Solar Financing

olar energy is attracting investment dollars. Competitive returns, lower barriers of entry, state and federal incentives, SREC revenue streams, and progressive Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS) are advancing solar to the forefront of renewable energy world. As the solar market evolves, so are the financial structures that are assisting investors in financing and completing projects. This article will examine various financing strategies, the risks and rewards associated with them, and the incentives involved with solar investing.

  • Self Financed (Most Risk/Most Reward)– Self financed solar facilities are for residents and entities who want control of their solar destiny. These parties absorb the upfront costs for developing solar and the challenges of operating and maintaining their solar facility. This is the most capital intensive structure and poses the most risk and reward. The risk lies in the development of the project, the failure in properly monitoring and maintaining the facility, and the price associated with the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). The rewards are a reduced rate of electricity for as long as the facility can generate solar energy, declining installation costs, and a revenue stream generated by SREC monetization. Self-financiers take the risk of developing solar because there is the potential for them to payoff the facility in a shortened period of time and realize increased upside profit potential.
  • Solar Lease Financing (Moderate Risk/Moderate Reward)– Solar lease financing structures are being executed in both the residential and commercial markets. The concept is simple, straightforward, and similar to an equipment or automobile lease. Instead of self financing your solar facility, parties can enter into a leasing contract and agree to make monthly lease payments on their solar installation. Similar to a PPA contract the client does not incur the expensive upfront installation costs or the responsibility of operating and maintaining the solar facility. In a best case scenario the lessee can take advantage of higher SREC values and an option to buy out the system in six years, while the lessor obtains the ITC and accelerated depreciation of the system. A solar lease structure is also an alternative to a PPA contract for non-profit organizations who want to take on SREC risk for potential reward, while the lessor passes on the ITC and accelerated depreciation indirectly through a lower lease payment. Solar leasing firms have a set of criteria that clients need to meet in order to participate in their solar leasing program: commercial clients may need to submit audited financial statements and residents may need to have a FICO score of 700 or greater to be considered. However there are also risks associated with solar leases. One risk is that a lessee could go upside down on their contract. This happens when the solar lease is more expensive than the SRECs being monetized. Another risk is the future price of electricity. Lessees could potentially pay more for solar electricity than basic generated electricity if demand diminishes. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 was a reminder that electricity prices do not always go up and that electricity demand could decline during lean economic times. Solar lease financing is becoming more popular because it is affordable, convenient, environmentally responsible, and lowers your electricity bills. However, interested parties should weigh the risks and rewards associated with solar leases and learn more about the leasing company before signing an extended contract.
  • PPA Financed (Less Risk/Less Reward)– A Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is a contract between a solar electricity generator and a client seeking solar energy. This financial structure is designed to provide the client with a reduced rate of electricity for an extended period of time (10-20 years), no upfront installation cost, and the option to purchase the solar facility at the end of the contract. The PPA Provider designs, develops, operates, maintains, and owns the solar facility located on the client’s property. In turn the client pays the PPA Provider for the electricity generated from the solar facility. PPA Providers enter into these agreements because there is a profitable margin between where solar can be developed and what electricity can be sold for. The PPA Provider can also take advantage of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and accelerated depreciation. PPA Providers gain ownership of the SRECs which are generated from the solar facility and can monetize them on the Flett Exchange live markets. This solar structure is popular with non-profit organizations that cannot take advantage of the ITC and realize the accelerated depreciation of their solar facility.

Many solar projects are contingent on tax benefits, rebates, and long-term SREC contracts. Without these incentives and risk mitigation strategies solar projects can be difficult to finance and pose significant risk to investors. Let’s examine some of the incentives and strategies that are allowing the solar market to flourish.

  • Tax Benefits- At this juncture, tax incentives are an integral part of solar financing. The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) returns over 30% of a solar project’s capital cost to investors in the form of a tax credit. Sophisticated investors are utilizing solar as a tax-equity investment vehicle because tax credits can offset tax liability. Section 1603 of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Bill) also allows investors to receive a grant in lieu of tax credit when the “specified energy property” is submitted to the “grant program.” This program runs out at the end of 2010, and the SEIA is lobbying to have it extended. Both the credit and grant programs promote renewable energy on the institutional level and help incentivize solar development.
  • Accelerated Depreciation- Developers of commercial projects can realize additional tax benefits from the depreciating cost of their solar facility. An entity “can depreciate the installed cost of the system minus 50% of the business Investment Tax Credit (ITC) over the first five years of ownership (SEIA 2008) using the modified accelerated cost recovery system (MACRS) (DSIRE 2008). According to a report by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, the tax benefit of this depreciation is equivalent to 26% of the installed cost of the system, 12% of which comes from the ability to accelerate it over a five year period (Bolinger 2009).” –National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Solar Leasing for Residential Photovoltaic Systems.”
  • Long-Term SREC Contracts- are helpful in financing proposed solar projects. Flett Exchange brokers long-term SREC contracts between qualified institutional counterparties. Our ability to facilitate and streamline long-term SREC contracts is value-added to both buyers and sellers. Buyers gain direct access to large pools of SRECs at a discounted price to satisfy their RPS, while sellers have the ability to mitigate risk and lock-in profits. Counterparty credit risk is paramount in this market. Buyers and sellers enter into bilateral contracts to secure price, quantity, and term of the SREC contract. Counterparties agree to pay or delivery SRECs at a specified future date. Flett Exchange augments this process by employing a stringent vetting process and presenting quality and creditworthy solar projects to the market. Flett Exchange is currently brokering 1-7 year SREC contracts in the open market and growing our ability to facilitate longer term deals for eligible commercial entities.

As the solar markets continue to evolve new and innovative thinking will be the most prized commodity. The emergence of banks, lenders, financial institutions, and new financial structures will be welcomed and as solar makes the transition form a subsidized market to a self-sustaining market.

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