The global sustainable energy challenge: tapping more institutional investor support

By Peyton Fleming, Lead Writer Sustainable Energy for All

UNITED NATIONS – Last week’s Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the United Nations left little doubt that global institutional investors are getting serious about climate change and sustainable energy.

The 450-plus attendees – a mix of global banks, pension funds and insurance giants representing a stunning $29 trillion in collective assets – all agreed that warming temperatures are causing profound economic harm and that achieving the Paris climate goals is critical for avoiding bigger losses. They’re also steering more investments to ever-cheaper renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies.

“Renewable energy has become the default, not the alternative,” said Kyung-Ah Park, managing director and head of environmental markets at Goldman Sachs, which forecasts $3 trillion of investment in wind and solar projects in the next 20 years.

Encouraging, to be sure, but there was a key missing piece in the agenda: what will it take to funnel more capital to the world’s most vulnerable countries with the biggest energy access gaps.

Despite the vast money in the room, only a pittance is going to fast-growing highly populous countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia, which collectively account for one tenth of the world’s total population. Hundreds of millions of people in these countries live without electricity, and their governments are eager to close these gaps, while also meeting their Paris pledges. The extent to which they can grow their economies with renewable energy – instead of fossil fuels – will be a key factor in the world’s success or failure in meeting the Paris goals as well as UN Sustainable Development Goals, which call for universal access to modern sustainable energy by 2030.

Institutional investors, which hold about $93 trillion in total assets worldwide, have enormous potential to accelerate such efforts, but they currently contribute only 0.2 percent of those assets towards climate finance, according to 2017 research by the University College London. Most of the finance flowing to low-income countries for clean energy and other climate projects is coming from development finance institutions (DFIs) and project developers themselves. For countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, however, these finance flows are far smaller than levels that are needed – a point made clear in Energizing Finance research published last year by Sustainable Energy for All.

Several UN officials raised the issue at the Investor Summit, hosted by Ceres, the UN Foundation and the UN Office of Partnerships. “Move forward with greater urgency ... walk the talk,” said UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, noting that investors are still allocating vastly more capital in fossil fuel production than sustainable energy.

“Governments need to know that the financing element, if they really engage in the Paris Agreement, is going to be delivered,” added Patricia Espinoza, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “And that it’s not only public money, but money from the financial community and investors.”

Some investors are dipping their toes in these low-income countries, but they are largely the exception. Nancy Pfund, founder and managing director at DBL Partners, a venture capital firm, talked passionately about the opportunities in Africa. “It’s where much of the population growth is happening, they need a middle class there and they have electricity needs. It’s a fantastic opportunity,” she said.

Among DBL’s investments is Off-Grid Electric, which sells distributed solar and storage systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. “We went into Cote d’Ivoire about a year ago with zero customers; 12 months later, we have 100,000 customers,” she said. “Now we’re in Ghana and are planning to spread across the continent.”

PensionDanmark has invested about $200 million in energy projects in Africa, Asia and other emerging markets – among those, a 310-megawatt wind farm in northern Kenya. The wind farm has already been built, but it is not yet producing power because of costly delays in getting the transmission line up and running.

The Lake Turkana project is an symbol of sorts on why investors at the Summit are taking a wait-and-see attitude on these regions.

“When you go into Africa, it’s challenging,” said Christopher Flensborg, head of climate and sustainable financial solutions at the Swedish bank, SEB, a major player in the green bond market. “The challenge is how to secure governance. You need to have confidence about what you’re doing.”

There are also fundamental differences between the kinds of deals that institutional investors want to invest in – typically, large deals with stable, safe returns – and the types of financing that distributed renewable energy providers are looking for – typically, smaller amounts of financing that have higher risks.

“There is a gap in the ecosystem between the international forces of finance and the financing that exists on the ground (in these countries),” said Stacy Swann, CEO of Climate Finance Advisers. “A clear challenge is that very few investors are providing financing – whether equity, debt or grants – for companies in this nascent off-grid sector.”

One way to close this gap is for countries to put supportive low-carbon policies in place that will help attract clean energy investors. Rachel Kyte, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, says agencies like the International Monetary Fund can do more to help their member countries align their policies for climate risks and a low-carbon future.

“Economics isn’t going to get us there, we’re also going to need directional policy,” Kyte said, referring to carbon pricing and other policies that will incentivize sustainable energy over dirtier fossil fuels.

IMF officials said they are stepping up efforts to help low-income countries – especially small island states - put appropriate policies in places. “This issue carries larger and larger macro-economic implications and our mandate at the IMF is to ensure macro and financial stability,” IMF Deputy Managing Director Tao Zhang said.