Small investors might soon be able to take part in the surging growth of US wind power, as the industry reaches a scale that will increasingly require tapping public capital markets to continue its explosive growth.
Last year the sector grew 45 percent and in the first quarter of 2008, some $3 billion of new generation was installed, raising the nation’s overall capacity to more than 18,000 megawatts – enough to power 5 million homes.
That is still less than one percent of US’ electricity demand but a recent Department of Energy study said this could realistically shoot up to 20 percent by 2020, far exceeding even rosy earlier predictions.
But that depends on overcoming critical transmission bottlenecks – and preserving federal subsidies needed to make this fledgling industry profitable.
As long as those subsidies have been in place attracting capital has not been a problem but how investment comes into this sector is changing.
To date, private equity – much of it from large Wall Street investment firms - and large European utilities buying small US firms, have largely powered the sector’s dramatic growth.
But there is still no pure wind company listed on a major US exchange. That’s set to change.
Backed by JP Morgan , Noble Environmental Power, a Connecticut-based wind power, recently announced plans to list on NASDAQ under the ticker symbol NEPI. It hopes to raise $375 million.
“For the US, this is a potentially a landmark IPO….these guys are looking to build projects as developers, not as utility, and they looking for financing from smaller investors to go out and do that,” says Ethan Zindler, of New Energy Finance, a research firm.
“This IPO we take as a sign that there is growing confidence that now might be a decent time to go back the public markets and start raising money again.”
”I am sure we are going to see a lot more of this over the next two years,” adds Randall Swisher, executive director American Wind Energy Association.
As the scale of projects increases so does the need to deeper pockets and he expects this to lead to consolidation in the industry, he says. “I think a lot of developers out there are probably looking for a large, better capitalized company to come in and provide them with the capital they need to get to the next level.”
A lot of the interest is expected from utilities who are increasingly opting to own wind assets as they prove profitable.
Another reason for more wind-related IPOs is early investors looking to cash out.
Noble, for instance, is majority-owned by JP Morgan Partners Fund. Investors have sunk more than $926 million in the firm since it’s founding in 2004.
It only started producing electricity in March when it switched on wind-farms in upstate New York.
Noble currently produces 282 megawatts of power but this expected to rise to 465 megawatts by the end of the year – roughly the output of a standard-sized coal plant.
By 2012 Noble expects to have 3,850 megawatts installed and that much again in the pipeline afterwards.
Nobel’s IPO is also being underwritten by Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse . There is no target date set yet and company officials are barred from commenting during the registration process.
As bright as prospects are for wind there are still some major uncertainties.
These include whether production tax credits will be extended beyond the end of the year when they are set to expire but most industry sources expect they will be renewed despite partisan Congressional bickering.
Another is whether sufficient new transmission lines can be brought on line to carry electricity – solar and wind resources are typically located in remote areas - to major cities.
“There is a very broad concensus that the electric industry is really going to be hobbled if we don’t take some pretty dramatic steps to get transmission infrastructure built,” says Swisher.
The primary challenge is to get cooperation across state lines – especially in allocating costs – and ‘we need to nurture more regional grid operators capabilities as a vehicle to get transmission built and financed,” says Swisher.
Plans by legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens to build the nation’s largest wind-farm in the Texas Panhandle calls for $2 billion to build new transmission lines to bring some 1,000 MW of electricity to key cities in Texas.
He eventually plans to have 4,000 megawatts installed at a cost of roughly $10 billion; most of this will be spent on turbines, including the 667 he said last week had been ordered from GE
The DOE study said wind’s potential to supply 20 percent of the country’s electricity hinges critically on being able to build 19,000 miles of new transmission lines at an estimated cost of $60 billion, much of which will have to be financed by capital markets.