Tuesday, November 29, 2011

UK Government calls for more investment in offshore wind

The Ormonde Offshore Wind Farm under construction in the Irish Sea, 10km off Barrow-in-Furness, with 30 REpower 5M wind turbines.
David Cameron is backing a call to investment funds, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds to invest in large offshore wind projects.

But potential investors will need more confidence that the government is not going to keep shifting the regulatory goalposts.

At a conference in London today, Ministers are meeting potential investors in offshore wind projects to establish what can be done to increase investment in this area.

Prime Minister David Cameron, said: “I see offshore wind as a significant energy and industrial opportunity for the UK, and one that I am determined to seize.

He said he believes "the UK will remain the world’s most attractive offshore wind market for many years to come," citing "abundant natural advantages and a world-leading marine engineering base".

He underscored the Coalition Government's "strong support for the growth of renewable energy in order to help diversify and decarbonise our long term energy mix."

The UK needs around £200bn of investment in new energy infrastructure to help reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels and boost our energy security, and the Government is looking to the banks and pension funds to fund it, as well as the UK’s current major energy suppliers.

Charles Hendry, Minister of State for Energy, said: “We have invited potential investors to London today to make the case for offshore wind as a stable, long-term and lucrative investment opportunity."

Risk management

Hendry added that "if people are not seriously considering investing here then I want to know why.”

Some of the answers can be found in a survey of 284 senior-level renewable energy executives, by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), sponsored by Swiss Re, and published today.

It finds that operators are nervous about putting their money into renewables, and wind especially, because they need to feel confident about the security of the regulatory landscape, cost-effective insurance and protection from the vagaries of the weather.

In particular, investors will be wanting to know today that any government support on offer will be guaranteed for a long period of time in order to provide the security their business plans require.

Recent sudden changes to levels of support such as tax breaks and subsidies have not given them confidence.

Overcoming financial risks is another challenge perceived by the executives, affecting 76% of the survey's respondents. Renewable energy projects are often capital-intensive and highly leveraged, and up to 70-80% financed through loans.

A change in the weather

62% of respondents also place political and regulatory risk as important, while weather related risk is even more important for wind power producers (66%).

The impact of weather is more pronounced on wind than any other renewable energy. Returns may deviate by 25% from expected in any given year, whereas solar radiation levels typically deviate by no more than 4% from normal levels.

Of course, the deviation may be up or down, and it is a feature of climate change itself that weather is becoming more unpredictable.

Hans Bünting, CFO of German firm RWE Innogy, says that although weather variations might smooth out over the long term, “the main risks coming from instability are on the shorter-term weather risks. It creates volatility of earnings year to year.”

The need for insurance

Most operators therefore turn to insurance to manage this risk, according to Agostino Galvagni, Chief Executive Officer Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. "Risk management measures such as insurance will be key to encourage further private sector investment," he emphasises.

The Economist survey says that at present only 60% of respondents regard themselves as being successful at transferring risks this way, indicating that learning is still taking place.

Insurance company Swiss Re regards this as crucial to managing the world's safe transition to a post-carbon, climate-friendly future. "New technologies and innovation in renewable energy will be the only possibilities left should a global policy regime to reduce carbon emission not materialise" at Durban, says Andreas Spiegel, Swiss Re's Senior Climate Change Adviser.

"This is why Swiss Re is investing a great deal of research to better understand how insurance can mobilise financing for renewable energy projects and identify the most cost-effective ways to reduce risks, such as construction and operational risks as well as risks related to the intermittent nature of renewable energy production."

Only 4% of wind power producers use weather-based financial derivatives to protect themselves, due to their expense and complexity, but this is slowly increasing. One obstacle is that many offerings are currently not appropriate for small-scale projects.

This highlights a need in the insurance industry for more underwriters and risk engineers with specialised insight into the renewable energy industry, who can reassure investors that their cash will be safe and provide cheaper policies.

This is particularly true if the UK Government wishes to interest the big pension fundholders in this non-traditional type of investment.

Spreading the risk

One general way to spread business risk for developers is to take a portfolio of equity investors into a project, or to enter a project as part of a consortium or joint venture with other renewable energy developers or financial partners.

A recent example is the joint venture between DONG Energy and Siemens Project Ventures to acquire a 50% stake of Lincs, a 270MW wind farm project situated five miles off the UK coast.

Another way for investors and operators to reduce business risk is to buy into renewable energy developments at a later stage, once the riskier early stages of development are complete, and the renewable power assets are fully permitted or operational.

Potential investors can seek expert advice on potential investments from either government agencies, like the Carbon Trust, or external consultants, as do just over one-half of developers.

There is no shortage of these consultants, who, in the words of one of them, are there to "deliver the insurance and risk management services our clients require to capitalise on the opportunities the flourishing renewable/cleantech power sector presents”.

In the Economist survey, most operators feel they are successful in managing the various aspects of risk management: 70% say their companies are either “highly successful” or “somewhat successful” in identifying risks.

61% say they are similarly competent in assessing the scale and scope of risk.

However, investors might worry that they could end up with some of the 39% who aren't, and Charles Hendry could finish today wondering how he can help them to improve their confidence.

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