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Is There Room for Independent Developers in a Solar-Led Renewable Energy Sector?

Roberto Rodriguez Labastida
May 09, 2016

clean energy background

Until now, most of the growth in large renewable energy installations has been carried out by independent developers. The typical developer business model is based on capturing the yield arbitrage between early stage projects and operating assets (or a middle point in the development process) due to different risk profiles. However, the collapse of SunEdison seems like the final nail in the coffin for this business plan.

In the last 15 years, developers have benefited from a significant reduction in development risks: wind and solar technologies and their respective supply chains matured, standardized procedures and contracts appeared, and capital became easily accessible. At the same time, government policies designed to support a high-risk industry (such as feed-in tariffs [FITs] and guaranteed grid access) remained in place. This increased the yield arbitrage between the development stages.

Most of the initial renewables development has happened in the wind sector. Areas suitable for wind development are limited, and resources need to be verified with local wind speed data for at least a year or two to be able to get financing for the project. In addition, wind turbines are distributed in large patches of land that are sometimes owned by different organizations and under different local authorities. Wind installations are also relatively complex to build, limiting the number of engineering performance contractors (EPCs) with the skills needed to build them. These barriers increase costs but also protect developers that are early to enter the market; they also make good wind projects relatively scarce.

Solar costs have reached a point where solar PV can now compete with wind deployments, and solar developments do not face the same barriers as wind. In solar, resource variability within the same region is not significant; projects can be deployed following land ownership or local authority limits, and their build complexity is low. All this means that a significant number of developments can quickly arise in the same market simultaneously. The first victims of solar were FITs; when solar costs were low enough to benefit from the tariffs, projects boomed. Governments tried to respond by lowering the FITs, but by then the costs of solar were even lower. The only way to stop the spiraling cost created by FITs was to eliminate them.

The Rise of Renewable Energy Tenders

In an attempt to reduce costs while continuing to support the renewable energy sector, several governments have implemented a tender system in which projects have to compete for a guaranteed long-term contract. For some time, large developers with strong links to financial markets were competitive, but in the latest tenders they have been outbid by large energy corporations like Enel Green Power and ENGIE or manufacturers like SunPower (backed by Total), Jinko, and Recurrent Energy (backed by Canadian Solar).

The reason for this switch is that markets got flooded with projects fighting for the same contracts, all using the same technology and based in the same region. Therefore, those with the lowest capital cost structure or with access to cheaper PV modules or with better electricity yields have an advantage. In this area, independent developers that rely on expensive project finance cannot beat large corporations with capital costs close to that of their home countries or manufacturers with access to the lowest cost or most efficient modules.

Independent developers can try to sell their projects to the corporations, but while some wind projects with excellent resources can be attractive, run-of-the-mill solar and wind projects will struggle to make a significant margin.