Financial Innovation Among the Community Wind Sector in the United States

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In the relatively brief history of utility-scale wind generation, the 'community wind' sector - defined here as consisting of relatively small utility-scale wind power projects that are at least partly owned by one or more members of the local community - has played a vitally important role as a 'test bed' or 'proving ground' for wind turbine manufacturers. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, Vestas and other now-established European wind turbine manufacturers relied heavily on community wind projects in Scandinavia and Germany to install - and essentially field-test - new turbine designs. The fact that orders from community wind ... continued below

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Bolinger, Mark January 19, 2011.

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In the relatively brief history of utility-scale wind generation, the 'community wind' sector - defined here as consisting of relatively small utility-scale wind power projects that are at least partly owned by one or more members of the local community - has played a vitally important role as a 'test bed' or 'proving ground' for wind turbine manufacturers. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, Vestas and other now-established European wind turbine manufacturers relied heavily on community wind projects in Scandinavia and Germany to install - and essentially field-test - new turbine designs. The fact that orders from community wind projects seldom exceeded more than a few turbines at a time enabled the manufacturers to correct any design flaws or manufacturing defects fairly rapidly, and without the risk of extensive (and expensive) serial defects that can accompany larger orders. Community wind has been slower to take root in the United States - the first such projects were installed in the state of Minnesota around the year 2000. Just as in Europe, however, the community wind sector in the U.S. has similarly served as a proving ground - but in this case for up-and-coming wind turbine manufacturers that are trying to break into the broader U.S. wind power market. For example, community wind projects have deployed the first U.S. installations of wind turbines from Suzlon (in 2003), DeWind (2008), Americas Wind Energy (2008) and later Emergya Wind Technologies (2010),1 Goldwind (2009), AAER/Pioneer (2009), Nordic Windpower (2010), Unison (2010), and Alstom (2011). Just as it has provided a proving ground for new turbines, so too has the community wind sector in the United States served as a laboratory for experimentation with innovative new financing structures. For example, a variation of one of the most common financing arrangements in the U.S. wind market today - the 'partnership flip structure' - was first developed by community wind projects in Minnesota more than a decade ago (and is therefore sometimes referred to as the 'Minnesota flip' model) before being adapted by the broader wind market. More recently, a handful of community wind projects built in the United States over the past year have been financed via new and creative structures that push the envelope of wind project finance in the U.S. - in many cases, moving beyond the now-standard partnership flip structures. These projects include: (1) a 4.5 MW project in Maine that combines low-cost government debt with local tax equity, (2) a 25.3 MW project in Minnesota using a sale/leaseback structure, (3) a 10.5 MW project in South Dakota financed by an intrastate offering of both debt and equity, (4) a 6 MW project in Washington state that taps into 'New Markets Tax Credits' using an 'inverted' or 'pass-through' lease structure, and (5) a 9 MW project in Oregon that combines a variety of state and federal incentives and loans with unconventional equity from high-net-worth individuals. In most cases, these are first-of-their-kind financing structures that could serve as useful examples for other projects - both community and commercial wind alike. This new wave of financial innovation occurring in the community wind sector has been facilitated by policy changes, most of them recent. Most notably, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 ('the Recovery Act') enables, for a limited time, wind power (and other types of) projects to elect either a 30% investment tax credit ('ITC') or a 30% cash grant (the 'Section 1603 grant') in lieu of the federal incentive that has historically been available to wind projects in the U.S. - a 10-year production tax credit ('PTC'). This flexibility, in turn, enables wind power projects to pursue lease financing for the first time - leasing is not possible under the PTC. Because they are based on a project's cost rather than energy generation, the 30% ITC and Section 1603 grant also reduce performance risk relative to the PTC - this, too, is an important enabler of lease financing. Finally, by providing a cash rather than tax incentive, the Section 1603 grant alone reduces (but does not eliminate) the need for tax appetite among project owners. All of these policy changes can be particularly useful to community wind projects, and have helped to support the different financial structures mentioned above. This special report - which is distilled from a longer Berkeley Lab report - briefly describes just two of these innovative new financing structures: the sale/leaseback structure used in Minnesota and the intrastate offering conducted in South Dakota. Readers interested in more detail on these two structures, as well as the other three projects not covered here, are encouraged to reference the full Berkeley Lab report.

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  • Report No.: LBNL-4840E
  • Grant Number: DE-AC02-05CH11231
  • Office of Scientific & Technical Information Report Number: 1050691
  • Archival Resource Key: ark:/67531/metadc829708

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  • January 19, 2011

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  • May 19, 2016, 9:45 a.m.

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Bolinger, Mark. Financial Innovation Among the Community Wind Sector in the United States, book, January 19, 2011; Berkeley, California. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc829708/: accessed January 20, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.