United States: Vietnam Plays A Calculated Game Of Risk With New Solar PPA

Vietnam appears to be betting on gung ho enthusiasm to kick start solar power development rather than taking bold steps to deliver a stable backbone to the industry.  It's a gamble that may pay off in the short term but might also saddle the country with poorly-conceived and under-performing projects in the long term.

To much fanfare, Vietnam's Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT) released Circular 16 in including final template power purchase agreements (PPA) for the solar energy sector. The circular and PPA templates follow a draft issued back in April this year, and are stated to be mandatory templates for utility-scale and rooftop solar projects.

The original draft PPA for utility scale grid projects was met with criticism, and declared non-bankable by most experts and commentators (despite hewing closely to the previously-issued standard PPA for wind projects). Unfortunately, little has changed with the final version of the PPA.  Would-be investors raised serious concerns over the amount and type of risk the PPA sought to shift to investors, and the message delivered was that unless the government was willing to address some of the most glaring problems, few reputable foreign solar players and, just as importantly, few reputable financiers would be likely to sign up.

Having largely ignored recommendations provided, the final text does little to inspire confidence. The final PPA does not improve upon the main critical issues highlighted in April.  Issues include a lack of measures to compensate producers for interruption in the ability to receive power, force majeure conditions, contract suspension, and settlement of disputes.

Tariff trouble

With the FiT rate of US$0.0935/kWh for grid-connected solar power projects confirmed, Circular 16 goes on to outline that the FiT is available for 20 years to projects, or parts of projects, that reach commercial operation before 30 June 2019.

As with the draft from April, the final PPA does not include any indexation of the FiT to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to address inflation risks. In response to concerns over fluctuating exchange rates, the circular does state that "the FiT for the following year shall be adjusted according to the central exchange rates of the Vietnamese dong against the US dollar announced by the State Bank of Vietnam on the last working day of the preceding year."  Annual adjustment is better than none but it wouldn't have been difficult to spread adjustments throughout the year.

As a way to offset the relatively low tariff, and inflation risks, investors may be able to benefit from tax exemptions on raw materials and supplies imported for their projects, corporate income tax relief, and an exemption from land rental fees within the first three years of commencing commercial operation.

A risk too far?

Under Decision 11 (which also set the FiT) and the final version of the PPA appended to Circular 16, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) is responsible for purchasing the entire power output from grid-connected projects at the stated FiT.

However, the PPA relieves EVN from payment obligations in cases where it is unable to take power due to a breakdown of the transmission or distribution grid. With many solar projects currently focused on few central locations, the capacity of existing facilities to absorb power must be a cause of some concern given the PPA's transfer of such risk to power producers.

Worryingly, the PPA lacks any mechanism to compensate power producers should interruptions happen outside of their control. Not only does the PPA not provide for extension of time in case of force majeure, but if force majeure were to prevent a power producer from meeting its obligations for a year then EVN could unilaterally terminate the PPA with no compensation payable.  In such circumstances, the power producer is left alone in the dark.

Such arrangements might be acceptable to projects that manage to negotiate clear 'take or pay' terms and/or government guarantees, but it is highly questionable whether and to what extent either of these will be possible in the current climate.  As a direct consequence, it is equally questionable to what extent private finance will be prepared to bear the risk, a fact that will prompt capital to seek more favourable conditions in other markets.

Playing by house rules

If the above portends of problems in the relationship with EVN, investors may be further discouraged by the lack of specifics in terms of dispute resolution. The PPA is governed by Vietnamese law and does not itself expressly include the right to agree on international arbitration to resolve disputes, a condition that would typically be considered an important requirement.

As it stands, disputes can be submitted to the Electricity Renewable Energy Department (formerly the General Directorate of Energy) for mediation. If that doesn't work, there is the option of escalating the issue to the Electricity Regulatory Authority of Vietnam (ERAV) or pursuing litigation in Vietnam's courts.

The PPA does allow for "another dispute resolution body to be agreed by the parties", which potentially opens the door for sellers to negotiate with EVN on dispute resolution, including offshore or even domestic arbitration.  But it is not clear if EVN will agree to directly amend PPAs to allow for express prior agreement on offshore arbitration or simply open the door for such a discussion at the time of a dispute.  Clearly in the latter case the deck is firmly stacked in EVN's favour.

One step forward... wait and see

The MoIT is well aware of the deficiencies in the PPA and knows that, in its current form, it will not attract the kind of investment Vietnam needs if it is to meet both its energy demands and renewable targets. They know that investors were hoping for some of the shortfalls to have been addressed, and as such the agreement remains – for all intents and purposes – largely unbankable.

On the other hand however, the MoIT is also acutely aware of the significant interest in Vietnam's solar sector. The vast potential of solar power is there for the taking, with abundant land available for the development of solar farms for first movers. With this in mind, the PPA can be considered an attempt to test the waters – asking how much risk investors are willing to bear in return for a piece of the action.

The MoIT is confident that smaller, nimble players will be attracted to Vietnam and make investments, regardless of the bankability of the PPA on paper. The question truly posed by Circular 16 is: exactly how much risk are investors willing to accept?  What better way to test it than in open market conditions?  If risk allocation adjustment need to be made in future, the Prime Minister, MoIT and EVN can make them relatively easily.

Ultimately, although the PPA is "final" on paper, the real trick is for investors to work hard and smart to agree adjustments on a project-to-project basis that re-align specific risks in acceptable ways.  Each project is a sum of many different elements and successful investors in the early days at least will be the ones that focus their energies on key issues for their projects where they can make meaningful progress.  Opportunity vs. risk: Vietnam is playing a calculated game at the dawn of the solar energy sector.  Where the chips fall remains to be seen.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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