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Economy

What 2 Years of High Interest Rates Have Done to Clean Energy

The end may be in sight, but it’s not here yet.

Jerome Powell.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Are interest rates going to go down? The market will have to wait.

Following a Tuesday report showing steady consumer prices in May and prices overall only rising 3.3% in the past year, the Federal Reserve held steady on interest rates, releasing a projection Wednesday showing just one rate cut this year.

If rates do indeed fall this year (or next, when the Fed is projecting four cuts), that would be a big relief to renewable developers. There’s been an unprecedented flow of money into the sector in the past few years — whether from tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act or power purchase agreements from utilities and corporations that want to decarbonize, you name it — but it’s come at the same time as projects have gotten more expensive to undertake. That’s in terms of labor and supplies, but also the most important part of any project: money.

“In the near term, investors are looking for market rates to fall to reduce financing costs — the Fed cutting the base rate could greatly help this along,” Srinivasan Santhakumar, senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, told me in an email.

Interest rates don’t affect every project equally. Renewables tend to be capital intensive, meaning that a higher portion of their costs are in building them as opposed to operating them. For an offshore wind turbine project, almost 70% of the expenditure comes from capital, whereas with a combined-cycle natural gas turbine plant it’s less than 20%, according to Wood Mackenzie data.

That’s because, in the case of wind and solar, the “fuel” is free, unlike with natural gas and other fossil-based energy sources. This means that developers have to fund more of the project upfront with borrowed money, which means a bigger hit from higher interest rates. According to an analysis by the investment bank Lazard, when the cost of debt is 5%, the levelized cost of an offshore wind project is $88 per megawatt-hour; when the cost of debt rises to 8%, the levelized cost rises to $118. For a combined cycle gas plant, the levelized cost per megawatt-hour rises from $66 to just $76.

“You’re really sensitive to interest rates” as a renewable developer, as Tim Latimer, the chief executive officer of the geothermal startup Fervo, explained to me. “That’s a big investment up front.”

In some sense, renewables economics have been a victim of their own success, Latimer said. Because there are lots of buyers for 15 years’ worth of renewable electricity and no risk of fuel costs surging or falling dramatically, the “spread” that renewable projects demand over risk-free rates is much smaller than for natural gas projects. But that means as rates rise, the spread shrinks more with renewables. “That has a much bigger relative impact on the economics,” Latimer said.

Geothermal projects have similar economics to other renewables, Latimer said, and being able to sell power to offtakers has helped protect the finances of Fervo’s projects.

Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Elizabeth Warren have pressed Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell on the high rates, citing the effect on renewable investments. “Your decision to rapidly raise interest rates beginning in 2022, and the potential that they may remain too high for too long, has halted advances in deploying renewable energy technologies and delayed significant climate and economic benefits from these projects,” the two wrote in a letter to Powell in March.

Executives from some of the world’s biggest renewables companies have been singing this song, as well. “Renewable energy in general is very, very susceptible to rising interest rates and offshore wind, even the most of all of the renewable energy sectors because it's so capital intensive. Our fuel is free, we say, but our fuel is really the cost of capital because we put so much capital out upfront,” Orsted Americas chief executive officer David Hardy told Bloomberg.

In a May earnings call, Orsted’s global chief executive, Mads Nipper, told investors, “It’s impossible to say whether [costs] have peaked yet, and on the way down, as that will hinge, very much, on the macroeconomic factors, and the rates, specifically.”

The premium renewables can yield over government debt has shrunk dramatically since 2020, BloombergNEF analyst Atin Jain said. In response, developers have increased prices for power purchase agreements, knowing that they can do so thanks to the demand for their clean electrons. But that also means more expensive power when the deals are struck, and in the case of several offshore wind projects in the Northeast, price increases can sometimes mean the deals never get done at all, even in spite of generous IRA tax credits.

“Higher interest rates are driving up project costs and [power purchase agreement] costs as well,” explained Michael Arndt, the president of Recurrent Energy, at a forum hosted by the American Council on Renewable Energy. “Being able to bring in more tax equity is a big offset to a higher interest rate environment.”

According to BNEF data, developers have tried to shorten the term of their borrowing, aiming to avoid getting locked into higher rates for a long time, while also going to the bond market for financing as opposed to bank loans, which typically means paying a lower rate. This then advantages longer tenured and more established developers who are better able to access the bond market. As Esper Nemi, the chief financial officer of the green energy giant Brookfield Renewable Partners, said in a May earnings call, “Our access to scale capital means we can execute on large opportunities where there are fewer viable partners and risk adjusted returns can therefore be very attractive.”

“Where possible, if you’re a creditworthy issuer and you’re more financially stable and have the ability to make regular interest payments, you have been viewed attractively by the bond market,” Jain told me. Bond issuance by utilities and renewable developers has more than doubled since before the pandemic, according to BNEF data. “That’s how people are navigating this environment: cutting loan tenors, doubling down on bonds. Everyone is hoping that though they have to tap more expensive debt now they’ll be able to refinance those loans,” Jain said.

How many people will be able refinance remains to be seen. “Developers with deeper balance sheets are able to navigate this a little bit better than smaller or midsize companies,” Jain added.

Latimer said that higher rates could be particularly challenging to first of a kind projects. Investors have a return they want a new project to generate and that figure moves up with interest rates.

“The return hurdle that you need to hit to entice capital that views your project as a new development and new technology moves up with interest rates,” Latimer told me. “Your project economics have to be that much better relative to what your baseline was before because everyone has higher return expectations.”

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Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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