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Loan Guarantees for U.S. Renewables Making a Comeback

Federal loan guarantees for renewable energy, which spurred the development of massive projects like the recently completed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California – and roiled the 2012 elections – are emerging from hibernation.

More than two years after closing the last such loan guarantee, the U.S. Department of Energy announced on Wednesday that it intends to make up to $4 billion available “for innovative renewable energy and energy efficiency projects located in the U.S. that avoid, reduce, or sequester greenhouse gases.”

The announcement sets the stage for the DOE to offer support for projects that incorporate one or more of five broad technology types [PDF]:

  • “advanced grid integration and storage,” a key need in getting more intermittent renewable energy on the grid;
  • “drop-in biofuels,” which could directly replace conventional fossil fuels in cars, planes and ships and function within the current distribution system;
  • “waste-to-energy,” where waste gases and discarded materials are used in commercial-scale energy production;
  • “enhancement of existing facilities,” such as adding power-production to existing dams that don’t have it;
  • and “efficiency improvements,” a catchall that could range from residential building improvements to the recovery of energy from curtailed renewable energy systems.

For many Americans, the mention of “loan guarantees for renewable energy” probably brings to mind Solyndra, the DOE-backed solar panel manufacturer that failed in 2011, costing taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars.

That and a handful of other flops turned the loan program, which has its roots in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 but flourished with the Obama Administration’s 2009 Recovery Act, into a political football. In September 2012, House Republicans pushed through the “No More Solyndras Act” to phase out the program, but the legislation was never taken up by the Senate. (See related post: “Despite Beacon’s Failure, Energy Storage Is Key“)

The DOE and many renewable energy advocates insist that the loan portfolio has been a resounding success. Including loans that focused on advanced vehicles and nuclear power plants, the department said last fall – after electric car maker Fisker went bankrupt – that expected losses “represent about 2 percent of our overall loan program portfolio of approximately $34 billion – and less than 10 percent of the loan loss reserve Congress set aside for the program.” (See 2011 story: “Storage, Biofuel Lead $156 Million in Energy Grants.”)

At a marine energy conference in Seattle this week, Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, said financing remained a monumental hurdle for innovative clean energy technologies.

“Technology costs have come down, but financing costs have not,” Reicher said. He backs expanding mechanisms like multiple limited partnerships and real estate investment trusts to renewable energy, but absent that, he said the loan program has been and can in the future be an important program for the sector – and a good investment for the country.

“The Loan Program Office portfolio is strong,” Reicher said. “You have a piece of this as a taxpayer, and it’s doing quite well.”

The portfolio is heavy with solar – the DOE notes that it backed the first five 100-megawatt-plus photovoltaic plants to go online in the United States – but will move into new realms now. That’s good news for companies like Wisconsin-based Virent, a developer of advanced biofuels technology.

“The DOE renewable energy loan guarantee plan announced today helps close a key financing gap for the most promising technologies to scale up,” said Lee Edwards, Virent’s CEO and president. “The loan guarantees will enable Virent to have the opportunity to manufacture biomass based drop-in gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and chemicals as sustainable alternatives to petroleum-derived products in the United States.”

Outback Power, a Washington-based designer and manufacturer of advanced power electronics for renewable energy – including storage systems – said the DOE recognized the changing landscape for clean energy.

“We have licked the generation problem,” said Phil Undercuffler, the company’s director for strategic platforms. “Renewable energy is at a point where it’s eclipsing traditional fossil-fueled generation, with bankers and financiers recognizing the model as successful, resulting in reduced capital costs. Now the industry has to address the variability side of renewables and load, and that’s where energy storage really shines…. This program should help utilities and consumers by creating a more stable, efficient and resilient grid.”

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest step by the DOE in a gradual reboot of the loan program.

After rushing in 2011 to close loan guarantees under the stimulus-driven Section 1705 program, loan authority remained under the broader Section 1703 program, but the department stepped back from new activity until last year, when it began a process to offer up to $8 billion in loan support for advanced fossil fuel projects. Earlier this month, it put out new guidance for the Advanced Vehicle Technology Manufacturing program – that’s the program that helped Tesla Motors build its California manufacturing plant  (the company paid back its $465 million loan in May 2013, nine years before it was due). (See related: “Tesla’s Musk Promises to Halve Loan Payback Time to DOE” and “Tesla Motors’ Success Gives Electric Car Market a Charge.”))

Article by Pete Danko for National Geographic, appearing courtesy 3BL Media.