Finding private bank financing for solar power projects these days can be as rare as a sunny day in Seattle.
There is one institution that is eager to lend, and it bemoans the fact that hardly anyone know about it.
"Our biggest challenge is people haven't heard of us," said Craig O'Connor, director of the Office of Renewable Energy and Environmental Exports at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. "If we can provide attractive financing, then we are achieving our Congressional mandate."
The bank provides low-interest loans as working capital for companies that export their goods and services. It also offers loan guarantees to companies that buy American products, and can be more willing to support what private lenders would consider risky deals in developing countries. If the borrowers default, the U.S. government will pay off the loans.
Last week, it announced the approval of $61 million in loan guarantees to Seoul-based Gochang Solar Park Co. for buying solar panels from SolarWorld Industries America in Hillsboro, Ore., and installing those panels for five power plants in Korea (see Green Light post).
The Ex-Im Bank is not the go-to source for financing during flush times. The bank's charter says it doesn't compete with private banks. Now that private banks aren't eager to lend, the government counterpart hopes to attract more interest.
"In general, the current crisis only expands their demand to countries that might not need their financing in the past," said Michael Stoddard, CEO of TSI Renewable Ventures, a project developer in Pasadena, Calif., that arranged the deal for Gochang. "Korea is one of these examples. ExIm might fill certain gaps in financing even in developed countries."
It has done several solar energy deals in recent years. There was the $25 million in a line of credit to United Solar Ovonic in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2008. In 2006, the bank agreed to a $7.8 million loan guarantee to S&P Corp. for hiring PowerLight Corp. (now part of SunPower Corp.) to design and install a 1-megawatt solar power plant in Korea. PowerLight also got $5 million in working capital in 2005 in order to fulfill its contract to deliver equipment to a solar park in Germany. Evergreen Solar also received $5 million in working capital that year.
Other renewable energy deals have involved wind and geothermal companies and projects, O'Connor said, adding that the bank has provided $400 million in loan guarantees and other financing to renewable energy companies in the past five years.
It wasn't until 2007 that the bank decided to put an extra emphasis on renewable energy lending, and created the office that O'Connor now heads up.
Seeking government-backed financing could require a lot of patience, since it rarely makes decisions quickly. Stoddard said when he approached the Ex-Im Bank about the Gochang deal, he asked the bank to streamline its process.
"One thing we did when we came in was to tell them that solar is a plug-and-play deal, and the president you report to wants it done," Stoddard said.
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