Who killed renewables? This sunrise industry has received a telling blow

Published: November 15, 2017 6:13:57 AM

The renewables sector in India is near-death. Capacity addition has markedly slowed down in this financial year. Few projects are achieving financial closure, and so, few projects are getting complete.

The renewables sector in India is near-death. Capacity addition has markedly slowed down in this financial year. (Image: Reuters)

By ChhatrasaL

The renewables sector in India is near-death. Capacity addition has markedly slowed down in this financial year. Few projects are achieving financial closure, and so, few projects are getting complete. What happened? The last financial year ended very well for renewables; 5,502 MW of wind capacity and 5,526 MW of solar capacity had been commissioned in FY17 (vs. a 2022 target of 175 GW from renewables). A record 11,320 MW of renewable capacity came up in FY17, levelling with the thermal capacity increment of 11,551 MW. The total stock of renewables had reached 57 GW (now 60 GW by September 2017). The country had developed larger IPPs, many crossing 1 GW each. Many of these had started creating value at this scale by innovative financial engineering. More capital had been raised, including from lower-cost providers of equity. The Indian OEMs in wind (who also have to take up development and EPC functions) and EPC companies in solar had shown impressive growth. On the wind side, the leading manufacturers like Suzlon were even planning to exit CDR and stress from earlier years. Global players had re-entered/expanded in India to sell equipment in wind (GE, Vestas, Gamesa), and solar balance-of-plant players had established their presence in India in recent years.

And then it happened, the one development that has incontrovertibly damaged the burgeoning industry—bidding. The central government, in its wisdom, decided to introduce bidding to bring down the cost of power. This started with solar, and, in tandem with lower module prices, the government brought down capital costs and solar tariffs from a high of `17/unit to `2.44/unit. What an impressive achievement in two years, which led to the boom in the solar industry that took it from hothouse status to achieving impressive scale! The same was then done in wind, and the tariffs fell from a feed-in-tariff band of `4-5/unit to `3.46/unit and, most recently, `2.64/unit, a decline of 23% in less than a year. This, inspite of the fact that wind capital costs are largely domestic and less variable versus solar, which tracks global module prices given the Chinese supply glut. This also ignores the facts that the central grid evacuation by PGCIL for the first award has still not been delivered, and the CERC guidelines for various state-level evacuation programmes are not in place.

On the face of it, these developments are impressive: They make the growth areas of solar and wind power generation more competitive than before, more competitive than thermal power, and more acceptable to the loss-making SEBs. The problem lies elsewhere. All this was done in an environment of poor power demand. This gave the states the ability to make much mischief: question existing PPAs, not sign PPAs for approved and constructed projects awaiting commissioning, basically not accept any more renewable capacity, unless it is at this obscenely low rate. With no goad needed to increase grid curtailment and further delay payments, India is basically punishing renewable power generators. The bidding also kills the logic for the Renewable Purchase Obligation, which has long ceased to be a stick to enforce renewable purchase by the SEBs.

At these bid tariffs, and recognising execution-, grid-, and payment-risks, the few specialised institutions lending to the sector are not willing to lend, as they are not able to make the case that the risk and returns are evenly matched, that the debt would have adequate coverage, and they would get their capital back. If the lenders are not sure of debt returns, we know the equity returns are modest, likely below debt. The bidders bet on falling capital costs (module process going down to $0.25/wp, when they have gone up to $0.38/wp), on not hedging dollar debt from vendors or ECB financing, and the marvellous fiction of a premium on flipping the operating assets into an INVIT, when the current INVITs in the market are trading at a discount. For wind, the OEMs could lower their margins from 10%, given a huge inventory of partially-developed projects, to some 5%. Even at 10%, the working capital funding is a challenge. At the lower margins, it is not possible.

So, we have the government’s poor understanding of power demand and supply, the reaction of the SEBs, the capabilities for power evacuation, and the private sector’s classical penchant for resource-auction hara-kiri. All this, exacerbated by the lack of any bids for six months, is further pressurising the bidders to hara-kiri land-acquisition bids with debt-like single-digit equity returns in an environment with no meaningful reduction of risk. The vast bulk of the projects will not be built, they will not be financed. The capex will not be signed up. By the time we learn, two years of failure will have passed, and given the ‘success’ of the bids in generating significantly lower tariffs, there is no return to FIT possible. The wind sector is forecast to reach 600 MW of projects commissioned this year (FY18)—from 5,500 MW to 600 MW in just one year! Please debate this with me, and tell me how this is a success. Was the hara-kiri industry really cartelised and sitting on juicy returns? The leading companies, all Make-in-India for wind, have let go of some 3,000 frontline jobs, with more jobs losses coming. These are jobs-in-India. Why did it have to happen like this just when the sector was scaling up? The nation wants to know.

The author has worked in infrastructure development and financing

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