With 30-year Treasuries yielding about 3.4 percent, investors are seeking safe places to park their money for years at a higher return. Solar energy fits the bill, with predictable cash flows guaranteed by contract for two decades or more. Those deals may be even more lucrative because many were signed before the cost of solar panels plunged 50 percent last year.
Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. agreed to buy the Topaz Solar Farm in California from First Solar Inc. on Dec. 7. The project's development budget is estimated at $2.4 billion and it may generate a 16.3 percent return on investment by selling power to PG&E Corp. at about $150 a megawatt-hour through a 25-year contract, according to New Energy Finance calculations. It will have 550 megawatts of capacity and is expected to go into operation in 2015, making it one of the world's biggest photovoltaic plants.
"After tax, you're looking at returns in the 10 percent to 15 percent range" for solar projects, said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Stanford center. "The beauty of solar is, once you make the capital investment, you've got free fuel and very low operating costs."
The long-term nature of solar power purchase deals makes them similar to some bonds. And because a solar farm is a tangible asset, these investments also function much like those for infrastructure projects, with cash flows comparable to toll roads, bridges and pipelines, said Stefan Heck, a director at McKinsey & Co. in New York who leads the firm's clean-tech work. Once a project starts producing power, investors can earn a return that's "higher than most bonds," he said. "There are a lot of pension funds with long-term horizons that are very interested in this space."
Governments remain the biggest backers of the solar industry; President Obama's administration suffered criticism for investing in Solyndra, a solar manufacturer that went bankrupt last year. Worldwide, the U.S. Treasury's Federal Financing Bank was the biggest asset-finance lender for renewable energy companies in the past year, arranging 12 deals worth $11.2 billion, according to New Energy Finance. The Brazilian development bank BNDES, Bank of America, and Banco Santander followed.
In 2009, solar technology was so unfamiliar that few banks would back projects that required billions in upfront investment and wouldn't begin producing revenue for years, Klepper said. The biggest financiers for the industry that year were Madrid- based Santander, HSH Nordbank of Hamburg and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria of Bilbao, Spain, New Energy Finance said.
That year, the Energy Department began funding a program to guarantee loans for solar farms and other renewable energy projects that supported almost $35 billion in financing before winding down in September. The government's endorsement assuaged investors' concerns and built up a bigger community of people who understand how to make money from solar deals, said Arno Harris, chief executive officer of Sharp Corp.'s renewable power development unit Recurrent Energy.
"Solar is now bankable," Harris said. "When solar was perceived as more risky, it required a premium," and now it's "becoming part of a much broader capital market."
Long-term power-purchase contracts are the key to making solar a reliable investment, Harris said. Utilities in sunny states such as California, Arizona, and Nevada have agreed to pay premiums for electricity generated by sunshine.