|Carsten Krogsgaard Thomsen, Acting CEO of DONG Energy|
Pension companies and industrial investors are increasingly finding that investment in renewable energy, particularly wind power, is providing a better rate of return, one guaranteed over a longer period, than elsewhere.
DONG Energy, which is a co-builder of several offshore UK wind farms including the London Array, has secured investment from Danish pension providers PensionDanmark and PKA, Dutch pension group PGGM, the owners of Lego, and Japanese trading house Marubeni, amongst others.
Leaving aside the intriguing idea of Lego building wind farms, Torben Möger Pedersen, managing director of PensionDanmark, which has £13.4 billion in assets, said "I think this will...develop into a standard investment case for many pension funds because the alternative of investing in government bonds provides such bad returns that you are obliged to identify alternative investments".
The company's total investment in DONG's wind projects is £475 million, and Pedersen plans to invest more in the future, as PensionDanmark increases the proportion of its portfolio allocated to energy and infrastructure from 6% to 10%.
"In five years we will have £19 billion under management. So our total budget for these kind of investments will be £1-1.5 billion over the next 10 years," he said.
Yesterday, DONG announced that it is using some of this finance to acquire 100% ownership of three offshore wind development projects in Germany in the North Sea.
These are Gode Wind 1, 2, and 3, previously owned by PNE Wind AG, with a total capacity of up to 900 MW. The first two projects already have permission to construct and operate while the third is still in the application stage, although this is expected to be granted in 2013.
Carsten Krogsgaard Thomsen, Acting CEO of DONG Energy, which is owned by the Danish state, said: “The Gode Wind projects in Germany are very interesting for us. If a positive investment decision is taken, we expect that construction of parts of the projects could begin by 2015, subject to the available grid connection confirmations."
Denmark is a pioneer in wind energy, and is now reaping the dividend of its experience. 25% of Danish electricity comes from wind power, contradicting claims by sceptics in the UK that a national grid cannot handle that proportion of wind power.
Some investors see wind power as an uncertain bet because they are expensive to build and maintain, regulation is uncertain, and the plants can face logistical and technological problems. However, other pension funds and investors clearly think differently; taking a longer view, they realise that such investments will provide a steady cash flow over 20 to 30 years, once the projects are up and running.
Last year, the OECD encouraged institutional investors such as pension funds to take more interest in financing the low carbon revolution. There are plenty of benefits, which offset the risks. Compared to unstable financial markets, the OECD points out that there is a clear advantage for those who team up with reliable partners like DONG.
Amongst the early movers in this field, with over £1 billion of investment in renewable energy, predominantly new wind farms in Germany and France, is Allianz of Germany. David Jones, CEO of Allianz Specialized Investment, observes that returns on wind and solar projects are now around 7%.
“This is much higher than many other asset classes,” he says. Moreover, the returns are "totally decoupled from the ups and downs of the financial markets", and far better than government bonds. 10 year UK government bonds are currently yielding a mere 1.5%, almost half the rate of inflation.
Pedersen says that PensionDanmark expects "a return with a spread of between 300 and 500 basis points above a government bond," that is “very much less risky than listed equities".
Walney wind farm in the Irish Sea near Cumbria, is co-funded with direct investment by Dutch pension group PGGM, which has allocated 15-20% of its infrastructure portfolio to renewable energy. Henk Huizing, its head of infrastructure investment, agreed with the OECD assessment: "If you have a good partner, then the risk for joining in the development phase can be acceptable, and you get a premium for going in earlier".
"I hope this will be a model that catches on," says Morten Buchgreitz, DONG Energy's acting deputy CEO for wind power, "because, just looking at the northern European offshore market, we expect that the capacity will have to go from 4 gigawatts now to 37 by 2020".
That is a factor of 10 increase, which will require about £80 billion. Although this sounds a lot, it is less than 1000th (0.08%) of the £18 trillion assets held by pension funds worldwide.
Some of the funding may come from the consortium of 80 of the world’s largest pension funds, that has signalled its readiness to provide funding for infrastructure projects under the Government’s £40 billion infrastructure guarantee initiative. More will come from the Green Investment Bank, when it is finally allowed to borrow.