For commercial and small utility-scale solar, the prepaid PPA is a great idea… in theory. By prepaying for expected generation over the contract term, the long term price that the offtaker pays for electricity can be much lower. Assuming the offtaker can find the cash to handle the large prepayment, these deals can increase IRR, lower an offtaker’s levelized cost of energy (LCOE), and also lower the potential cost of a solar energy system. Because of these potential upsides, developers are increasingly turning to us to see if these deals are financeable.
The short answer is yes, prepaid PPAs can be financeable. But, because of the complexity of these transactions associated with invoicing, having to “true-up” generation, bifurcating green attributes, complicating tax payments (carrying a contra asset) etc., we recommend them only in rare situations, namely when:
The host “speaks” kWh. Developers, picture yourselves explaining invoicing, one of the most complex portions of a prepaid PPA, to a typical facility manager at a commercial and industrial (C&I) host site.
These kilowatt hours over here have already been paid for, these have not. Well, even though you paid upfront for an 8 cent PPA, you actually have a 10 cent PPA. Oh, what’s that? That’s the portion of the electricity that is bifurcated for green attributes. Get it? No? Do you have a whiteboard?
It’s not an easy discussion to have, and if the facility manager just doesn’t “get” it, it will make for a long, complicated, and costly negotiation process. For this reason, it’s best to work with a clean energy authority, muni, or another utility-like host that really understands the complexities of their electric bill, and “speaks” kilowatt hours.
Project sizes exceed 5MW. The bigger the project, the better. These deals are costly to set-up, and because of that, it’s better to pursue them only for larger deals that can absorb the transaction costs.
Cheap money at the host. Generally, a for-profit host in anything other than the most mature industry will have a weighted average cost of capital greater than a PPA financier – turning the value of a prepay upside-down. Prepays find their best value with a public or pseudo-public entity that brings very low borrowing or opportunity costs, but has no way to recognize the relevant tax benefits.
Dealing with the residential sector. Some residential companies have been very successful with prepaid PPAs, but residential is not commercial. If you’re a resi player moving into commercial, scaling your prepaid offering up for commercial is not recommended if it does not follow the above conditions.
In sum, prepaid PPAs can work for commercial and small-utility scale solar, but because of added complexities of negotiating these deals, we see them as more of a niche idea than something that will become mainstream for commercial any time soon. Still, when they work, they can be a creative way to get projects to pencil.
This is an excerpt from our Solar 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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