What you need to know to take advantage of the green bond revolution

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While green bonds are not immune from the broader capital markets disruptions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the fundamental drivers for long-term growth of the market remain in place.

As the green bond market continues to develop, solar energy industry participants can benefit from a synergy between green bond investor demand and inherent industry characteristics, such as a desire to support investment and growth in renewable resources and reduce CO2 emissions. Potential solar energy participants in the green bond market should understand green bond basics, as well as industry-specific benefits.

What is a green bond?

The primary purpose of the green bond market is to match investors looking to support projects with specific environmental or “green” attributes with borrowers who want to finance those projects. Issuers can self-label their bonds as green or seek an independent certification, verification, rating or review.

Green finance

Throughout Q2 2020, pv magazine is diving deep into the topic of green finance and what it means for solar industry players, as a part of its UP initiative. Topics will include the European Green Deal, regional growth opportunities, green bonds, and the role of the carbon bubble. Stay tuned and get involved!

Currently, there are no fixed or universal standards as to what assets qualify for green bond financing; however, the fundamental characteristic of green bonds is using proceeds to fund projects with positive environmental characteristics. Several different organizations – including Cicero, Climate Bonds Initiative, Sustainalytics, Moody’s and S&P – review and designate green bonds across industries and asset classes using various rating methodologies and criteria.

A central question is whether a project’s environmental attributes are sufficiently green – and differences of opinion exist as to what assets qualify. For example, should financing for solar facilities that are substantially backed by fossil-fuel powered generation resources be certified as green? One organization has addressed this question by designating shades of green bonds based on the environmental impact, rather than a binary green or not determination.

Another consideration is public perception, as some green bond issues have been criticized as not being sufficiently green. Fortunately, solar energy is generally perceived as solidly green and is a critical component in broader efforts to increase renewable energy generation and reduce carbon emissions.

Certain guidelines have also emerged as influential in the green bond market. Foremost are the Green Bonds Principles (GBP), developed by the International Capital Markets Association, which set forth best practices for green bond issues. The GBP reflects an effort to increase transparency and legitimacy for the largely self-regulated green bonds market. The GBP identifies four areas of emphasis for green bonds best practices: (i) Use of Proceeds; (ii) Process for Project Evaluation and Selection; (iii) Management of Proceeds; and (iv) Reporting. Issuers may issue bonds on a project-specific or a company basis, as long as the proceeds fund green assets, in this case solar, and related infrastructure or storage assets.

Many issuers choose to provide investors with a level of comfort by having an issue pre-certified as green as discussed above, and/or annually verified by a third-party auditor for compliance with the GBP or other criteria. Sophisticated issuers financing projects with green bonds have begun implementing internal “Green Financing Frameworks,” in which issuers state their internal policies and procedures for directing, managing and monitoring the use of funds raised by green bonds for proper projects. Green Financing Frameworks often align with the GBP and may streamline second party verification. Besides directing proceeds to green projects, and any voluntary diligence, certification and reporting processes, green bonds are essentially similar to other bonds.

What are the benefits of green bonds?

In addition to the environmental benefits derived from the projects financed, green bonds carry important tangible and intangible benefits for issuers, including solar energy industry participants. For issuers, green bonds:

  • Diversify an investor base – green bonds are sought by a growing class of investors, several of which have environmental or other investment mandates;
  • Increase demand – green bonds tend to have wider margins of oversubscription than comparable conventional bond offerings;
  • Investor communication – green bonds demonstrate the issuer’s commitment to values that investors, not to mention citizens, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders, find important, and
  • Price – recent evidence suggests that green bonds may be developing a small pricing advantage, or “greenium,” over comparable non-green bonds.

For solar energy participants, all of the above benefits may be readily available without much additional effort, as pre-existing certification frameworks broadly include solar energy.

Sunshine in a cloudy market

Solar energy industry participants, in particular, stand to benefit from issuing green bonds. For some industries seeking to leverage investor demand for green bonds, demonstrating that proceeds will be used for “green” purposes may prove difficult. Claims of “greenwashing,” the practice of using funds from green bonds for non-green or tangentially green purposes, have tainted prior green bond issuers. Fortunately, existing green bond standards clearly identify solar energy projects as an eligible sector for green bond financing.

One prominent certifier of green bonds, the Climate Bonds Initiative, sets forth sector-based criteria for the acceptable use of green bond proceeds. Under criteria for the solar energy sector, eligible activities include projects and assets that operate or are under construction in onshore solar electricity generation facilities, wholly dedicated transmission and other supporting infrastructure for solar generation, and onshore solar thermal facilities like solar hot water systems. Offshore solar resources are also eligible under the marine renewables sector. In early 2020, a number of large, U.S. dollar-denominated green bond issues supported solar project development, with more likely to come later in the year.

In assessing whether green bond financing is right for solar energy industry participants, a number of factors are worth considering. Generally, solar PV projects benefit from the fact that solar PV generation is largely de-risked as a technology excluding some of the newer or complex adaptations, such as floating solar.

Additionally, when increasingly paired with storage, which also qualifies for green financing, solar projects may be increasingly scalable, such that bond financing makes sense. At the same time, certain risks affect financing solar and storage projects with green bonds, especially revenue bonds. Issuers must realistically consider the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on energy demand and pricing, and the uncertainty regarding the subsequent economic downturn.

If underlying projects exist in non-subsidized markets, but sell power under long-term offtake contracts at fixed prices, off-taker creditworthiness may be a concern. Additionally, for merchant projects or projects exposed to merchant pricing, declining power prices generally, and specifically as the result of recession, may reduce cash flow. Finally, developers may find it difficult to cash flow energy storage in terms of fully contracted output solutions.

Conclusion

Despite the current economic dislocations, green bonds are expected to see long-term increases in volume and utilization globally. Solar energy participants should strongly consider green bonds to finance solar projects and related infrastructure, including storage. Increased investor demand, corporate goodwill and potential pricing benefits, coupled with relatively benign start-up requirements and solar energy’s natural qualification for green bond financing, should render green bonds a topic at the forefront of every solar energy industry participants’ mind.

About the authors

Michelle T. Davies is International Head of Clean Energy and Sustainability at Eversheds Sutherland (International) LLP. Darryl F. Smith is a Partner in the energy and infrastructure practice of Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP.  The authors thank Garrett Hollis, J.D. for his assistance in preparing this article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.