International companies entering the Chinese wind power market

Azure International is a China-based research, engineering and investment firm focused on sustainable energy solutions for private companies and government organizations. 

In this edition, we are honoured to hear from Hubert Beaumont, Director of Engineering and Sourcing at Azure International. He is experienced with development and assessment of renewable energy projects , drafting, negotiating and implementing partnership contracts, and procurement of non-standard equipment. 

Why are you all investing in Taiwan, and not in China?

I must admit I have been surprised to see the wave of developers and investors suddenly moving into the Taiwanese offshore wind market over the past five years, bringing along with them a comprehensive supply chain, financing and several hundred westerners who have established their homes in Taipei or in coastal cities. This is certainly comforting as such an appetite for investing in offshore wind despite the risks inherent to emerging markets reaffirms that we have chosen a viable line of business, but it also makes one wonder: while Taiwan is a fantastic place and has great wind resource, it is, in term of size and opportunity, only a fraction of mainland China. Taiwan has a total offshore wind pipeline of 10GW, whereas last year Guangdong alone, which is one of 12 Chinese coastal provinces, approved 30GW in just two weeks. So why is there in comparison so little foreign participation in the Chinese renewable energy market? Of course, there are many answers to this question, including that China does not lack the capital to do it on its own, but I believe part of the answer also lies in the fact that China is just so big and so different than most investors are not confident enough to approach it. Yet we are seeing more and more signs of change; developers that are already established in Taiwan cannot ignore the big neighbor, the Chinese central and local governments have renewed interest to attract foreign capital, and SOEs can benefit from partnering with foreign developers with strong references and expertise. In order to seize these opportunities, foreign participants will need to understand the rules of the Chinese game. Here are a few basic principles that can give you a head start:

1. Most players are State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs)

The establishment of the current power market structure in China can be dated back to 2002, when State Power Group, which until then was the sole owner of a majority of the energy infrastructure in China, was divided into five power generation companies (the “big 5”) and two grid companies (China State Grid Corporation and China Southern Grid). Today the “big 5”, namely China Energy, Huaneng, Huadian, Datang and SPIC, own about half of all energy projects in China, and the remaining half is in majority distributed among a number of smaller (yet still huge) specialized state-owned enterprises (e.g. Three Gorges, CGN, SDIC, China Resources) and provincial state-owned energy groups (e.g. Guangdong Energy, Fujian Energy, Zhejiang Energy, etc.). Only a small portion of energy projects is owned by private or foreign companies.
The distribution is similar for offshore wind, as the approved pipeline is currently developed by state-owned players, with a few exceptions—in cases where either local entrepreneurs or private wind turbine manufacturers have been able to secure project rights.

2. The rules are made for them (the SOEs)

State-owned players have an intricate relationship with central and local governments; state policies are generally addressed to them and designed for them, and SOEs are in the front line for receiving information and explanations regarding policy, and in return, they influence and participate in policy drafting. While this is an advantage, SOEs also carry a number of disadvantages compared to private or foreign investors which we summarize below:

Electricity prices are also suited to them. Indeed, until the recent introduction of market trading mechanisms under the on-going power market reform, and still today for a majority of electricity produced and consumed on the grid, every single energy-related price in China has been calculated and fixed by state regulators, from production of energy using different types of technologies, to transmission across various distances and different voltage levels, to consumption of energy varying per type of consumer, connection voltage, location, time of day, etc. There are three general guiding principles used by regulators in defining energy prices:

  • As cheap as possible
  • Guarantee “reasonable returns” for SOEs
  • Create incentives or counter-incentives to guide the growth of industries

Reasonable returns are typically defined as follows:

  • Applies to all projects of a type in the same region (or with same costs and performance characteristics), or in some rare cases to one single large project (e.g. a large hydro dam or nuclear plant)
  • Benchmark of 8% project IRR and 10% ~ 12% equity IRR

Given that prices are regulated for a large number of projects, individual project performance may vary from that constant. Returns may be tolerated below the reasonable benchmark, especially in areas where further investment is not encouraged such as in the coal sector in general or for wind and solar in regions facing heavy curtailment, but generally, losses are to be avoided. Similarly, returns on single projects may largely exceed these benchmarks as well. There are examples of onshore wind projects in Yunnan or offshore wind farms in Fujian with excellent wind resource, no curtailment, and high tariffs, which have yielded excellent returns.

Therefore a private investor working on a smaller pipeline may be able to cherry-pick the best project locations, spend more time and resources to optimize project design, implement higher standard O&M practices, etc., while at the same time benefitting from the same prices. This approach has proven successful onshore for a small number of private and foreign investors, while the key challenge remains the ability to compete with SOEs in securing such pipeline, except for those who have chosen to partner directly with them. For offshore wind, the opportunity to optimize projects will also depend on the ability to work closely with the unavoidable local design institutes, the only entities accredited to design projects.

3. The rules are stable or predictable

Renewable Energy is a fully-grown and mature market in China that is way beyond its first exploratory trials and surprises. While there is on-going reform affecting a number of key market drivers, we consider that the regulatory and legal environment for renewable energy investors is generally stable and predictable. Of course, there are still a number of considerable risks and challenges, such as those listed below:

  • PPAs are renewed on a yearly basis and therefore not attributed for the whole project lifetime. However, renewal is typically seen as a formality associated with the habit of yearly generation planning. There is to our knowledge no record of PPAs failing to be renewed for projects already in operation.
  • The only instances of breaches of PPA, under which grids are obliged to purchase all electricity produced by renewable energy sources, are cases of curtailment. Curtailment has been a huge issue in Northern and Western China and the key subject of a large number of policies and changes in the past years. We recommend investors to take a close look at grid off-take capacity for their individual projects, and we have developed a set of models enabling to forecast curtailment for given grid connection points. However, offshore wind projects benefit in general from a much lower curtailment risk, by virtue of being located along the coast, close to population and demand centers.
  • Payments of subsidies for FITs are facing delays due to the insufficiency of funds collected from end-users by the Ministry of Finance, affecting the cash flow of projects in the first years of operation. It is important to note, however, that there has never been a case where an announced or allocated tariff was cancelled or re-negotiated, such as has been the case in other countries. We have developed a detailed model of surcharge collection and subsidy distribution to forecast possible delays under various scenarios.
  • The FIT system itself is coming to an end, as we are about to enter a phase of grid parity, first for onshore wind and solar, then expected to be followed by the offshore wind a few years after. In the transition between these two regimes, tariffs will be defined via competitive bidding, capped by set ceilings which will decrease on a yearly basis. In parallel, project owners will be increasingly encouraged to sell electricity on the new power trading platforms and spot markets that the government is pushing to put into place. While this brings uncertainty on pricing, it is possible to forecast the likely evolutions of power pricing and we have developed models for this purpose. 

4. China is huge, diverse and ripe with opportunities

While this extract provides a simplified illustration of how the Chinese energy market works, it is important to keep in mind that in fact, nothing in China is simple. There are tremendous forces at play. The central government has engaged in a battle to reduce grid monopoly, which is creating great waves within the markets. Meanwhile, local governments, as well as local branches of SOEs, are protecting their own interests, which all need to be understood in their respective contexts. Opportunities, risks, interlocutors, resources, costs and other factors affecting your business plan will vary greatly from one province to another. In order to be successful as an investor in China, you will need to carefully pick your areas of focus, your projects, teams, and partners, as well as develop an understanding of China at all levels of your organization.

At Azure International we have worked with foreign investors in the Chinese renewable space for over 15 years, including in both onshore and offshore wind, helping our clients and partners to assess markets, projects, and players in this complex environment. While the road has not always been straightforward for foreign investors, with many feeling left on the sidelines of a booming market essentially shared between locals, we currently see a new window with tremendous opportunity for foreign players, due to a combination of three trends. First, as the Chinese economy is slowing down, the country has realized the need to attract more foreign capital. Second, the offshore wind brings a set of new challenges compared to onshore, a context in which having an experienced foreign partner can be a strong competitive advantage. And finally, the regulatory environment for renewable energy in China is strong and mature and designed to provide stability to state-owned investors, thus creating a safe framework for various players to evolve in.