantees for construction financing?

  • Can one JV partner in a clean energy project apply for a loan guarantee and not the other?

And his sentiment was echoed by top brass from numerous other global banks. They had many other questions like these revolving around senior debt, subordinated debt, tax equity and how the government's stimulus spending rules will affect lending practices.

So here's the concern. The procurement and construction timeline for cleantech projects can be long: 4-6 months for rooftop solar, 6-10 months for utility scale solar, and 9-15 months for wind.

The rate of new projects has already slowed dramatically because of current capital restrictions. Is the industry going to be able to survive the wait while the government hashes out lending details? How long can the industry tread water while capital continues to be choked off?

With several government officials in attendance, there were more than a few calls to speed the process or risk dying on the vine.

Cautious Optimism

From Under Secretary of Energy Kristina Johnson to Senior Advisor to the Secretary for the Recovery Act Matt Rogers (the man in charge of spending energy stimulus dollars), bureaucrats in attendance recognized the need for urgency and assured they are doing their best to speed the spending of stimulus funds.

By all accounts, Q4 2009 is looking like the release of government rules for treasury regulations and DoE loan guarantees from the stimulus. Financing and procurement for clean energy projects can resume in a big way at that time, provided the rules meet the needs of all parties. Q1 2010 to Q3 2010 is looking like the construction period for the resultant projects with operation seen in Q4 2010.

It's fair to say that a significant clean energy stock recovery will not happen until the capital begins flowing and investors see increasing revenue on the horizon.

From there, I went on to tell members of The Speculator how we're going to combat the conditions facing the clean energy market.

For starters, we're locking in easy gains. This helps keep our total portfolio buoyant while freeing up cash for the next play. We've closed 27 winning positions so far this year by using broad market volatility to pick-off familiar stocks.

We're also building positions in less capital intensive industries that can expand without access to large amounts of capital.

And the smart grid fits right in this sweet spot because most of the solutions are software driven. Companies that pursue demand response, like Comverge (NASDAQ: COMV) and EnerNOC (NASDAQ: ENOC) can make innovations with the click of a mouse, not with construction of a new turbine or panel production facility.

Perhaps that's why smart grid stocks have been on such an aggressive path recently:

gcr smart grid

It's certainly why I've been intensively covering them for the past month or so.

If you haven't taken a position in the smart grid yet, this report will show you how to get started. Not only will these stocks prosper while capital remains tight, but the sector is also slated to receive a good chunk of stimulus dollars when they start flowing.

It's a win-win.

Call it like you see it,

Nick Hodge