Bonding for Clean Energy Progress

With Washington adrift and the United Nations climate change panel again calling for action, the search for new clean energy finance solutions continues.  

Against this backdrop, the Metro Program has worked with state- and city-oriented partners to highlight such responses as repurposing portions of states’ clean energy funds and creating state green banks.  Likewise, the Center for American Progress just recently highlighted the potential of securitization and investment yield vehicles, called yield cos. And last week an impressive consortium of financiers, state agencies, and philanthropies announced the creation of the Warehouse for Energy Efficiency Loans (WHEEL) aimed at bringing low-cost capital to loan programs for residential energy efficiency. WHEEL is the country’s first true secondary market for home energy loans—and a very big deal. 

Another big deal is the potential of bond finance as a tool for clean energy investment at the state and local level. That’s the idea advanced in a new paper released this morning that we developed with practitioners at the Clean Energy Group and the Council for Development Finance Authorities.

Over 100 years, the nation’s state and local infrastructure finance agencies have issued trillions of dollars’ worth of public finance bonds to fund the construction of the nation’s roads, bridges, hospitals, and other infrastructure—and literally built America. Now, as clean energy subsidies from Washington dwindle, these agencies are increasingly willing to finance clean energy projects, if only the clean energy community will embrace them.

So far, these authorities are only experimenting. However, the bond finance community has accumulated significant experience in getting to scale and knows how to raise large sums for important purposes by selling bonds to Wall Street. Accordingly, the clean energy community—working at the state and regional level—should leverage that expertise. The challenge is for the clean energy and bond finance communities to work collaboratively to create new models for clean energy bond finance in states, and so to establish a new clean energy asset class that can easily be traded in capital markets.

Along these lines, our new brief argues that state and local bonding authorities, clean energy leaders, and other partners should do the following: 

    Establish mutually useful partnerships between development finance experts and clean energy officials at the state and local government levels

    Expand and scale up bond-financed clean energy projects using credit enhancement and other emerging tools to mitigate risk and through demonstration projects

    Improve availability of data and develop standardized documentation so that the risks  and rewards of clean energy investments can be better understood

    Create a pipeline of rated and private placement deals, in effect a new clean energy asset class, to meet the demand by institutional investors for fixed-income clean energy securities

    And it’s happening. Already, bonding has been embraced in smart ways in New York; Hawaii; Morris County, NJ; and Toledo, among other locations featured in our paper. Now, it’s time for states and municipalities to increase the use of bonds for clean energy purposes. If they can do that it will be yet another instance of the nation’s states, metro areas, and private sector stepping up with a major breakthrough at a moment of federal inaction.