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Renewables financing race seen off to a slow start

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Renewables financing race seen off to a slow start

SNL Image

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s Topaz Solar Farm in California.
Source: First Solar Inc.

An effort to raise $1 trillion for renewable energy in the U.S. is off to a slow start.

The nonprofit American Council on Renewable Energy, or ACORE, in 2018 set a goal to reach $1 trillion in private investment by 2030. That level of funding is needed to "close the innovation and investment gap with other nations," the group said, and to "stay within striking distance of the U.S. commitment for greenhouse gas emission reductions outlined in the Paris Accord" on climate change.

Investment in renewables and "enabling" technology such as energy storage last year totaled $56.7 billion in the U.S., ACORE said June 17. That is 6% of the total targeted amount and short of the $83.3 billion that is needed on average annually.

ACORE President and CEO Gregory Wetstone called it "credible" progress toward an "aggressive goal."

"Looking forward to 2022, investors convey confidence in continued renewable energy growth and expect to increase their focus on storage, due to declining costs, growing capital markets, robust demand from the corporate and industrial sector, and a rush to take advantage of sunsetting tax credits," Wetstone wrote in a progress report.

More than a third of survey respondents said they plan to increase their investment in U.S. renewables by more than 10% in 2019, ACORE said, and none plan to cut investment by more than 5%.

However, after 2022, when renewable energy tax incentives all but disappear, "the expected rate of growth is less certain," Wetstone said.

That could spell trouble for an industry that has seen growth stall globally despite declining costs.

"At a time when, around the world, we're seeing increasing societal concerns and demand for urgent action on climate change, what we saw in the data last year [is] energy consumption and carbon emissions from energy use growing at their fastest rate in years," BP PLC Chief Economist Spencer Dale said June 13 at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.

Carbon emissions from the power sector rose by an estimated 2.7% globally in 2018 as electricity demand outpaced "rapid gains" in renewables, BP said in a June 11 report.

During the past two years, approximately 180,000 MW of new power generating capacity has been installed annually from renewable sources such as wind and solar, according to the International Energy Agency. That is well short of the more than 300,000 MW of annual additions that the group said are needed between 2018 and 2030 to limit global warming to below 2 degrees C from preindustrial levels, which is the aim of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

"Meeting this challenge of decarbonizing the power sector is really difficult," Dale said. "You have to run very fast just to stand still."

Advocates hope an increased focus on sustainable investing will unlock new sources of capital for renewables. U.S. regulators also are beginning to follow their European peers in examining the financial risks posed by climate change, which some see as an opportunity to leverage capital markets for mitigation efforts.

"What forms of hedging and trading will actually shift real investment to more environmentally beneficial practices?" Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform and a member of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commissions' Market Risk Advisory Committee, asked at the CFTC's public meeting June 12.

ACORE said environmental, social and governance investing is "galvanizing investors to finance low-carbon technologies." However, more needs to be done with data collection and scoring to "reflect the true value of renewable energy use and investment," the group said.