The owner of two large-scale solar farms in Australia says he is finding it impossible to attract new investors to the country because the image of prime minister Scott Morrison waving around a lump of coal in parliament is burned into the memory of many international investors.
John Martin, the CEO of the ASX-listed New Energy Solar, says the company’s new solar investment fund is raising $US200 million ($A295 million), but none of the around 20 institutional investors who have contributed to the fund wanted to invest in Australia.
“They don’t want a bar of Australia,” Martin told RenewEconomy following the release of the company’s annual results on Wednesday. “They can all remember Scott Morrison standing up in parliament with a lump of coal.”
Martin says he had asked prospective investors if the new fund could invest just part of the money raised in Australia, suggesting 15 per cent, as it had done with its early fund where it bought the Beryl and Manildra solar projects in Australia, and where Martin sees more opportunities because of the country’s excellent solar resource.
“They said no. None of that money will be coming to Australia at all,” Martin says “The policy environment is too difficult”, and they preferred the US market, despite the presence of President Donald Trump and his efforts to protect the coal industry.
“These are very sophisticated renewable energy investors, mostly institutions, and getting them involved in Australia is very hard.”
Martin says the issue is complicated because Australian institutions show little interest and understanding of renewable energy projects, possibly because of the lousy federal policy environment, and long-term contracts for solar farms from corporate customers are also comparatively hard to come by.
The average duration for long-term PPAs in Australia for New Energy Solar’s portfolio is 12.9 years, but more than 17 years in the US. That leaves Australian projects burdened by more uncertainty over market moves, and less interesting for investors. That will affect prices for solar projects.
Earlier, in a web presentation, Martin lamented the fact that the debate around renewables and climate action in Australia revolved around left versus right, green versus conservative, or coal versus solar.
“That misses the point. It is no longer a question of do we want renewables or not, they are coming … Australia must recognise that change is coming.
“We can try to manage the transition well, or have it imposed on us by global trading partners and markets.”
New Energy Solar owns 15 solar plants, with another – the 200MW Mount Signal 2 solar farm in California – under construction. All but Beryl and Manildra are in the US, where Martin says various states are providing clear signals for investment.
“The world is changing. There will be a different form of infrastructure that will take the place of coal… and a key component is solar, which lasts more than 30 years, doesn’t require fuel and has low maintenance.”
Martin says both Australian assets are performing well, but there were lingering issues at the Manildra plant – built by the since collapsed contractor RCR Tomlinson – relating to piling and inverter problems that were cutting several percentage points from production, and which the company hopes to resolve soon.