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Clean-energy optimism soars as world struggles with the pandemic's fallout


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Clean-energy optimism soars as world struggles with the pandemic's fallout

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Investors see big business opportunities building renewable energy projects in emerging markets. This solar farm in the Mexican state of Chihuahua started operating in 2018.
Source: NexTracker Inc.

Banks have been lining up in recent months to finance a trio of solar plants that Scatec Solar ASA is developing in Tunisia. The offers are unlike anything that Raymond Carlsen, Scatec Solar's CEO, says he has ever seen.

"I have to say that I'm positively surprised how eager the banks have been to support us," Carlsen told analysts July 17.

The same day, Norwegian oilfield service providers Aker Solutions ASA and Kværner ASA announced a merger that will spin off a wind farm developer and another company focused on carbon-capture technology. The world is "transitioning to green solutions at accelerated speed," Aker Solutions Chairman Øyvind Eriksen said, and the clean-energy businesses face better odds on their own.

As companies and governments try to steady themselves from the coronavirus crisis, investors and executives in the renewable energy sector say business is chugging along, attracting new money and players as it goes. The momentum is being fueled by a potent mix of falling technology costs and popular support for green government and corporate policies and sustainable investing.

"I don't think this trend is going to reverse," Dennis Arriola, CEO of Avangrid Inc., which is sitting on a massive pipeline of renewable energy projects in the U.S., said July 22 on a call with analysts. "When you look at what's going on with [environmental, social and governance] investing and, specifically, the growth and continued trends in clean energy, I think we're really well-positioned."

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So far this year as of July 23, the Invesco Solar ETF, which invests in stocks tied to the global solar market, is up 48.5% compared to a 1.4% increase in the value of the S&P 500 and a 44% decline in the S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production Select Industry Index.

Outside of equity markets, funding for renewable energy projects rose 5% during the first half of 2020 despite economic and financial disruptions from the pandemic as an investment spike in the offshore wind market offset sharp declines in other sectors, according to analysts at BloombergNEF.

Markets may not yet reflect the full impact of the pandemic, and unemployment in the U.S. renewable energy sector is hovering at around 14% after a wave of job losses in April as states issued stay-at-home orders to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

But financiers remain optimistic.

Investment accelerates

More than half of investors surveyed recently by the American Council for Renewable Energy, an industry advocate in the U.S., said they plan to increase allocations to the sector by more than 10% this year.

"There's still a lot of uncertainty in the market," Daniel Johansson, CEO of Swedish wind power company Arise AB, said July 17 on a call with analysts. But "we've not seen this much interest into investing in renewable energy."

At Partners Group Holding AG, a private equity firm with $96 billion in assets under management, commitments during the first half of the year increased most in its private infrastructure division, which includes renewable energy. Last year, the renewable energy sector accounted for half of infrastructure deal flow globally, according to BlackRock Inc.

"While we have experienced temporary challenges with a handful of assets, as is everyone, I think our focus on subsectors such as outsourced contract manufacturing, software, product engineering, digital outsourcing solutions, renewable energy, last-mile logistics and sectors like this, we think that has the potential to really work out for us over the long run," Partners Group co-CEO David Layton said July 14 on a call with analysts.

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Renewable energy assets like this wind farm off the coast of Belgium accounted for half of infrastructure deal flow globally last year, according to BlackRock.
Source: Parkwind NV

Brookfield Renewable Partners LP, another deep-pocketed investor, continues to expand its footprint in the renewable energy market. The company, which amassed a $3 billion war chest in anticipation of buying opportunities during an economic downturn, on July 20 said it is acquiring a group of unfinished solar projects in Brazil. Separately, Brookfield Renewable is reportedly in talks to sell a renewable energy company it jointly owns in Spain to China Three Gorges Corp., a Chinese state-owned power company.

"The investment pipeline seems to be accelerating, not slowing down, which is perhaps counterintuitive but exciting to see," Jeffrey Eckel, chairman and CEO of Hannon Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure Capital Inc., said July 9 on a call with investors. Hannon Armstrong recently announced a $540 million investment in a portfolio of wind and solar farms developed in the U.S. by Engie SA, a French energy company.

Top investors see little chance the industry will be knocked off course.

"The time for renewables is now," James Robo, chairman, president and CEO of NextEra Energy Inc., said July 24 on a call with analysts. "Frankly, the economics and the need to ... decarbonize not only the electric sector but the rest of the sectors of the economy ... transcend what happens in elections."

Benoit Allehaut, managing director of clean energy infrastructure at Capital Dynamics AG, agreed.

"We think solar is happening everywhere," Allehaut, whose firm has $6.4 billion of renewable energy assets under management, said in a recent interview. "So it is about simply having feet on the ground and making sure that when people are asking for the product, you have it available."

A coronavirus recovery package hammered out by EU leaders could provide an additional lift by increasing the bloc's climate-related spending targets.

The agreement, which still has to pass the European Parliament, "represents the consolidation of the green deal as a project for economic growth and for the economic recovery of the EU," Jose Ignacio Sanchez Galan, chairman and CEO of Spanish renewable energy giant Iberdrola SA, said July 22 on a call with analysts. "[For] those of us that have been fighting for the last 20 years in favor of energy transition, it's magnificent news."