Sunday, March 1, 2015

International investment heats up in the renewable energy sector

Solar-paneled roof of National Stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, producing 1 megawatt of electricity

My appraisal practice has changed significantly in the last year. Whereas I spent the last few years visiting struggling or proposed luxury home subdivisions, hotels, tourist projects and golf communities in foreign countries, my clients have reduced their appetite for such risky ventures. Nowadays more than half of my work involves the valuation of land for solar photovoltaic energy production, AKA solar farms.

There seems to be a great appetite for cross-border investments in renewable energy infrastructure projects. Such projects are able to attract capital from investors not needing high returns, but focused rather on steady, long-term yield from contractual government or utility company payments that reimburse them. Renewable energy infrastructure seems a safe and easy investment compared to foreign casinos and luxury vacation resorts.

Each week brings one or more announcements of cross-border renewable energy deals. Last week, Swiss-owned Adiant Capital Partners sold a 37 megawatt UK solar farm to UK-owned Foresight Group. Canadian-owned Northland Power has announced a $177 million IPO for wind farms in Canada and Germany. Australian fund AMP Capital is entering the Japanese renewables market. The Blackstone Group (U.S.) has announced that its second energy fund, $4.5 billion in size, focusing on renewable energy assets worldwide, has been oversubscribed.

There is construction risk, of course, but many transactions are also structured as sale-leasebacks of the land the renewable energy projects are built on. And management risk of renewable energy infrastructure is nothing compared to commercial real estate, unless you have Homer Simpson pushing the buttons.

Renewable energy infrastructure is now so mainstream that Google and Apple are investing, including a Norwegian-owned project in Utah that I recently appraised, in which Google will be partially financing the development of a $157 million solar plant.

Another example of a multinational solar farm venture I evaluated was a duo of Ecuadorian solar farms to be developed by a German manufacturer financed by private money from the U.S. The deal fell through because the German CEO didn’t understand that his firm had to own or buy the properties they would be mortgaging and that licensing and power purchase agreements had to be finalized before the investor would commit funds.

Valuation methods for solar farm land

The approach of choice is the sales comparison approach, which works well in California due to the large number of publicly recorded transactions. Solar farm appraisers are not always so lucky to find verifiable sales, though, in foreign countries and “non-disclosure” U.S. states (such as Utah, New Mexico and Texas) and sometimes must turn to a land residual approach to valuation, in which land values are imputed by valuing the completed project and then subtracting development costs and expected entrepreneurial profit. The recent reduction in development costs has justified rising values of land with power purchase agreements and public approvals.

The role of technology in increasing solar farm land values

The last few years have seen escalating land values in the U.S. southwest for land which has secured conditional or special use permits for solar photovoltaic energy production as well as power purchase agreements with utility companies. The reason for this land price appreciation has been because the value of such land is a residual of the cost to develop it for solar PV use, and the cost of PV technology has fallen more than 50% in the last several years, but rates for electrical usage have not fallen.

Much of the deflation in solar PV development costs is the result of cheaper technology being imported from Taiwan and China. I have recently been on a research trip to Taiwan, for example, to study their solar PV and wind power innovations.

There may be a temporary halt in falling solar PV development costs, however, as the U.S. government in February has imposed “antidumping” penalties on Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. The antidumping duty on Taiwanese solar cells is now 20%, and the new duties on Chinese solar panels will range from 39 to 52%.

Wind-powered park at Cijin Beach, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Also, with the price of oil falling more than 50% in the last year, there may be less public pressure to subsidize renewable energy projects. These combined forces may temporarily stop the tide of rising values for solar farm and wind farm land.

This may be a temporary hiccup, though, in a long-term trend of renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuel technologies as our predominant power production technology, as production costs are likely to continue to fall as technology advances. Compare these advances to shale oil hydraulic fracturing technology, which is only more expensive than conventional on-shore drilling. Ten years from now, the world of energy production is likely to be quite different than today.

Solar-powered golf course in Chiba prefecture of Japan, near Inba, as seen from my plane flight
Wind-powered business park in Kamisu, Ibaraki Prefecture, as seen from my plane flight