2017 Q1 letter: Renewable energy in the Trump era

Dear Friends,

The first quarter of 2017 was full of eventful news for markets. We saw a Fed rate hike, record low unemployment rates, all time highs for US equity markets and a new administration sworn in, with Republicans now in full control of Congress. In our view, this likely marks an inflection point for the current business cycle and market levels.

Since the election, we have received several queries from our socially responsible investors about the fate of environmental and climate change regulation under the Trump administration. We understand and share many of their concerns. We hasten to add, however, that infrastructure spending and projects are usually undertaken with long time frames in mind. Enterprises making decisions about what kind of power plants to build will consider the costs over a long term. They are well aware that the current administration and its policies are not set in stone.

We do not expect a raft of coal plants to be built over the next four years — in fact, 2017 has seen an acceleration of the closure of several legacy coal plants. Large plants typically take 3-5 years to build and operators have to factor in the possibility that they will face a changed regulatory environment just as the plants come online. Natural gas prices are likely to play a much larger role in determining what resource mix generates our electricity. The cost of utility scale renewable solar power continues to fall, and though it is not yet competitive with cheap gas, it is not far off either. The IEA estimated the average capital costs of photovoltaic solar plants under construction to be 35-45% higher than natural gas plants per unit of energy produced. An array of tax credits make solar competitive with gas. though the precise economics are driven by regional factors and weather. Wind and hydroelectric power are already competitive with natural gas.

At the risk of appearing sanguine, we think that technological advances, consumer preferences, and the economics of scale have brought us to the point where renewable energy will be competitive with conventional electricity generation going forward. Installed renewable capacity will continue to increase, with or without incentives. If fuel costs move higher, renewables will be become very attractive.

In our view, purchasing certain sectors based on the administration’s stated policy preferences is unlikely to lead to consistent gains. Our reasoning is based on the Trump administration’s penchant for changing direction at the drop of a hat, and secondly on the opposition to various aspects of their policy agenda from either side of the aisle in Congress. In the medium and long-term, valuations and the business cycle will determine investor success. Neither looks particularly fortuitous at the moment for risk assets (equities, or long-term/lower-quality bonds). We continue to recommend a defensive shift for clients based on these factors.


Subir Grewal, CFA, CFP Louis Berger

Understanding the Risks of Crowdsourced Clean Energy Investing

Below is an article written by Louis about the recent trend in clean energy crowdfunding.  It was first published by Green Tech Media and the original article can be found here.


For clean energy investors, Title III of the JOBS Act could change the game.

Prior to its implementation, investing in clean energy startups or small-scale utility projects has been a pursuit reserved mainly for venture capital and private equity firms investing on behalf of their institutional and high-net-worth clients. The barrier to entry into these funds is high, with six- to seven-figure minimum buy-ins typically the norm. But in a post-JOBS Act America, we’re entering a crowdfunding-inspired era where barriers to entry are crumbling.

Take Mosaic, for example, where an investor with as little as $25 and an internet connection can fund a portion of a solar project via an online investment platform.

Sounds great, right? Well, it is. But as with any other investment opportunity, putting money to work in crowdsourced clean energy projects comes with risks. And as crowdfunding gains in popularity and scope, these risks may be glossed over or simply ignored by an enthusiastic investing public eager to put their money where their eco-conscious mouth is.

So what are the risks, exactly?

Let’s take a closer look at Mosaic — not because its offering is especially risky (compared to other crowdsourced investment opportunities, it’s not), but because it’s currently the poster child for this new business model.

In a nutshell, Mosaic helps investors of any size lend money to small-scale solar projects in need of capital. As a result, the solar projects get financing, Mosaic is paid a fee, and investors earn interest on their loan. Think of it as Kickstarter meets Kiva for solar project financing.

Here’s Mosaic’s pitch, in the company’s own words, taken directly from its website: “Mosaic connects investors seeking steady, reliable returns to high-quality solar projects. To date, over $5.6 million has been invested through Mosaic and investors have received 100% on-time payments.”

Below this statement is a list of Mosaic’s projects (all of which have been fully funded) showing annual payments of 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent. This number is net of Mosaic’s annual 1 percent management fee on loans that mature in five to twelve years.

Steady and reliable returns of 4.5 percent or more per year on your investment, plus pride in knowing your money is supporting a clean energy project. Sounds terrific. Everybody wins.

So what’s the catch? Is there a catch?

To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at Mosaic’s prospectus, a densely worded document that lays out the deal terms and accompanying risk factors in explicit detail. After all, the language found on the website is meant to sell prospective investors on Mosaic, not scare them away.

So, onto the prospectus, where on page 2 of the offering memorandum, in capital letters, we get this: “These are speculative securities. Investment in the notes involves significant risk. You should purchase these securities only if you can afford a complete loss of your investment.”

Speculative securities; significant risk; complete loss of your investment. Not quite the sunny language we found on the website. So what exactly are investors getting themselves into here?

It turns out these loans are not made directly to the solar project. Rather, they are funneled through an intermediary (Mosaic), which deploys capital to the projects on behalf of investors. So when an investor lends money to one of these projects, what they’re actually getting is an unsecured note issued by Solar Mosaic LLC, which is meant to “mirror the terms of the corresponding loan.” This is an important distinction, as certain bondholder rights are lost in this structure.

This leads us to the most important risk factor for investors to consider.

Default risk

What’s the risk that the issuer will fail and be unable to make interest payments or pay back your principal? Unlike bank CDs (insured by the FDIC), Treasury bonds (backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. federal government), or municipal bonds (which often carry third-party insurance), Mosaic notes are uninsured, unsecured corporate bonds.

The repayment of principal with interest hinges on the success of the solar project and its ability to generate the necessary cash flow. Because of the way these notes are structured, investors will have two entities to worry about: the borrower (solar project) and the issuer (Mosaic). If the solar project fails, the investor will not receive interest payments and risks losing the invested principal. If Mosaic goes bankrupt (even if the solar project is successful), the investor also may not receive interest payments and risks losing the principal.

Oh, and by the way, if things do go south, the investor “will not have any recourse to the borrower under the loan.” If the solar project fails, you’re relying on Mosaic to recoup your principal through litigation, and the investor “will not have any security interest in any of MSI’s (Mosaic Solar Investments) assets.” That means if Mosaic goes belly up, don’t expect its other assets to cover your losses.

Since the performance of each note is tied directly to the success of the individual solar project, the next factor to consider is credit risk.

Credit risk

How can you quantify which projects are in the best position to repay the loan? Remember, if the project fails, it’s the investor’s capital at risk, not Mosaic’s (although the company’s reputation would likely take a hit). Most publicly traded bonds carry a credit rating from one or more of the major ratings agencies like Moody’s, S&P or Fitch. While these ratings should not be considered gospel (just ask anyone invested in “AAA”-rated mortgage-backed securities in 2008), they can provide a useful marker to help investors gauge the default risk of the borrower.

While Mosaic is working with Standard & Poor’s via truSolar to develop a scoring system for solar bonds, there currently isn’t any third-party analysis of the credit quality of the borrowers. Investors can conduct some limited due diligence on their own, but most will be relying on the judgment of Mosaic’s underwriting team, which have only been at this since 2012. So while there may have been 100 percent on-time payments to date, this is based on a very limited track record.

Since the notes are only available on Mosaic’s platform, another factor to consider is liquidity.

Liquidity risk

What happens if you need access to your principal before the loan matures? With publicly traded bonds (treasuries, corporates, municipals), there’s a secondary market where investors can sell their bonds prior to maturity. With Mosaic’s notes, there is no secondary market.  Also, there isn’t a mechanism in place for investors to redeem their notes prior to maturity. So if your note matures in twelve years, your money will be tied up for the duration. Think of it as a bank CD: you’ll be able to withdraw interest payments, but your principal is illiquid.

This lack of liquidity on a longer-term bond can expose investors to interest rate risk.

Interest rate risk

Right now, we’re living in a time of historically low interest rates. As anyone who holds money in a checking or savings account can tell you, yields on cash are virtually nonexistent. This is a result of the federal funds rate (the rate at which banks borrow money from each other) being set at essentially 0 percent. This impacts rates across all loans, keeping them low — until rates go up again.

And make no mistake, rates will rise. It’s not a question of if, but when and by how much. A twelve-year Mosaic note paying 5.5 percent per year may look great today, but if interest rates are substantially higher a few years from now, you’ll be stuck in an illiquid investment paying below-market rates.

In addition, there are a few other risks to consider.

Technology risk

Will the solar technology being used in this project still be viable twelve years from now? What happens if there’s a major breakthrough in panel performance that causes the panels used in your investment to become obsolete? Or what happens to the warranty on the solar panels if the manufacturer goes out of business?

Catastrophe risk

With climate change impacting weather patterns, what happens if a natural disaster (hurricane, tornado, flood) wipes out the solar farm you’re invested in? Mosaic requires borrowers to carry property insurance, but how would the lack of cash flow during repair work impact interest payments?

Do all these risk factors mean investors shouldn’t put money to work into Mosaic or other crowdsourced clean energy projects? Not necessarily. In fact, these types of investments can make a nice addition to a diversified portfolio. And Mosaic deserves a lot of credit for successfully building out this business model and proving it’s viable, not to mention wildly popular amongst clean energy investors.

However, just like any other investment opportunity, investors need to carefully consider all the risks involved prior to putting their money to work.



Water and alternative energy

800px-Drought_Swimming_HoleTodd Woody writes in the New York Times on the obstacles solar energy plants in the Southwest face in securing necessary water rights.  Certain solar technologies, particularly solar thermal can require large amounts of water to produce and cool steam.  Coal, natural gas and nuclear plants require much larger amounts of water per unit of energy produced (though not all of it is consumed), but they can be located near large bodies of water, with the nuclear or fossil fuel being transported to the plant.  Utility scale solar power plants in contrast, must be located in areas that receive a lot of sunlight, have high temperatures and by definition are arid.  This makes the water sourcing problem much more acute for solar, particularly solar thermal.  The American Southwest has had a history of battles over water rights, and the alternative energy industry is only the latest entrant in a long running dispute between cities, farmers, miners and environmentalists in a fast-growing area which has historically been a desert.   The US Department of Energy produced a report for congress in 2006 on the interdependency of water and energy production including a discussion of various technologies to improve water-use efficiency in power plants.  Wind turbines do not require water.