Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search

... NRG Energy is building ... a compound of nearly a million solar panels that will produce enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes.

... Taxpayers and ratepayers are providing subsidies worth almost as much as the entire $1.6 billion cost of the project. Similar subsidy packages have been given to 15 other solar- and wind-power electric plants since 2009.

The government support — which includes loan guarantees, cash grants and contracts that require electric customers to pay higher rates — largely eliminated the risk to the private investors and almost guaranteed them large profits for years to come. The beneficiaries include financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, conglomerates like General Electric, utilities like Exelon and NRG — even Google.

A great deal of attention has been focused on Solyndra, a start-up that received $528 million in federal loans to develop cutting-edge solar technology before it went bankrupt, but nearly 90 percent of the $16 billion in clean-energy loans guaranteed by the federal government since 2009 went to subsidize these lower-risk power plants, which in many cases were backed by big companies with vast resources.

When the Obama administration and Congress expanded the clean-energy incentives in 2009, a gold-rush mentality took over.

As NRG’s chief executive, David W. Crane, put it ... early this year, the government’s largess was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and “we intend to do as much of this business as we can get our hands on.” NRG, along with partners, ultimately secured $5.2 billion in federal loan guarantees plus hundreds of millions in other subsidies for four large solar projects.

“I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk than these projects,” he said in a recent interview....

From 2007 to 2010, federal subsidies jumped to $14.7 billion from $5.1 billion, according to a recent study [by the Energy Information Administration available at http://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/.]

Most of the surge came from the economic stimulus bill, which was passed in 2009 and financed an Energy Department loan guarantee program and a separate Treasury Department grant program that were promoted as important in creating green jobs.

States like California sweetened the pot by offering their own tax breaks and by approving long-term power-purchase contracts that ... will also require ratepayers to pay billions of dollars more for electricity for as long as two decades. The federal loan guarantee program expired on Sept. 30. The Treasury grant program is scheduled to expire at the end of December, although the energy industry is lobbying Congress to extend it. But other subsidies will remain.

The windfall for the industry over the last three years raises questions of whether the Obama administration and state governments went too far in their support of solar and wind power projects, some of which would have been built anyway, according to the companies involved.

Obama administration officials argue that the incentives, which began on a large scale late in the Bush administration but were expanded by the stimulus legislation, make economic and environmental sense....

The first subsidy [for NRG’s California Valley Solar Ranch project] is for construction. The plant is expected to cost $1.6 billion to build, with key components made by SunPower at factories in California and Asia. In late September, the Energy Department agreed to guarantee a $1.2 billion construction loan, with the Treasury Department lending the money at an ... interest rate of about 3.5 percent, compared with the 7 percent that executives said they would otherwise have had to pay.

That support alone is worth about $205 million to NRG over the life of the loan, according to an analysis performed for The New York Times by Booz & Company....

When construction is complete, NRG is eligible to receive a $430 million check from the Treasury Department — part of a change made in 2009 that allows clean-energy projects to receive 30 percent of their cost as a cash grant upfront instead of taking other tax breaks gradually over several years.

... Under a [California] law ... NRG will not have to pay property taxes to San Luis Obispo County on its solar panels, saving it an estimated $14 million a year. ... [Due to] mandates that California utilities buy 33 percent of their power from clean-energy sources by 2020, the project’s developers struck lucrative contracts with the local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to buy the plant’s power for 25 years.... Ultimately its electric customers, will pay NRG $150 to $180 a megawatt-hour, according to a person familiar with the project, who asked not to be identified because the price information was confidential. At the time the contract was awarded, that was about 50 percent more than the expected market cost of electricity in California from a newly built gas-powered plant, state officials said. While neither state regulators nor the companies will divulge all the details, the extra cost to ratepayers amounts to a $462 million subsidy, according to Booz, which calculated the present value of the higher rates over the life of the contracts.

Additional depreciation tax breaks for renewable energy plants could save the company an additional $110 million, according to Christopher Dann, the Booz analyst who examined the project.

The total value of all those subsidies in today’s dollars is about $1.4 billion, leading to an expected rate of return of 25 percent for the project’s equity investors, according to Booz.

Mr. Crane of NRG disputed the Booz estimate, saying that the company’s return on equity was “in the midteens.”

NRG, which initially is investing about $400 million of its own money in the project, expects to get all of its equity back in two to five years, according to a statement it made in August to Wall Street analysts.

By 2015, NRG expects earnings of at least $300 million a year before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization from all of its solar projects combined, making these investments some of the more lucrative pieces in its sprawling portfolio, which includes dozens of power plants fueled by coal, natural gas and oil.
... At least 10 of the 16 solar or wind electricity generation projects that secured Energy Department loan guarantees intend to also take the Treasury Department grant, and all but two of the projects have long-term agreements to sell almost all of their power....

...Legislation that has been passed in about 30 states ... pushes local utility companies to buy a significant share of their power from renewable sources, like solar or wind power. These mandates often have resulted in contracts with above-market rates for the project developers, and a guarantee of a steady revenue stream.

“It is like building a hotel, where you know in advance you are going to have 100 percent room occupancy for 25 years,” said Kevin Smith, chief executive of SolarReserve. His Nevada solar project has secured a 25-year power-purchase agreement with the state’s largest utility and a $737 million Energy Department loan guarantee and is on track to receive a $200 million Treasury grant.

Because the purchase mandates can drive up electricity rates significantly, some states, including New Jersey and Colorado, are considering softening the requirements on utilities.

Brookfield Asset Management, ... will receive so many subsidies for a New Hampshire wind farm that they are worth 46 percent to 80 percent of the $229 million price of the project, when measured in today’s dollars, according to analyses for The Times performed by Booz and two other two industry financial experts....

...The chief executive of Brookfield Renewable Power, the division that oversees the Granite Reliable project in New Hampshire, declined to discuss his profit expectations in detail, but said the project might not have happened without government assistance.

Google has invested in several renewable energy projects ... in part to get federal tax breaks that it can use to offset its profits from Web advertising.

... In the 2010 fiscal year, the oil and gas producers got federal tax breaks of $2.7 billion, according to an analysis by the Energy Information Administration.
In an October 2010 memo prepared for the president, Lawrence H. Summers, then his top economic adviser; Carol M. Browner, then his adviser on energy matters; and Ronald A. Klain, then the vice president’s chief of staff, expressed discomfort with the “double dipping” that was starting to take place. They said investors had little “skin in the game.”
Energy Department officials said they had carefully evaluated every project to try to calculate how much money the developers and investors stood to make. “They were rejected, if they looked too rich or too risky,” Mr. LaVera, the Energy Department spokesman said.

In at least one instance — NRG’s Agua Caliente solar project in Yuma County, Ariz. — the Energy Department demanded that the company agree not to apply for a Treasury grant it was legally entitled to receive. The government was concerned the extra subsidy would result in excessive profit, NRG executives confirmed.

In other cases, the agency required that companies use most of the Treasury grants that they would get when construction was complete to pay down part of the government-guaranteed construction loans instead of cashing out the equity investors.

G.E. ... lobbied Congress in 2009 to help expand the subsidy programs, and it now profits from every aspect of the boom in renewable-power plant construction. It is also an investor in one solar and one wind project that have secured about $2 billion in federal loan guarantees and expects to collect nearly $1 billion in Treasury grants. The company has also won hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to sell its turbines to wind plants built with public subsidies.
Satya Kumar, an analyst at Credit Suisse ... said ... “But the industry could have done a lot more solar for a lot less price, in terms of subsidy,” he said.

by Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss
The New York Times www.NYTimes.com
November 11, 2011

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