4 Key Takeaways from a Recent Energy Investor Conference
By: Dr. Chris Wedding, Managing Partner
I recently spoke about investing in energy storage at the SuperReturn Energy investor conference in Boston. In this blog, I hope to pass along 4 of my top 100 takeaways.
(OK, slight exaggeration, but productive indeed.)
Unfortunately, I am unable to also magically transmit the decadent Legal Seafoods’ lobster tails and sushi rolls from the sponsored dinner (#WeLoveLawFirms) or the conference bling (#MyKidsLoveGiftsFromWorkTravel).
1. Natural gas is misunderstood.
First, low commodity prices will not always mean low power prices. The costs of distribution of gas to the power plant, plus the transmission and distribution of the electricity it produces take place on an ancient grid. (That’s a technical term. But Edison would recognize today’s grid if he magically reappeared in his Florida laboratory.)
Recent research suggests that the average age for power lines is 28 years, while the U.S. DOE quotes studies by the Brattle Group (for the Edison Electric Institute) estimating about $2T in investment needs for the grid from 2010 to 2030 just to maintain the service reliability.
Second, natural gas is not a perfect “bridge” to a low carbon future.
On one hand, its emissions factor (pounds of CO2 per BTU emitted when burned) is roughly 43% lower than burning coal (whose butt it is kicking).
On the other hand, the operational emissions factor for natural gas is infinitely higher than solar or wind (#DivideByZero). Also, methane leaks during exploration and distribution likely counteract its lower greenhouse gas emissions (compared to coal, that is) when combusted at power plants. As you know, methane’s greenhouse gas impact is at least 30x more potent than CO2.
Third, there are two giants in the natural gas ecosystem that see some writing on the wall, and I think they see lots of four-letter words there.
GE has laid off 12,000 workers in its power generation business, and now Siemens is considering selling offits natural gas turbine business, whose Q2 revenue was down to $114M from $438M in Q2 2017.
And with Bloomberg estimating 157 GW of renewables added vs. just 70 GW of conventional power in 2017, we can understand why they might be making those moves.
Having said all of that, I don’t pretend to live in a world of rainbows and unicorns. Conventional energy will likely be part of the global mix for many decades to come. Even in a world where solar and wind power dominate, this analysis shows that natural gas will have a large, though diminishing role over time.
2. $1T of clean energy investment presents challenges for entrepreneurs and investors.
Most climate change scientists, policymakers, and private sector leaders project a need for $1T of low-carbon investment needed per year in companies and projects in order to keep global temperature increases below 2o C.
However, last year Bloomberg suggests that global clean energy investment stood at just $333B. By my math, that’s 67% lower than the amount of capital we will need.
To get there, we need at least two things:
As for investor interest, it is growing.
When I first began speaking at the SuperReturn investor conference series three years ago in Boston, London, and Berlin, I was often part of the 1%. (No, not that 1%. I am a pauper compared to my colleagues in attendance who manage billions in capital.)
What I mean is that I was often the only guy talking about the future opportunities and threats presented by the mainstreaming of energy storage and electric vehicles, or the continuation of investment opportunities in solar, despite the challenges of (and false conflation with) the cleantech VC missteps of the late 2000’s.
Today, many more investment professionals -- with decades on Wall Street instead of roots in the jungles of the Central American rainforest -- are making big investment commitments to renewables, exploring new deals in energy storage, or analyzing the threats that EVs pose to mid- and long-term oil prices.
[You can read more here about the mainstreaming of renewable energy investing in my feature piece for Preqin, a global leading for market intelligence for private capital markets.]
In contrast to this growing interest, investors worry about yield compression.
With lots of capital chasing a disproportionately smaller number of good deals at scale, and with risks being hammered out of renewable energy infrastructure, IRRs have gone down.
[Note: Although IRRs are a helpful underwriting metric, many investors prefer to look at the “multiple of invested capital,” or total cash out vs. total cash invested.]
When I first began investing in solar power projects, we underwrote to private equity returns north of 20%. Today investors in operating projects might get 6-9%, while those investing in development plus operation and/or platform plays (investing in the development company, too) are targeting “mid-teens” returns.
To clarify, these are leveraged returns.
And when most oil and gas investors hear this, they laugh a little on the inside when comparing these numbers to their target returns from 20-30%. But this is apples-to-orange, due to risk. Renewable energy infrastructure returns are based on [15-25]-year contracted cash flows, while oil and gas investments often depend on far riskier exploration and development, plus volatile global commodity markets.
As for deal flow, scale and quality are the two constraints.
Regarding the scale of these markets, things are getting better. For example, annual U.S. solar project installations are up roughly 50% versus just two years ago, and by 2023 total installed U.S. solar capacity is expected to increase by more than 2x.
But we still need more entrepreneurs to build more projects and companies worthy of investors’ capital. (A tantalizing call to action, for sure.)
Regarding quality, over the years, we’ve vetted 100s of MWs of solar projects. But very few have passed review and made it to investment committees. Again, things are getting better. Developers and entrepreneurs are learning from past mistakes (e.g., using venture capital, the most expensive capital on earth, to built factories to make s*#t).
For more about what it takes to increase a company’s chances of raising capital, we’ve written a few primers, structured in numbered lists, with attempts at humor included.
3. We overestimate the impact of new tech in the short-term, and underestimate its impacts in long-term.
This quote from Bill Gates highlights a comment from an investor panelist: In the current energy transition, trillions of dollars will be created and destroyed.
Another investor put is this way: If you have no strategy on the growing role of clean energy, then you’re leaving value on the table.
For my panel on energy storage investments, the topic on most investors’ minds was this: “Is energy storage a real market today?”
Opinions varied. But here is the right one: Heck ya, it’s real today. But it’s not real everywhere...yet. Hence the confusion.
There are hundreds of millions of investment already committed to or invested in batteries each year at the utility, commercial and industrial, and residential level, including projects involving our clients.
Consider these stats from Greentech Media:
To be sure, the bulk of energy storage investments have yet to come. Bloomberg estimates $100B invested by 2030. For a great graph of billions of dollars projected to be invested, check out the black bar graph here.
But even today, giants like NextEra estimate that no new gas peaker plants will be built post-2020 due to the falling price and increasing performance of large-scale battery storage.
[For more about energy storage investing, you can read our research here -- Financing Energy Storage: A Cheat Sheet.]
Despite early indications of massive growth for new clean energy solutions like storage or EVs, most people see them as a long-term thing. Not a material consideration for today’s portfolio.
However, this graph from NYT / HBR shows that often new technologies are being adopted on increasingly quick timelines, following S-curves with step change growth, not incremental linear progress.
Of course, when comparing EV adoption to smartphone adoption, investors at the conference pointed out that there is a massive difference in the CapEx among these items; hence much slower adoption is possible.
But if any fraction of Tony Seba’s projections in his ReThinkX report on the future of transportation are correct (the question may be “when, not if”), then we could be talking about switching from a CapEx discussion to an OpEx discussion, thereby making the mass transition from ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles to EVs much quicker.
According to one investor panelist, this research estimates that most Americans spend about $10,000 per year on their cars, while ReThinkX projects that autonomous shared EVs could reduce personal travel costs by 90% while also delivering convenience, too. (Ah...to relax and work while going to the airport in a Lyft, instead of navigating traffic and crowded parking garages in my own vehicle.)
Building on that theme, while at the event, I received an update from Bloomberg on their EV projections for 2040: 55% of new sales and 33% of global fleet. (#ThatAintNoNiche)
[Quick aside: Some panelists laughed at the idea that EVs meant clean energy. True, it depends on the grid mix of high vs. low carbon energy sources. But this calculator from U.S. DOE shows that EV CO2 emissions are roughly 50% less than gasoline-powered cars based on average in the U.S. The calculator lets you see differences by state location, too.]
Panelists also noted that major adoption of EVs in the U.S. could lead to 2x growth in utility power output, even describing this monumental revenue-generating opportunity as a “w*t dream” for utilities.
(And, yes, the room was mostly full of men. I apologize. Just the messenger...)
In a time when Moody’s just gave the utility sector a negative outlook for the first time in history, maybe Elon Musk is right: The electrification of transportation could be a much needed savior for the challenged power sector.
Considering that the average capacity factor for U.S power plants is roughly 40%, the utility sector has lots of excess capacity in sunk costs to harness with 100+ EV models coming online by 2020.
[Background: Most grids tend to overbuild capacity in order to manage peak loads, thereby underutilizing power plants and perhaps wasting CapEx for perhaps 90%+ of the hours in a year.]
On a related note, solar plus storage has until recently been an enticing topic for discussions at conferences, or fun projects for my graduate students. But this, too, is changing quickly.
Today almost all renewable energy RFPs from utilities in deregulated markets require the inclusion of energy storage capacity.
And suprisingly, the bids are coming in at very low prices. As an example, Xcel Energy’s recent process resulted in 10+GW of bids for solar plus storage at 3.6 c/kWh and wind plus storage at 1.8 c/kWh, which are both new record low prices.
Finally, investors often feel limited in their consideration of long-term trends and multi-decade infrastructure assets due to the [8-10]-year life of most private equity funds.
In response, panelists came out in two camps:
4. Definitions of ESG and sustainable energy vary widely.
Despite the concern that ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) or sustainable investing is for hippies who love to earn below market financial returns, many investment giants would disagree. Below are samples of their thinking:
Yet still there is confusion about what the terms mean.
Some panelists said their investments in oil and gas have been doing ESG for many years. Now they just needed to add social sustainability goals.
However, they were equating ESG with HSE -- Health Safety, and Environment. While there is overlap, and both are important, there is at least one key difference:
Furthermore, some conventional energy asset managers, intending to do better in ESG, described their greenhouse gas footprinting efforts, and believe that that their conventional energy holdings are low carbon.
Some said the CO2 impacts of oil and gas investments were very low impact because exploring, drilling, and transporting via pipelines constituted a very small amount of the sector’s air pollution.
This is true relative to the combustion of those resources. However, companies are increasingly being expected to consider and account for broader life cycle impacts of their investments, inside and outside of their direct corporate control.
In this new world order, a new analogy may apply: Making guns, but not accepting some accountability for gun deaths, could be a dead argument.
(Yep, pun and controversy intended.)