United States: Year In Review—U.S. Renewable Energy In 2015

Co-author Morgan M. Gerard

Even in an era of low-priced oil, 2015 may have been an inflection point for renewable energy as a competitive generation source in the U.S. Deutsche Bank has noted that renewable sources, like solar, have reached, or will soon reach, grid parity with fossil fuel sources in many states. As non-fossil energy becomes more economic, the industry has begun to mature by standardizing and streamlining project processes, and accessing sophisticated financing vehicles like yieldcos and public bond offerings. Thus, the past year has been both exciting and tumultuous for the renewable industry with high-profile new emissions reduction policy regimes, including the COP 21 agreement and the Clean Power Plan (CPP), and the formation of intriguing grassroots coalitions, like the green tea party. All of these developments were, of course, set against the specter of a potential step-down of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), and its surprising last-minute revival. The following is a breakdown of some of the highlights of 2015.

COP 21

On the world stage, nearly 200 leaders, including key nations such as the United States, China, Russia and India adopted an agreement that would reduce global emissions. Expectations were tempered going into the much anticipated conference with France calling for a binding treaty, and the U.S. balking at an arrangement that would almost certainly be struck down by a Republican-led Congress. In a win for the future of renewable industries, the agreement set out a long-term goal of maintaining a temperature rise "well below 2 degrees Celsius." To achieve this objective, each country must submit emissions targets by 2020 with an ongoing reporting requirement. This victory for climate change advocates may serve as a leading indicator for a growing market for renewables.

The Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan serves as the unofficial, yet primary domestic implementation framework for the COP 21 agreement. The CPP was promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under its Clean Air Act (CAA) authority to regulate ambient emissions from stationary sources. The final Plan sets a target of a 32 percent decline in carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and contemplates a much larger role for renewables in the nation's energy mix. Under the CPP each state will submit a compliance plan to achieve the emissions targets by retiring coal fired facilities, increasing natural gas as a fuel source and incorporating more renewables.

However, as the year draws to a close, the final disposition of the plan is far from certain. Hours after the regulation was published in the Federal Register, twenty-seven states filed more than 15 separate cases against the EPA, which have been consolidated before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In support of the CPP, 18 states, including New York and California, have sought to defend the EPA.

Before the merits of the case are even addressed, the action in early 2016 will be for the three-judge panel to address a "stay" of the rule, which halts the CPP's implementation until the litigation is finalized. The parties seeking the stay, including West Virginia, feel that by meeting their prescribed standard they will be irreparably harmed. Renewable energy advocates argue that the granting of the stay could greatly damage the efficacy of the rule and its ability to be implemented in accordance with CPP (and unofficially COP 21) targets.

The Production and Investment Tax Credits

While the U.S. government has sought to assist the nascent renewables industry through tax credits in recent years, through most of 2015 the long-term status of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) appeared grim. The PTC has been the great driver of the wind industry as it provides 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour generated by a wind facility. Its expiration in 2014 led to a noticeable drop off in new wind projects. The ITC, which has been the driver of solar and also serves as a potential alternative credit for wind, provides a credit for 30% of the development cost of a renewable project, and is applied as a reduction to the income taxes for that person or company claiming the credit. The ITC was originally slated to be cut from 30% to 10% for non-residential and third-party-owned residential systems, and to zero for host-owned residential systems by the end of 2016.

Congress had been considering a PTC extension, which passed the Senate earlier this year. However, many thought an ITC extension was "off the table," but claimed that the reduction in credit value would render solar as unviable in many areas of the country. Thus, the industry was swept by uncertainty throughout the year. After solar businesses spent the past year reconsidering their business models to ease the pain of the step-down and speeding along projects to clear the credit requirements, Congress, to the surprise of industry, authorized the extension of both the PTC and ITC. The ITC will now be in place for an additional five years, including three years at the current value, followed by two years of more graduated step-downs. The impact of the ITC extension is set to be significant, and will likely inject new life into abandoned projects, protect existing jobs, support additional job creation and ensure that the solar sector remains poised for an upward growth trajectory.

Yieldcos

In addition to using tax equity, the larger solar companies have been able to raise public funds through a "yieldco"—a dividend growth-oriented company, created by a parent company that bundles renewable and/or conventional long-term contracted operating assets in order to generate predictable cash flows. With about one dozen YieldCos now trading on North American exchanges, the vehicle has seen explosive growth in the last year. The cost of capital required for energy projects has been reduced via the YieldCo model due to access to cheap corporate debt and as their use of standardized project structures and documents have lowered transaction "soft" costs. YieldCos have created efficient homes for the assets that large companies formerly kept on their balance sheets and have additionally allowed nascent entities to raise relatively cheap capital for acquisitions. They have also facilitated diversification of the renewable energy investor base as typical dividend-focused individual investors have been able to "go green" as an alternative to low yield bonds in a way that has been difficult in a tax credit-driven environment. Arguably, this has lowered return expectations, and therefore the cost of capital, further.

However, despite significant growth in 2015, the future of the YieldCo model is less than certain as the fourth quarter of 2015 saw great variability in YieldCo share prices. The reasons are myriad with theories addressing MLP values, rising interest rates, negative public statements from management teams, a slowing Chinese economy, lower oil prices, capital constraints and YieldCo disassociation from parents entities all being floated as potential reasons for recent losses in shareholder value. While it is important to decouple share price from the ability of a YieldCo to remain in business, lower share prices paired with rising interest rates could hinder the ability of many entities to continue to grow portfolios and dividends at current rates.

Distributed Energy Resources—Grid of the Future Proceedings

In the wake of super-storm Sandy and the ensuing power outage to downtown Manhattan, the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) is proactively exploring revamping incumbent utilities to better incorporate Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) to ease the transition toward a more dynamic and robust energy generation and distribution system. DERs present a challenge to the tradition grid system, which only envisions energy flowing in one direction, typically from one large source located far from the end user. The proliferation of DER has caused a grid issue in that energy now flows bi-directionally—from the utility customer's generating system into the utility.

NYPSC's Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) docket envisions many user-sited DERs that will sell capacity into the system or to other energy consumers. Utilities will act in a new capacity, Distributed System Platforms (DSPs), as "gatekeepers" to a multi-sided platform market with the utility functioning as the platform provider. The utility will facilitate the transaction between the DER owner/operator and the consumer.

Similarly, California is also experimenting with incorporating and leveraging DER formally within their grid framework. The California Public Utility Commission is in the process of facilitating the utilities to develop distribution resource plans (DRPs) that incorporate DER into utility grid-planning and investment regimes. Currently, the Commissions' mandate is for the utilities to determine the value of DER to their systems, specify where on their systems DER should be incorporated, and propose demonstration projects.

Solar in the Southeast

Southeastern states, such as North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina are, for the first time, considering increasing solar as part of their state's energy portfolio as an economic development driver and job creator. Policymakers in the Southeast are enabling both increased utility scale solar and the introduction of rooftop generation. For example, the Georgia legislature, thanks in part to a coalition comprised of environmentalists and conservative republicans known as the green tea party, passed the Solar Power Free-Market Financing Act of 2015. The new law opens up third-party ownership of leased rooftop solar projects up to a maximum of 10 kW generation capacity.

Similarly, in South Carolina, utilities were required to submit their plans to implement the Distributed Energy Resource Program Act (DERPA), which mandates programs to achieve at least 2% renewable energy adoption by 2021, including plans to invest in or procure distributed resources. Earlier this year, Southern Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) and Duke Energy reached separate agreements with state regulators, ratepayers and environmental advocates on programs for meeting this objective. SCE&G committed to invest $37 million to install approximately 84 MW of solar on the state's electric grid by 2021, including 42 MW of utility-scale solar and 42 MW of residential, commercial-industrial, and community solar. Duke Energy agreed to a $69 million program to place in service 53 MW of utility-scale solar and 53 MW of residential and commercial solar.

Net Metering Debates

Utilities are not all for adapting to new and innovative business models, and in many states are continuing to push back against distributed generation. Net metering, which has incentivized hundreds of distributed energy projects, is a legislative policy that allows generators to sell unused electricity into the utility grid. Once supported by utilities, these policies are becoming more contentious across the country since in cost-of-service versus the rate-of-return regulatory jurisdictions, there is the argument that net metering prevents utilities from recouping their full return on grid investment. Utilities have raised concerns that net metering policies create an inequitable cost-sharing paradigm, whereby customers are paid for over-generation, but do not bear the responsibility or cost for updating and maintaining transmission lines.

For example, contention over net metering in Hawaii brought a regulatory proceeding to halt as the island's utility maintained that costs are shifted to non-net metering customers. The utility recommended a model for distributed energy resources where owners would be compensated for net-metered electricity at $0.18 per kWh, which lengthens the payback period for solar infrastructure investments. Similarly, the Arizona Public Service Company (APS) established a charge for new rooftop solar panel installations connected to the electric grid through net metering, amounting to $0.70/kW—approximately a monthly charge of $4.90 for most customers.

Regulators and legislators from Nevada and California are considering whether NEM has run its course as a method to encourage solar adoption, or if the policy is a fair method of compensating rooftop generators. Utilities argue, not without merit in some cases, that they are purchasing electricity at a dollar rate greater than what it would take them to generate an equivalent amount of electrons. Moreover, electrons are only part of the story, as utilities still need to provide solar customers with standby power and voltage support to turn on their appliances and open their garage doors. Thus, NEM is heavily tied into the "grid-of-the-future" discussions as utility's role evolves from vertical integration to DER network operators.

Offshore Wind

One of the drawbacks to renewables increasing their percentage share of the domestic energy mix is that these sources are intermittent with solar PV only generating electrons when the sun shines and wind turbines only turning when the wind blows. However consistent power - base-load - is still required, usually in the form of a fossil-fueled plant, or a nuclear facility. Offshore wind has long been touted as the next big addition to the U.S. energy mix since the wind blows harder and more consistently offshore, which would potentially allow this renewable energy source to replace some portion of base-load. Offshore wind had a rocky start in the United States as these large infrastructure projects face difficult regulatory obstacles, including a maze of permitting and environmental laws and requirements as well as classic NIMBY issues. One prominent example is the first proposed off-the-coast wind farm, Cape Wind, which has faced 14 years of litigation surrounding its development process. However, many are hoping that the start of construction of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island will trigger a gale force of offshore wind energy

Looking Ahead to 2016

The year ahead shows promise for the U.S. renewable industry—the COP 21 agreement and CPP set the stage for increased policy objectives to incentivize renewables, new states are opening as potential markets for both utility scale and residential rooftop solar and grid systems across the country are adapting to incentivize greater DER. The stabilizing extension of the ITC and PTC ensures that these energy sources remain financeable in the New Year, and new financers may feel comfortable entering the market as the industry matures. With these policies in place, the U.S. has the opportunity to deploy more renewable infrastructure to meet stated targets, and those working in the renewable energy industry have cause for cheer this holiday season.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.