Navigant Research Blog

Biofuels: A Guide for the Next Couple of Years

— June 16, 2015

Six months after its official deadline to propose the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014 (yes, 2014), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally released a draft proposal for the annual standards for 2014, 2015, 2016, and for the 2017 biomass-diesel volume.

The EPA played it safe for 2014, matching the standards with the actual consumption of biofuels such as transportation fuel, heating oil, or jet fuel in the contiguous United States and Hawaii. For the upcoming years, the EPA is proposing a slight increase in the total mandate: 9.2% in 2 years. Most of the growth is expected to come from advanced biofuels, which are set to increase by almost 31% by 2016, while conventional biofuels (grain-based ethanol) are expected to grow only grow 5.6% in the same period. The mandate will likely not make too many people happy, and that is probably good.

Fats Are In, Carbs Are Out

For conventional biofuels, the news is not good but perhaps not surprising. In the original mandate, conventional biofuels had a target for 2015 of 15 billion gallons (1.6 billion gallons more than in the new proposal), but the adoption of ethanol has been limited by what the industry calls a blending wall, or a technical/regulatory limit that impedes older gasoline vehicles to consume fuel blends containing more than 10% of ethanol by volume.

The supply-demand balance in the industry seems in favor of buyers. The Renewables Fuel Association reported June 1 that operating capacity of the industry was 14.57 billion gallons per year, which implies that the mandate will cover 92% of its capacity in 2015 and 96% in 2016. They might be able to sell more ethanol if enough gasoline in consumed in the United States (increasing the volumes allowed under the blending wall), but they will have to price it below gasoline to attract buyers. The lower mandate is expected to hit harder the producers with old and inefficient plants. Leading producers like POET, Green Plains Renewable Energy (GPRE), or Abengoa are anticipated to perform well.

The picture for the rest of the industry is rosier. The new standards for biomass-based diesel (produced from vegetable oils or animal fats) is high enough to absorb the current capacity. The National Biodiesel Board plant database aggregate capacity  sums 808 million gallons, although it does not account for the whole biomass-based diesel industry. The new standard will benefit producers like the Renewable Energy Group (REGI) and Neste Oil – both large producers of biomass-based diesel.

The Underdog Story

Finally, the EPA kept a large enough carve-out for cellulosic fuels. The United States used 26 million gallons of ethanol-equivalent cellulosic fuels in the first four months of 2015. If the country continues producing them at the same rate, the annual production would reach 78 million gallons, or 28 million gallons below the 2015 mandate. Although a lot of investment has gone into technologies that promise to produce liquid fuels from cellulosic material, it is the biogas producers that are benefiting the most from this mandate, as they are supplying virtually all the cellulosic-based biofuels. This is surprising given that biogas was only approved as a cellulosic fuel halfway through last year.

 

Following Election, U.K. Renewables Policy Plans Come to Light

— June 2, 2015

A couple of weeks after a surprising result in the United Kingdom’s parliamentary election, in which the Conservative Party won a majority, plans for the government’s renewable energy policies are becoming clearer. Although the Conservative Party has governed for the last 5 years, it was part of a coalition, so there is a possibility that significant policy changes will occur.

Amber Rudd Takes the Lead

On May 11, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Amber Rudd as the United Kingdom’s new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, which was well-received by the renewable energy industry. The renewable energy trade bodies in the United Kingdom (Renewable Energy Association, RenewableUK, and the Solar Trade Association) appeared to have good comments about Rudd, and Nina Skorupska, the chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, had the following comments on Rudd’s appointment.

“Amber Rudd has been a champion of renewables and the low-carbon economy in the past year, and her appointment will do much to allay the fears some may have after the general election … ensuring we meet our targets in the most efficient way … and making sure the UK is leading the way in green jobs and cost effective renewables.”

While RenewableUK, which mainly represents the wind industry, criticized the Conservatives’ manifesto when it was launched, its chief executive, Maria McCaffery, was also pleased by the appointment of Rudd. In a note released to the press, McCaffery said:

“We welcome the positive commitments which she has made on reducing emissions, tackling climate change and protecting the environment. We are looking forward to working with her and showing how all the technologies we represent: onshore wind, offshore wind and wave & tidal energy, can help achieve these aims.”

Onshore Wind on the Chopping Block

The Conservatives’ manifesto included a promise to stop incentives for onshore wind farms and to give local residents more influence in planning approval of the projects. In an interview with the Sunday Times this week, Rudd reiterated the Tories’ manifesto pledge to effectively end the development of new wind farms on U.K. land, outlining her hopes for the new measures to come into force by May 2016. While onshore wind in the United Kingdom can be competitive with fossil generation, the additional requirements to develop a project, like signing a power-purchase agreement, and survive what would be a gruesome planning application process, carry extra risks that few investors would like to face. This is expected to affect Navigant Research’s U.K. wind energy forecast, which is part of the World Wind Energy Market Update 2015 report.

Currently, there are about 7 GW of onshore wind capacity under development. While the onshore wind utility-scale installations are expected to decline, there will be room for companies willing to participate in community-scale projects. Community projects have the double advantage of a guaranteed buyer for the electricity produced while getting local support for the project by sharing the benefits of the wind farm.

A Solar Revolution Underway

While at first look this looks like a step back for the renewable industry, in reality, the winners if this policy is implemented would be all other sectors within the industry. In another interview, Rudd said she hopes to “unleash a new solar revolution” as a government cabinet minister. This seems feasible given that solar PV would become the cheapest source of renewable energy that can be deployed at scale. Other sectors will benefit as well. Some biomass projects would become competitive, and even offshore wind would benefit if the bids in the Contract for Difference (CfD) increase.

 

Surprises in U.K. Renewables Bidding Round

— April 15, 2015

The U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has announced the results of the first competitive Contracts for Difference (CfD) allocation round. CfDs are designed to give investors the confidence and certainty they need to invest in low-carbon electricity generation. The government does this by paying the generator the difference between the cost of investing in a particular low-carbon technology, known as the strike price, and the reference price, or the average market price for electricity. Generators participate in the electricity market, including selling their power, as usual. This means that if the reference price is higher than the strike price, generators must refund the difference.

The DECC assigned 27 contracts, totaling 2.1 GW of capacity, in round one; the government estimates its total spend will be £315 billion ($470 billion in 2012 prices). Wind projects will supply 1,910 MW of capacity, of which 750 MW will be onshore and 1,160 MW will be offshore. These projects, along with the five offshore projects (3,184 MW) that were allocated CfDs in the so-called round zero, underpin Navigant Research’s forecast in our World Wind Energy Market Update 2015 report that the United Kingdom will install 10.6 GW of wind capacity in the next 5 years.

Low-Balling

In addition to the wind capacity, round one winners include two energy-from-waste projects, with associated combined heat and power systems, that total almost 95 MW of capacity. Three additional projects that use biomass gasification technologies have a combined capacity of 62 MW. Finally—and perhaps surprisingly, given the well-known cloudy and windy British weather—five solar plants, with a total capacity of 71 MW, are also included.

The winning strike prices also brought some surprises. On the one hand, low-bidding solar projects outbid onshore wind projects—which are usually considered the cheapest source of renewable energy. The solar projects offered £50 per MWh, or roughly $0.075 per kWh—very close to the current U.K. wholesale electricity price.

On the other hand, the offshore wind winning bids offered £114.39 ($0.169/kWh) and £119.89 ($0.178/kWh). Interestingly, the Danish Energy Agency announced the winner of its 400 MW Horns Rev. 3 offshore wind farm on the same day. The winning bid was 52% lower than those in the United Kingdom were and will run for 3 fewer years.

Storm Clouds 

If these solar projects actually get built, they will put solar costs in the United Kingdom at a similar level to winning bids in regions with excellent solar resources, such as Dubai and Texas. But there are some clouds on the horizon. James Rowe, director with Hadstone Energy (the developer of one of the lowest bidding projects), put this construction in doubt in a pair of LinkedIn posts (“We Got Our CfD … Oh Dear” and “What Went Wrong with the CfD Auction for Solar?”) in which he explored the reasons why the players (including Hadstone) bid so low.

At this point, it’s difficult to measure the level of success or failure of this allocation round. The solar bids at £50 per MWh are unlikely to ever be built. If others, which bid £79.23/MWh, do come online before the end of 2017, it will be the first time that solar in a resource-poor country has outbid onshore wind in a country with good wind resources.

 

Yieldcos for Renewable Energy: “Now Is the Time”

— March 8, 2015

Enel Green Power is forming a yieldco with its renewable assets in the United States, joining a trend that started about 2 years ago and accelerated in 2014.

The idea behind yieldcos is not new. It involves the creation of a company to buy and retain operational infrastructure projects and pass the majority of cash flows from those assets to investors in the form of dividends. Structurally, yieldcos are very similar to real estate investment trusts (REITs). They are also almost ideal for renewable energy projects such as wind farms.

A crucial aspect of yieldcos is that they are not exposed to development or construction risk—this is borne by either the parent company or a third-party developer. Yieldcos simply acquire infrastructure projects that are or have recently become operational. They fund the acquisitions by issuing shares (normally debt is only used at the project level), which they can do at a lower cost of capital (the return on the investment that shareholders want to invest in the company) than their parent companies or developers because they’re shielded from development and construction risks.

Squeezing Out Risk

Another key aspect of yieldcos is that their assets produce fairly predictable cash flows that can be paid to shareholders as dividends. That’s why renewable energy projects such as wind farms are perfectly suited for them. Wind farms and solar power projects are not significantly exposed to changes in the market. On the upstream side, they depend on free resources—wind and light—while on the downstream, they are protected by regulations (feed-in tariffs, long-term power purchase agreements, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and so on).

For developers, yieldcos offer a quick way to sell maturing assets and redeploy capital into early-stage developments that offer higher returns. From an investor point of view, yieldcos offer an investment option with very little risk—which is a testament to how far the investment community’s understanding of wind and solar technologies has come.

New Era or Fad?

The emergence of yieldcos has been driven by a strong initial public offering (IPO) market in the United States and Europe over the last few years, as well as the impact of quantitative easing (QE) policies around the world that resulted in lower interest rates and returns from conventional financial products (i.e., bonds and equities). As a result, the 6%–7% dividend yield of listed green infrastructure funds looks attractive to investors, compared to 4% interest rates on 10-year corporate bonds and even less for government paper.

Still, yieldcos might turn out to be a short-lived fad. As the economic recovery accelerates, and talk of interest rate hikes in the United States fills the financial media, investment vehicles like yieldcos could lose some of their appeal. So if you have solar or wind assets lying around, you may want to take some fashion advice from Enel’s CEO Francesco Starace (an Italian, after all): “Now is the time to do this.”

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Digital Utility Strategies, Electric Vehicles, Energy Technologies, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Transportation Efficiencies, Utility Transformations

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Roberto Rodriguez Labastida","path":"\/author\/rlabastida?page=8","date":"2\/19\/2018"}