Renewable energy companies in the United States might lose a friend in the coming months.
Conservative Republicans are trying to kill the Export-Import Bank, the independent and self-sustaining federal agency founded during the Great Depression that helps finance the purchase of American-made goods and services by overseas buyers. The bank’s current authorization expires at the close of business on September 30 if Congress doesn’t act.
The Ex-Im Bank is fairly obscure (at least, it was before Republicans targeted it), but it does drive a fair amount of business. It rang up 3,842 financing authorizations in the 2013 fiscal year -- loan guarantees, mostly, but also direct loans and export credit insurance -- backing exports worth $37.4 billion. Renewable energy had a $257 million piece of that pie.
And the cost to taxpayers? According to a recent report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service, after covering operating expenses and loan loss reserves, “Ex-Im Bank provided $1.1 billion to the U.S. Treasury in FY2013.”
That’s right, the taxpayers actually made money off of the Ex-Im Bank.
Yet critics say the bank is an affront to free-market principles, rewarding the politically well-connected and even putting taxpayer dollars at grave risk. That critique is reflected in this statement from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the leading voice in opposition to the bank’s continued existence, at a June hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, which he chairs: “The Bank ostensibly makes loans backed by taxpayers that the private sector is unwilling to make. If private creditors are unwilling to engage in these transactions...why should the American taxpayer?”
Supporters reply that one big reason is that companies from other countries are getting similar support. Renewable energy companies add that long project timelines and the nascent nature of many renewable energy technologies and applications can make obtaining financing nearly impossible overseas.
These arguments jibe with the experiences of Steve Wilburn, CEO of California-based FirmGreen, a player in a biogas project sited at a Brazilian landfill that was aided three years ago by a $48.6 million loan supported by the Ex-Im Bank. At a House hearing in June, Wilburn testified that with no financing assistance available from his commercial bank, he was advised by his Brazilian colleague to “contact his ECA” -- export credit agency.
“I was embarrassed,” Wilburn testified. “I had to ask him what 'ECA' meant.” Wilburn said he discovered that competitors on the project were boasting of finance support from their home country ECAs -- Air Liquide though France’s Compagnie Française d’Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur, and Linde through Germany’s Euler Hermes Kreditversicherungs-AG.
The Novo Gramacho project was ultimately completed and is now operating, producing fuel-grade biomethane gas that helps power a local refinery as well as food-grade liquid CO2, all with the help of FirmGreen’s VerdeControls plant control software and VerdeWatts energy management system. FirmGreen estimates that the project generated 165 U.S. jobs, including those at FirmGreen itself and at other U.S. companies that were involved along the way.
Opponents have tried to focus the Ex-Im Bank debate on the bank’s support for big customers -- S&P recently estimated that the bank has supported up to 30 percent of Boeing’s jet deliveries in the past four years, according to a Wall Street Journal story. But Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, said that ignores much of the bank’s work in renewable energy.
“Small U.S. firms involved in new energy technologies, like renewable energy and efficiency, are competing head-to-head against many foreign competitors to sell goods and services in international markets,” Gawell wrote in the National Journal’s Energy Insiders forum. “The Export-Import Bank plays an important role in the competitiveness of U.S. exports and the health, if not survival, of many of the firms that are developing and deploying the energy technologies expected to dominate the global energy markets of the future."
Renewable energy is a focus of the Ex-Im Bank’s activities in part because its charter requires it. Plus, early in the Obama administration, Congress specifically targeted 10 percent of the bank’s financing for renewables. At the time, it was kind of a crazy directive, since in 2009 just $13 million, or 0.4 percent of the bank’s financing, went to renewables. But the figure grew quickly, reaching $721 million in 2011, 2.2 percent of the bank’s authorizations.
Renewable energy authorizations have since fallen, but Craig O’Connor, director of the Ex-Im Bank’s Office of Renewable Energy, said that doesn’t reflect any backsliding on the bank’s commitment.
Renewable energy as a business “is a little lumpy,” O’Connor said in an interview. “In any one year, you could have a slip.” More fundamentally, “at the Ex-Im Bank, we’re not controlling our own destiny. We don’t go out and create demand; we reflect it.”
That said, O’Connor beats the bushes to find U.S. companies that might be able to sell goods or services overseas, and to get them in Ex-Im Bank programs if that’s what they need to make exports happen.
U.S.-based companies can also get assistance in undertaking projects overseas from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. It operates similarly to the Ex-Im Bank, except its charge is to help U.S. companies invest in developing companies.
Just last month, OPIC approved a $230 million loan to help support Arizona-based First Solar’s Luz del Norte solar power plant in Chile. At 141 megawatts, it will be the largest photovoltaic solar plant in Latin America, according to First Solar.
What’s interesting in this case is that just a few years ago, several First Solar projects in India were supported by Ex-Im Bank financing aid. With those projects, there was an explicit guarantee that U.S.-made First Solar goods would be sold into India (the company has plants in Ohio and Malaysia). With OPIC doing the financing, there’s no such promise with the Chile project.
Camilo Patrignani, CEO of the renewable energy project developer Greenwood Energy, says help from multilateral lenders like OPIC is vital to making projects happen in Latin America as commercial lenders become more comfortable with the space. And he says that even though OPIC deals don’t come with an export guarantee, loans for overseas projects can be good for the United States.
“Of course, we all want to see the world turning to clean energy solutions,” Patrignani said in an interview. “Moreover, these are not subsidies. They pay for themselves. And there are direct and indirect benefits. Once you look at the multiplier effect of American companies focusing on Latin America, you see it’s really worthwhile.”
OPIC’s charter is also up for reauthorization this year, but the agency appears safe; a bill focused on electrifying Africa that includes a three-year reauthorization passed the House in May despite majority Republican opposition, and a bipartisan bill in the works in the Senate would re-up OPIC funding for five years.
As for the Ex-Im Bank, while Hensarling is continuing his crusade, there are signs that a campaign by the bank and its supporters in both the business and labor communities has begun to turn the tide in favor of the bank, particularly in the Senate. Still, according to a recent story published on political website The Hill, “the legislative path for a bill remains murky.”
Pete Danko is a writer for Breaking Energy. This piece was originally published at Breaking Energy and was republished with permission.