3.1 renewable energy project planning basics
The renewable energy market works significantly different than the coal, gas or nuclear power market. The table below provides an overview of the ten steps from “field to an operating power plant” for renewable energy projects in the current market situation. Those steps are similar for each renewable energy technology, however step 3 and 4 are especially important for wind and solar projects. In developing countries the government and the mostly state-owned utilities might directly or indirectly take responsibilities of the project developers. The project developer might also work as a subdivision of a state-owned utility.
3.2 renewable energy financing basics
The Swiss RE Private Equity Partners have provided an introduction to renewable energy infrastructure investing (September 2011) which describes what makes renewable energy projects different from fossil-fuel based energy assets from a finance perspective:
- Renewable energy projects have short construction periods compared to conventional energy generation and other infrastructure assets. Renewable projects have limited ramp-up periods, and construction periods of one to three years, compared to ten years to build large conventional power plants.
- The Renewable Energy Directive granted priority of dispatch to renewable energy producers. Under this principle, grid operators are usually obliged to connect renewable power plants to their grid and for retailers or other authorised entities to purchase all renewable electricity produced.
- Renewable projects present relatively low operational complexity compared to other energy generation assets or other infrastructure asset classes. Onshore wind and solar PV projects in particular have well established operational track records. This is obviously less the case for biomass or offshore wind plants.
- Renewable projects typically have non-recourse financining, through a mix of debt and equity. In contrast to traditional corporate lending, project finance relies on future cash flows for interest and debt repayment, rather than the asset value or the historical financial performance of a company. Project finance debt typically covers 70–90% of the cost of a project, is non-recourse to the investors, and ideally matches the duration of the underlying contractual agreements.
- Renewable electricity remuneration mechanisms often include some kind of inflation indexation, although incentive schemes may vary on a case-by-case basis. For example, several tariffs in the EU are indexed to consumer price indices and adjusted on an annual basis (e.g. Italy). In projects where specific inflation protection is not provided (e.g. Germany), the regulatory framework allows selling power on the spot market, should the power price be higher than the guaranteed tariff.
- Renewable power plants have expected long useful lives (over 20 years). Transmission lines usually have economic lives of over 40 years. Renewable assets are typically underpinned by long-term contracts with utilities and benefit from governmental support and manufacturer warranties.
- Renewable energy projects deliver attractive and stable sources of income, only loosely linked to the economic cycle. Project owners do not have to manage fuel cost volatility and projects generate high operating margins with relatively secure revenues and generally limited market risk.
- The widespread development of renewable power generation will require significant investments in the electricity network. As discussed in Chapter 2 future networks (smart grids) will have to integrate an ever-increasing, decentralised, fluctuating supply of renewable energy. Furthermore, suppliers and/or distribution companies will be expected to deliver a sophisticated range of services by embedding digital grid devices into power networks.