Microgrid Financing Options to Facilitate Future Growth

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Michael J. Zimmer, executive in residence and senior fellow at Ohio University, was recently an invited speaker at The 4th Microgrid Global Innovation Forum held May 16-17, 2017 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Mr. Zimmer addressed issues and innovations on evolving microgrid financing options primarily in the U.S. With other experts on his panel, “Evolving Microgrid Financing Options,” he contributed to the deeper understanding of structures to secure microgrid financing and the changing infrastructure and policies affecting microgrids. Mr. Zimmer also serves as Washington Counsel for the Microgrid Institute since its founding in 2012, and advises its newly-created Microgrid Finance Group formed in 2016. Mr. Zimmer has guest lectured on microgrids in various classes at Ohio University, in local meetings sponsored by Upgrade Ohio, and in various national fora. In the following blog, Mr. Zimmer draws from and builds upon his recent forum remarks last month.

Microgrids represent one of the fastest-growing technologies in the electric utility industry today offering multiple benefits to the state, the utilities and the customers they serve. North America hosts the largest deployment of microgrids, closely followed by Asia and Europe. The key growth driver for the future will be in the commercial and industrial arenas that will grow to represent 30% of global markets. Commercial and industrial projects are primarily driven by cost and economic benefits of solar, combined heat power, energy storage and their interface especially for hospitals, data centers, military, universities, schools and healthcare facilities. Ohio has just started to examine these questions as part of it grid modernization proceedings launched in April 2017 by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO).

Noting that soft costs are 50% of the development costs for microgrids, there is an increasing quest to standardize the microgrid as service model including use of more sophisticated control systems, DC power flows, better storage technologies, and closer integration with advanced metering. For many decades, the transmission and distribution (T&D) sectors were solely served by the electric utilities. Now the question is arising as to who will modernize the T&D sectors in the future? Many  stakeholders, including energy service companies, equipment vendors, the five major technology and information management companies, foreign vendors and international utilities, startups, entrepreneurial companies and telecom companies, along with the electric utilities, are seeking to serve this $400 billion per year electricity sales and services market in the U.S. Electric power is one of the most capital intensive sectors in the national  economy today scheduled to spend up to $2 trillion by 2030 to modernize the aging U.S. electric system.

The microgrid derives its value from its interwoven complexity. This is exactly what makes quantifying its value so difficult and also makes the issues of capital access and financing more challenging. Government funding typically covers only a portion of the microgrid’s costs. For the remainder, microgrids tend to rely on variations of financing models that originated in other related industries. These include such tools as direct ownership, utility rate base treatment, vendor financing, energy service contracts, power purchase agreements, leasing, debt and bond financing, green and infrastructure banks and other clean tech energy model and tools in the state marketplace. As microgrids move from the pilot or demonstration phase to fuller commercial deployment, the quest arises for more financial models and disciplined structures to support financing ahead. Right now in the United States, that there are five major viable financing models:

  1. Special microgrid investment funds;
  2. Vendor financing;
  3. Energy service companies;
  4. Utility financing (in rate base or through unregulated special entities); and,
  5. Warehouse financing.

The best way to analyze microgrid financing is from the vantage point of risk management strategies. Key areas of opportunity to differentiate and create success for microgrid project financing include:

  • A capacity maintenance agreement with regular service for the project;
  • A minimum amount of capacity guaranteed from the microgrid system to ensure a minimum bill or baseline to support project financing;
  • A solid warranty from an investment-grade vendor ideally for 1-3 years;
  • An insurance policy covering certain extraordinary costs, performance and/or the efficacy of the system designed for the microgrid;
  • A battery disposal strategy of e-wastes associated with decommissioning batteries from the project as energy storage increasingly is part of a project; and,
  • Aggregation to create scale, diversify risk and support a more attractive regulatory outcome to diminish regulatory risks for the project.

Diving deeper into warehouse financing and performance—a form of integrated development finance for portfolios of sound, developed microgrid projects—is important for flexible financing at commercially-reasonable terms and interest rates to support project development and success. Warehouse financing should be coupled with smart incentives such as clean funding mechanisms (in the 21 states that offer that special funding), green banks or under the Smart Cities movement in the United States. Finally, technical assistance with small grants for technical services and predevelopment costs are desirable to support the warehouse financing strategy.

Warehouse financing builds a project pipeline that can access the capital markets more efficiently through securitization. Short-term development and aggregation of loans occurs that facilitate secondary market participation and lower the capital costs for projects. This financing could also be coupled with credit enhancement techniques to reduce risks and round out the capital stack for a microgrid project coming from foundation program-related investments (PRI’s), donor management funds or clean technology funds at the state level. These credit enhancements could take the form of guarantees, subordinated debt, loan loss and debt service reserves, or interest rate buy downs to diminish risks and attract private capital and lending.

Warehouse financing is already being used in the U.S. for energy efficiency, PACE loans, solar project development and also recently energy storage loans. Such loans often range from 10-20 years and carry interest rates of 5-6%, plus closing costs. The state repackages smaller loans to reach a certain value of closed loans at certain aggregated levels to create scale. These packaged loans are then securitized through the secondary capital markets and the loans are leveraged with ratios ranging from 4-8 times the original values reported by various sources in Connecticut and New York. Pennsylvania also participates in its energy financing strategy in a multistate warehouse for energy efficiency loans called “Warehouse for Energy Efficiency Loans,” or “WHEEL.” This program is administered by AFC First Financial and is used by states seeking access for clean energy lending and financing. WHEEL works through the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), the Pennsylvania Treasury, Renewable Funding, and Citigroup Global Markets, to package these smaller loans that are sold to bond investors. Proceeds from sales after aggregated and bonds are issued, go to recapitalize original state funds. Strict lending criteria are followed and high minimum credit scores are sought for risk management. Contractors are trained in intake and origination to ensure quality control over such programs.

For microgrids to succeed in their financing goals, their financing strategies must be built from known successes, existing capital market frameworks and often states with Green Bank or Resiliency lending programs. Success in financing balances:

  • Leveraging existing contractor networks;
  • Consulting with the financial community for project development;
  • Identifying sustainable funding sources with long-term viability; and,
  • Engaging utility partners, ensuring knowledge of available rebates and including on-bill financing mechanisms with state utilities.

When thoughtfully conducted, less taxpayer or ratepayer dollars are utilized and these programs facilitate use of public-private partnerships—“P3” structures and mechanisms in the 36 states with P3 framework legislation.

Financing support must be demanded by vendors, project developers and microgrid leaders. The industry itself will not just happen as a matter of state policy or through utilities without a market-based demand from its customer base.

Related research from a National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) task force augments this discussion by looking at resiliency-based mortgage financing for residential and commercial/industrial applications. Resiliency suffers from a lack of commonly-defined terms, similar to the lack of standardization in defining a microgrid, and even P3s. For a microgrid project financed with resiliency considerations in the cash flow and income aspects, determinations will still need to be made about the quantity, additionality and nature of ancillary benefits from the project. These must be guided by the industry and will be based also upon state public service commission determinations. To secure resiliency benefits and additional cash flow, the microgrid must offer:

  • A determination of hazard/risk expressed in probabilistic terms over underwriting scenarios over one or more time periods;
  • Resilience offered by the microgrid, measured against a potential disaster event based on the level of risk and potential added improvement in resilience associated with the microgrid investment;
  • Evaluation of the dollar amount of losses avoided based on the micorgrid project’s resilience to a calculated hazard risk should be developed by the sponsor over the life of the loan and also on an annualized basis;
  • Value and/or net operating income should be reevaluated based on avoided losses created by enhanced resilience from the microgrid; and,
  • Negotiation of loan terms to reflect additional value from building the microgrid and the income streams associated with the project. The lead in both isolation of those streams and calculation methodology should come from the developers and the industry itself working closely with its vendors. Additional revenue streams would facilitate consideration of larger project loans, the inclusion of development phase, down payment reductions for private lenders or interest rate reductions in return.

Despite differences across international and domestic U.S. markets, access to market-based financing will facilitate the rapid growth of the microgrid industry in the coming decade. Some in the electric industry see microgrids as the next market iteration of solar, which has grown 800% in the period from 2010-2015. Solar expanded another 119% in 2016 alone. Financing is the primary growth factor and will serve as an essential catalyst for future growth of microgrids with energy storage.

CE3 Blog by Michael J. Zimmer, Executive in Residence and Senior Fellow, Ohio University Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs & Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Edited by Elissa Welch, CE3 Project Manager, Ohio University. June 2017.

 

Little by Little

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To some people, “environmentally-friendly” car manufacturing means electric cars or ethanol-fueled engines—“big ticket” items. Admittedly, I was one of those people, especially concerning cars. It’s easier to think about the “big” things when it comes to evolving technology—an entire car or an entirely different way to make gasoline. I’d always thought of driving a car as an “all or nothing” decision between convenience and environmental responsibility. I was very impressed, then, how Honda of North America has streamlined their manufacturing processes to take the little steps towards greater energy efficiency, those that are incorporated before they complete a finished product.

Honda changed its process of painting cars by thinking outside the box. Shubho Bhattacharya, senior staff engineer for Honda, featured in a video shown at CE3’s energy workshop in September 2013, created an algorithm for a system that completely changed Honda’s painting processes and has helped Honda to reduce its emissions targets. Bhattacharya’s work has created huge economic and environmental gains for the company.

In the same way that Bhattacharya was able to translate the abstract idea of changing the world into a tangible outcome, every day companies worldwide make small changes to their operations, creating positive impacts for the environment. Often their effect cannot be immediately seen, but their impact can be immediately felt. Oftentimes, impact is noticed in accolades and public recognition.

Honda has continued to gain industry, national and international recognition for their efforts to reduce some of the byproducts associated with their operations. In 2011, Honda achieved its goal of sending zero waste to landfills from its manufacturing operations in North America. In January 2014, the U.S. EPA recognized two of Honda’s Ohio plants with Energy Star Certifications for the eighth year in a row. Energy Star certified companies perform in the top 25 percent of all companies in their industries in energy efficiency.

Not only does Honda efficiently use its energy, it also generates industry-leading solutions to reduce CO2 emissions. The company began 2014 with a new wind turbine farm used in the company’s Russell’s Point Transmission Plant in Logan, Ohio. Honda is now the first major auto manufacturer with a plant that gains the majority of its electricity from on-site wind power. This is just another “small” step for Honda making an impact through its operations and on industry standards.

CE3 engages companies like Honda to build networks of peers to share the ways in which they have incorporated energy or environmental practices into their operations and remained profitable. During CE3’s “Workshop for Efficiency, Emissions and Energy Choices in Ohio” in September 2013, businesses from industries as diverse as paper production to home insulation showed how such small changes can have large impacts on the environment—little by little. Many organizations discussed the steps they believed would yield the best results for their company to while complying with U.S. EPA requirements and maintaining profitability. Here are a few takeaways from the workshop:

  • Include everyone’s input. Ask for and incorporate ideas from employees ranging from the CEO to those on the shop floor. Each and every position brings a different perspective and fresh insight to an issue. Communication, cooperation and coordination are key to cutting-edge innovation.
  • Think small steps with a big impact. Gradual changes can still lead to large benefits over time without excessive costs. Each small step represents movement toward the goal of improved energy efficiency for a better environment.
  • Use federal regulations to your advantage. Federal regulations can be an opportunity for the company to set new goals and engage in new projects. Instead of thinking of regulations as restrictions, use them as a chance to be innovative and grow the company’s sustainability message.
  • Share your successes. Forums like CE3’s energy workshops and webinars are a great opportunity to share your progress and exchange ideas with a diverse group of energy efficiency leaders—your peers. Watch for strategies from different industries that can be fine-tuned and applied to your own.

 

Following all those steps may not lead to emissions reductions as big as Honda’s right away, but each small step can make large impacts in bettering the environment. Corporations, groups of people, and individuals can make a collective effort to improve our natural environment. In the words of renowned anthropologist Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

By Seaira Christian-Daniels, CE3 Undergraduate Research Scholar