Bankers bet on big batteries that could revolutionize power grids

on February 25, 2017

the-japan-timesThe idea that giant batteries may someday revolutionize electrical grids has long enthralled clean-power advocates and environmentalists. Now it’s attracting bankers with the money to make it happen.

Lenders including Investec PLC, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. and Prudential Financial Inc. are looking to finance large-scale energy-storage projects from California to Germany, marking a coming-of-age moment for the fledgling industry. The systems help utilities solve a long-standing clean-power conundrum: managing the unpredictable output from wind and solar farms, and retaining electricity until it’s needed.

Battery costs have declined 40 percent since 2014 and regulators are mandating storage technology be added to the grid. That’s encouraging utilities to offer longer contracts and developers are expected build $2.5 billion in systems globally this year. These trends are changing the risk profile, giving lenders confidence in batteries in much the same way that power-purchase agreements opened banks’ doors years ago for wind and solar power.

“Having big money come in is the first step to widespread deployment,” Brad Meikle, a San Francisco-based analyst for Craig-Hallum Capital Group LLC, said in an interview.

That’s a shift from many of the storage projects we’ve seen to date as expensive components and unproven revenue potential made commercial lenders leery. Developers typically have financed systems from their own balance sheets, cobbling together revenue from short-term utility contracts or wholesale electricity markets.

“We see an opportunity in the space,” Ralph Cho, Investec’s co-head of power for North America in New York, said in an interview. “We’re attempting to be a first mover.”

Storage contracts to date in the U.S. and Canada rarely exceeded three years, said Bryan Urban, head of North American operations for the Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland-based storage developer Leclanche SA. Now utilities are signing agreements for three to seven years, and sometimes as long at 10 years, he said. And in the U.K., National Grid PLC is signing four-year contracts for storage services.

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Japan TimesBankers bet on big batteries that could revolutionize power grids