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Is Renewable Energy Too Cheap to Be Profitable?

What The Price Is Wrong gets right.

A businessman and a wildfire.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When I was an analyst at the U.S. Treasury, my team’s work centered around promising private investors that we would make it easier for them to invest in renewable energy projects across the Global South. I kept hearing that our job was ultimately to make these projects “bankable.” As the logic went, “there is a sizeable universe of good projects that fall just below many private investors’ desired rate of return,” and therefore lowering the risks of investing in these “good projects” would put them within reach of private investors’ return expectations. To make decarbonization possible, we had to make decarbonization profitable.

This claim cuts straight through Brett Christophers’ latest book, The Price is Wrong: Why Capitalism Won’t Save the Planet, which argues that the cost of developing and generating renewable energy is not what will determine the speed or scale of its uptake. It might finally be cheaper to build solar panels and wind farms than a coal or gas plant, that’s for sure. But given the structure of our energy markets today, it does not follow that assets that are cheap to build are necessarily profitable enough to provide adequate returns to investors.

My old colleagues might have already been aware of this fact, but as Christophers highlights, it’s certainly not intuitive, even to many analysts. Nor are its implications: Decarbonization won’t happen if it’s not profitable enough ― and it’s not profitable enough.

Christophers is a professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University in its “department of human geography,” whose research focuses on how capitalism and the modern financial system shape our lives; in this book, that also includes our energy systems. To make his case, he highlights the vicious feedback loop affecting renewables endemic to today’s energy markets. Government support to build renewable energy drives down its marginal cost, but because there’s now more renewable energy available at any given moment, the falling costs cut into developers’ expected returns, requiring more government support to keep investors and developers interested in the sector.

Combine this dynamic with technical features endemic to renewable energy generation, including its intermittency, and the result is a wholesale electricity market with perennially unstable prices. This volatility throttles the expected returns on any investment in renewable energy. No matter how cheap it is to build renewable energy, private investors and developers won’t decarbonize our globe at the speed or scale we deserve ― not under these financial conditions, at least.

Christophers leans on two theoretical guideposts here. First, Andreas Malm, whose assessment of how the profit motive, not relative costs, drove Britain’s first energy transition from water-wheels to coal and steam is an unmistakable conceptual parallel to today’s transition. Second, Karl Polanyi, whose theory of “fictitious commodities” — referring to land, labor, and money, each of which the state and society must painstakingly regulateinto fungible market-friendly products ― Christophers aptly applies to electricity and the artificial markets created around it.

But rather than hew to theory to justify why the energy system needs to be socialized to achieve decarbonization ― which is definitely true, by the way; the profit motive is supremely unhelpful here ― Christophers embraces a holistic understanding of the economy as a set of financial relationships, supply chains, planned markets, and legal institutions connecting various public and private entities with different motives.

That means interviewing investors, who tell him things like: “Low returns and volatility don’t go. No bank in the world will take power price risk at low returns.” Christophers also produces a detailed and data-rich breakdown of the interlocking global energy crises in 2021 and 2022, jumping between Texas, China, India, Australia, and across Europe, to make a larger point about energy markets. These crises were “not taken to be evidence of the failings of markets, or even a reason to question their role as the pre-eminent mechanism of coordination to the state’s electricity sector,” he writes; “the market was regarded as the very means to manage the crisis.” But the markets aren’t working. Something has to give.

He ends the book with a call for socialized power, inspired by the Green New Deal and New York’s Build Public Renewables Act, championed by the state’s democratic socialists on the explicit grounds that, because delivering on the state’s emissions targets is not profitable enough for the private sector to do alone, the public sector must get the job done. With the force of the whole book’s arguments and evidence behind it, this policy prescription hardly appears radical.

How to Intervene in an Energy Market

Public developers can accept lower profitability thresholds, and public finance institutions can provide debt on more forgiving terms; under the public aegis, rates of return and costs of capital become policy choices. Christophers admits in his introduction that he is more focused on unearthing the fragile relationships among actors across the renewable energy industry than on describing the ways a New York-inspired socialized power sector could function. Given how much there is to unearth, it’s a reasonable choice, but it leaves readers without a working heuristic for the different ways states can intervene in the business of energy.

Here’s my attempt: Energy must be financed, generated, distributed, and consumed. Government intervention in favor of decarbonization looks distinct at each step.

Governments can provide consumption support by shielding ratepayers from the higher electricity bills that come from potential utility investments into renewable energy procurement and decarbonization-related grid management, backstopping utility investments through a demand guarantee. Consumption support is equitable, but it’s also indirect and incomplete — it might provide a utility with more financial breathing room to procure or develop renewables, but if renewables are not available to procure on the grid or are not easy to develop, this demand guarantee likely just pads the utility’s bottom line.

Governments can provide distribution support by encouraging utilities to purchase renewable energy. Distribution support most often takes the form of regulatory nudges: In the United States, mandates like Renewable Portfolio Standards force utilities to increase their clean energy procurement, guaranteeing purchase demand for clean electricity and Renewable Energy Certificates, which companies might buy to clean up their own energy portfolios.

These demand-guarantee interventions have helped speed up renewable energy development nationwide, but with limits. In particular, utility power purchase agreements don’t provide developers with adequate price stability because utilities fix the quantity of energy they purchase rather than the price; corporate PPAs, meanwhile, cannot be relied on at scale because there aren’t enough large creditworthy corporations like Google and Amazon willing to commit to buying energy from new projects at a fixed price. For these reasons and more, supporting utilities’ efforts to decarbonize will not call forth adequate renewable energy generation sources into existence.

Generation support is what most governments already do. Whether through feed-in tariffs, production tax credits, or contracts for difference, generation support entails propping up generators’ profitability, ensuring that the sale price of their energy is never too low. Christophers explains why this mechanism — that is, a revenue guarantee rather than a demand guarantee — is deeply necessary: Renewable energy sources and the energy markets they’re plugged into are both structurally volatile, so, no matter how much energy they generate, they never generate all that much profit. Withdrawing generation support would be, in no uncertain terms, a death knell for renewables development.

And, finally, financing support targets renewable energy sources as capital-intensive assets requiring huge amounts of upfront debt. Whether through the investment tax credit, viability gap funding, concessional financing, or other forms of cost-share plans, financing support is another form of direct price support for generation companies; by lowering a project’s cost of capital, it helps lower its developer’s threshold for project profitability, meaning that generators pay less debt service and keep more of their revenues. High interest rates have lately forced up the cost of debt for renewable energy projects to unsustainable levels, far above private developers’ prospective rates of return. Financing support is a must-have these days ― and it’s all the more necessary across the Global South, where the costs of capital are far higher.

None of this is to say that socializing generation and finance solves every problem ― as far as the United States is concerned, non-financial barriers abound, such as regulations and interconnection queues ― but within the existing structure of energy markets, public ownership does solve a lot.

What does direct government intervention into energy consumption and distribution look like? Public ownership of local distribution utilities is a start. Unlike private utility companies, they don’t need to promise ten percent returns to shareholders, and can use the financial breathing room that comes from lower profitability thresholds to tamp down rate hikes and, perhaps more importantly, rate volatility. Public utilities will not drive decarbonization, but they could potentially help advance transmission reform and better integrate distributed energy resources into the grid.

Christophers all but argues that the best thing governments can do for all four support categories is to redesign energy markets. Beyond simply incentivizing the deployment of clean firm and battery technologies to complement renewables, policymakers’ biggest task is to build an energy system where volatile wholesale energy prices ― which even publicly owned renewable energy developers will have to face for the foreseeable future ― are not the reason that a project fails to get built. That would be a policy failure, and we don’t have time for those.

Advait Arun profile image

Advait Arun

Advait Arun is a climate and infrastructure finance analyst working at the Center for Public Enterprise on innovative financial program designs supporting the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act. He was previously a research analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of International Affairs. His writing reflects his own views.


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