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Turning the Page: Financing our Clean-Energy Future

Ron Pernick's picture

It's the morning of November 5th 2008 and I'm breathing a deep sigh of relief. The prospect of a McCain-Palin Administration, with its focus on "drill baby drill," 45 new nuke plants, and its mockery of conservation efforts, was enough to make my not-so-thin clean-tech skin crawl. More important, the candidate that I had deeply hoped (and prayed) would win the presidency for a range of reasons, Barack Obama, is headed to the White House. His stated platforms could go a long way in bringing about critical developments in the clean-tech realm. They include investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private clean-tech efforts; instituting a 25 percent by 2025 national renewable portfolio standard; increasing fuel economy standards and implementing a national low-carbon fuel standard; and employing an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. As we've written in our book The Clean Tech Revolution and elsewhere, clean tech is poised as the greatest growth engine in more than a generation. Obama seems to think so as well, and the coming months will be critical as he forms his transition team, takes over governing in late January, and embarks on his first 100 days in office. But it won't be easy. Obama is inheriting what former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has called a "once-in-a-century credit tsunami." Home sales and auto sales have cratered. U.S. manufacturing is at a 26-year low. The impact of this credit and financial turmoil has not been as pronounced in clean tech as in many other markets, but the sector is by no means immune. FPL Energy has announced plans to cut 400 MW of wind power next year (out of a planned 1,500 MW), biofuel refiners are having a hard time accessing new capital (the nation's second-largest refiner, VeraSun, recently filed for bankruptcy protection); and government-backed bonds have been withdrawn for all types of infrastructure investments, including energy efficiency, because of market uncertainty. Not good news for the capital-intensive clean-energy sector. "The big issue with renewables," explains Bruce Laird of the Oregon Economic & Community Development Department, "is that you need to pay for all the capital costs up front and then amortize them over a number of years. One of the next breakthroughs needs to be on financing so that governments can provide low-cost money to build out the scale-up of renewables." Clean-Energy "Victory" Bonds Well, I've been thinking about this issue, and I ask: what about the concept of Clean-Energy "Victory" Bonds? The idea certainly isn't new, back during World War II, the Federal government marketed the sale of Series E bonds as "War Bonds," using the funds to finance the war and to combat inflation. More than $185 billion was raised by some 85 million people who bought War Bonds during WWII. Purchased at 75 percent of face value, these bonds had a guaranteed minimum investment yield. Today, some solar power purchase agreement investments return an average of six to eight percent per annum for their private investors (including tax benefits), over approximately 10 year periods. What if the government could issue a financial instrument that would fund America's clean-energy and efficiency aspirations; an instrument similar to the War Bond, one that earns respectable interest with a moderate maturity period? What if we could replicate the massive marketing success of WWII War Bonds, creating a unified patriotic movement aimed at financing a new American clean-energy economy? There are other bonding and loan options such as lending programs, tax-credit bonds, and revolving loan funds. The City of Berkeley, California, for example, is giving out loans to cover the entire cost of solar energy systems. Integrated into owners' property tax bills, loans are paid off over a 20-year period. Clean renewable energy bonds (CREBs), an example of tax credit bonds, have been issued since 2005 by cities, states, and other public institutions, financing renewable energy projects. These bonds don't pay out interest from the issuer to the purchaser; instead, CREB bondholders receive interest payments in the form of a federal tax credit. Revolving loan funds are pools of public and private funds used to simultaneously finance multiple projects. As projects reach the end of their payback period and the loan is paid off, funds are recycled and loaned out to new projects. Clean-energy projects, having well-defined payback periods, are uniquely equipped to utilize this form of revolving finance. Eye on the Prize At the recent REFF-WEST event in Seattle, put on by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and Euromoney, keynote presenter Phil Angelides had an interesting take on the challenges ahead. Mr. Angelides, former California state treasurer (where he was the driving force behind that state's Greenwave Initiative) and current chair of the Apollo Alliance, said in a talk just eight days before the election that clean-energy advocates will need to aggressively ensure that Mr. Obama pursue the strategies outlined in his campaign. A president Obama will be faced with so many competing challenges and interests, he explained, we'll need to keep the new Administration's eye on the prize. Indeed, we face an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our economy in a way that reduces the threats of environmental degradation and economic decline, while ensuring future U.S. technological prowess and continued global leadership. Let's get to work. There's no time to waste. ----- Ron Pernick is co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge, Inc., coauthor of The Clean Tech Revolution, and sustainability fellow at Portland State University's School of Business.