United Wind, a U.S. company bringing third-party financing to distributed wind, continues to pick up money from international oil companies expanding their clean energy investments.
The venture arm of the French oil major Total today announced an undisclosed equity investment in United Wind. This follows a modest $3 million equity investment from the Norwegian multinational oil company Statoil in March. Both companies now sit on United Wind's board.
Why are oil companies suddenly interested in distributed wind?
Because it's starting to look more like solar -- at least in the way United Wind develops projects.
United Wind was formed in 2013 with a simple goal: streamline the development of small wind with financing. Up until that point, no one had developed leases or power-purchase agreements for wind projects below 100 kilowatts. If third-party financing worked for solar, United Wind believed it could finally break open the stagnant distributed wind market.
So far, that thesis has borne out.
According to Russell Tencer, the CEO of United Wind, the company has been able to ramp up development, drop project costs dramatically and expand its geographic footprint.
In January, United Wind expanded its 20-year lease offering from New York into Colorado and Kansas. The company is now installing three to five turbines per week, allowing it to group projects into bigger tranches and order equipment in bulk. In turn, the cost of a 50-kilowatt system has fallen to $3 per watt on average, and the cost of a 100-kilowatt turbine has dropped to $2 per watt, said Tencer. (DOE's weighted-average cost figures for small wind were $6.90 in 2013.)
"The whole distributed wind model was based on one-off projects and a lack of efficiency. It comes down to the optimization of the whole process," said Tencer.
The money has followed. United Wind raised $225 million in just the last seven months. "We've raised the most capital of anyone in this market," he said.
United Wind is also in talks to develop a fourth tax equity fund for U.S. projects that will likely close in the fourth quarter of this year.
America's distributed wind market is tiny. But it has expanded at a strong rate in recent years. In 2012, 18.4 megawatts of projects under 100 kilowatts were installed around the U.S., according to the Department of Energy. In 2013, installations grew to 30.4 megawatts. In 2014, they rose to 63.6 megawatts. (By contrast, there were 1.2 gigawatts of residential PV systems installed in the U.S. in 2014.)
The Distributed Wind Energy Association predicts that 1.1 gigawatts of behind-the-meter wind will get built in the U.S. by 2030.
That growth potential -- plus United Wind's financing model -- piqued the interest of Total and Statoil. The millions of dollars they're investing are a rounding error in the oil industry. But that amount of money is a big deal in the nascent distributed wind market. (As a closer comparison, Total bought the French battery maker Saft for $1 billion this spring.)
"It allows us to explore the interest in small-scale renewable energy solutions [that] can be connected to the grid and how these can be financed," said Jérôme Schmitt, Total's executive vice president for sustainable development, in a statement. This expands Total's clean energy portfolio to include SunPower, Saft, Off-Grid Electric and Powerhive.
Gareth Burns, the managing director of Statoil Energy Ventures, described the United Wind investment similarly.
“This transaction fits well with two of our key investment purposes: Testing and positioning for future potential growth legs, while also exploring high-impact business models," he said in prepared remarks.
Under the guidance of Total and Statoil, United Wind plans to eventually expand internationally. In 2014, the global market for small wind turbines amounted to 830 megawatts, according to the World Wind Energy Association.
"We’re really at the very beginning of this process. We're at the beginning of improving learning and the cost curve," said United Wind's Tencer.