The value of solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), by nature, is designed to decline over time as the cost of solar declines. SREC markets – markets generally with a solar carve-out in their renewable portfolio standard (RPS) – are governed by the laws of supply, demand, and the alternative compliance payment (ACP). While the ACP acts as a price ceiling, a lesser talked about market driver is the Tier I renewable energy credit (REC) price, which acts in some ways as a “price floor” for SREC values. Many assume that when markets become oversupplied, the value of SRECS will ultimately reach $0. Not a bad assumption, but clearly not a good one either. To understand why, a look at the broader Tier 1 market is key.
REC vs. SREC: What’s the Difference?
Unlike SRECs, RECs are not generated exclusively by solar (as you may have guessed from the name). RECs are typically produced by lower cost renewable energy sources, or those that are built at a tremendous scale (like wind). Solar gets a special carve-out with its own ACP to account for a difference in costs between solar and other technologies, and because solar can be built at smaller scale (e.g. rooftop solar and distributed generation). In Pennsylvania, for example, wind, geothermal, biomass, and low impact hydro are a snapshot of technologies that qualify for Tier 1 RECs. Non-renewable sources such as “black liquor,” a paper industry favorite, may also count toward RPS compliance in some states.
Why isn’t solar booming in Ohio and Pennsylvania?
When an SREC market becomes oversupplied, SREC prices gravitate toward the Tier 1 price, not $0. Take Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states with extremely oversupplied SREC markets. It’s no coincidence that SREC prices have hit rock bottom in both states, and SRECs are trading for about $13-$14, which is also the Tier 1 price.
Unfortunately, the oversupply in PA and OH cannot be attributed to strong solar builds in-state. Ohio only installed 10MW last year, and PA only installed 15MW of solar; to put that in perspective, tiny Connecticut installed 91MW of solar last year, and Massachusetts installed 286. The oversupply in PA and OH is due to a number of factors, most notably, relatively modest renewable targets, as well as loose compliance rules that allow for energy from out-of-state sources to qualify for SREC. Add in recent interference by the Ohio legislature to freeze the state’s renewable targets, and prices are hitting the Tier 1 price point ahead of schedule.
Regarding the first point, under PA’s version of an RPS, an Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard (AEPS), 18 percent of the electricity supplied by Pennsylvania’s electric distribution companies (EDCs) and electric generation suppliers (EGSs) must come from alternative energy resources by 2021. Only approximately 8% of that must come from Tier 1 sources. In Ohio, only 12.5% of energy must come from renewable energy sources by 2027, though even that modest amount of renewable energy procurement is in jeopardy pending current legislation. To put these numbers in perspective, legislation in Maryland, if enacted, would put the renewables requirement at 25% by 2020, and legislation being considered in Washington, D.C. would increase the renewable portfolio standard to 50%.
On top of PA and OH’s relatively weak renewables targets compared to other states, provisions allowing for out-of-state resources to count toward compliance further dilutes the standards. These provisions also do little to stimulate investment in each state’s own borders. This provision also creates a price interdependency between the two states, which is why pricing is gravitating in both markets toward the Tier 1 price. As such, if legislation moves forward to freeze Ohio’s already meager renewable portfolio standard, the Pennsylvania solar market will also be affected.
What Projects Can Be Built with Tier 1 Pricing?
Solar carve-outs were designed with the expectation that SREC pricing would one day merge with Tier 1 pricing. That is happening now in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and could soon happen in other states if oversupply outweighs renewables targets.
Even with pricing at Tier 1 rates, residential may pencil so long as the integrity of net metering is kept in place. Although some utility-scale solar will move through, the middle portion of the market – commercial and industrial (C&I) and even small utility-scale – will see far fewer opportunity for growth. As if this middle sector of the market didn’t have enough challenges…
This is an excerpt from the May edition of SOURCE: the Sol Project Finance Journal, a monthly electronic newsletter analyzing the solar industry’s latest trends based on our unique position in the solar financing space. To view the full Journal or subscribe, please e-mail email@example.com.
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