26 Jun 2023
By Dr. Tej Gidda
Unleashing trillions of dollars for a resilient energy future is within our grasp — if we can successfully navigate investment risk and project uncertainties.
The money is there — so where are the projects?
A cleaner and more secure energy future will depend on tapping trillions of dollars of capital. The need to mobilize money and markets to enable the energy transition was one of the key findings of one of the largest studies ever conducted among the global energy sector C-suite. This will mean finding ways to reduce the barriers and uncertainties that prevent money from flowing into the projects and technologies that will transform the energy system. It will also mean fostering greater collaboration and alignment among key players in the energy space.
Interestingly, the study found that insufficient access to finance was not considered the primary cause of the current global energy crisis. In fact, capital was seen to be available — but not being unlocked. Why is that? The answer lies in the differing risk profiles of energy transition investments around the world. These risks manifest in multiple ways, including uncertainties relating to project planning, public education, stakeholder engagement, permitting, approvals, policy at national and local levels, funding and incentives, technology availability, and supply chains.
These risks need to be addressed to create more appealing investment opportunities for both public and private sector funders. This will require smart policy and regulatory frameworks that drive returns from long-term investment into energy infrastructure. It will also require investors to recognize that resilient energy infrastructure is more than an ESG play — it is a smart investment in the context of doing business in the 21st century.
Make de-risking investment profiles a number one priority
According to the study, 80 percent of respondents believe the lack of capital being deployed to accelerate the transition is the primary barrier to building the infrastructure required to improve energy security. At the same time, investors are looking for opportunities to invest in infrastructure that meets ESG and sustainability criteria. This suggests an imbalance between the supply and demand of capital for energy transition projects.
How can we close the gap?
One way is to link investors directly to energy companies. Not only would this enable true collaboration and non-traditional partnerships, but it would change the way project financing is conceived and structured — ultimately aiding in potentially satisfying the risk appetite of latent but hugely influential investors, such as pension funds. The current mismatch of investor appetite and investable projects reveals a need for improving risk profiles, as well as a mindset shift towards how we bring investment and developer stakeholders together for mutual benefit. The circular dilemma remains: one sector is looking for capital to undertake projects within their skill to deploy, while another sector wonders where the investable projects are.
This conflict is being played out around the world; promising project announcements are made, only to be followed by slow progress (or no action at all). This inertia results when risks are compounded and poorly understood. To encourage collaboration between project developers and investors with an ESG focus, more attractive investment opportunities can be created by pulling several levers: public and private investment strategies, green bonds and other sustainable finance instruments, and innovative financing models such as impact investing.
Expedite permitting to speed the adoption of new technologies
Another effective strategy to de-risk investment profiles is found in leveraging new technologies and approaches that reduce costs, increase efficiency, and enhance the reliability of energy supply. Research shows that 62 percent of respondents indicated a moderate or significant increase in investment in new and transitional technologies respectively, highlighting the growing interest in innovative solutions to drive the energy transition forward.
Hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, large-scale energy storage, and smart grids are some of the emerging technologies identified by survey respondents as having the greatest potential to transform the energy system and create new investment opportunities. However, these technologies face challenges such as long lag times between conception and implementation.
If the regulatory environment makes sense, then policy uncertainty is reduced, and the all-important permitting pathways are well understood and can be navigated. Currently, the lack of clear, timely, and fit-for-purpose permitting is a major roadblock to the energy transition. To truly unleash the potential of transitional technologies requires the acceleration of regulatory systems that better respond to the nuance and complexity of such technologies (rather than the current one-size-fits all approach). In addition, permitting processes must also be expedited to dramatically decrease the period between innovation, commercialization, and implementation. One of the key elements of faster permitting is effective consultation with stakeholders and engagement with communities where these projects will be housed for decades. This is a highly complex area that requires both technical and communication skills.
The power of collaboration, consistency, and systems thinking
The report also reveals the need for greater collaboration among companies in the energy space to build a more resilient system. The report shows that, in achieving net zero, there is a near-equal split between those increasing investment (47 percent of respondents), and those decreasing investment (39 percent of respondents). This illustrates the complexity and diversity of the system around the world. A more resilient system will require all its components – goals and actions – to be aligned towards a common outcome.
Another way to de-risk the energy transition is to establish consistent, transparent, and supportive policy frameworks that encourage investment and drive technological innovation. The energy transition depends on policy to guide its direction and speed by affecting how investors feel and how the markets behave. However, inconsistent or inadequate policy can also be a source of uncertainty and instability. For example, shifting political priorities, conflicting international standards, and the lack of market-based mechanisms can hinder the deployment of sustainable technologies, resulting in a reluctance to commit resources to long-term projects.
Variations in country-to-country deployment creates disparities in energy transition progress. For instance, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act in the US has posed challenges for the rest of the world, by potentially channeling energy transition investment away from other markets and into the US. This highlights the need for a globally unified approach to energy policy that balances various national interests while addressing a global problem.
To facilitate the energy transition, it is imperative to establish stable, cohesive, and forward-looking policies that align with global goals and standards. By harmonizing international standards, and providing clear and consistent signals, governments and policymakers can generate investor confidence, helping to foster a robust energy ecosystem that propels the sector forward.
Furthermore, substantive and far-reaching discussions at international events like the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP), are essential to facilitate this global alignment. These events provide an opportunity to de-risk the energy transition through consistent policy that enables countries to work together, ensuring that the global community can tackle the challenges and opportunities of the energy transition as a united front.
Keeping net-zero ambitions on track
Despite the challenges faced by the energy sector, the latest research reveals a key positive: 91 percent of energy leaders surveyed are working towards achieving net zero. This demonstrates a strong commitment to the transition and clear recognition of its importance. It also emphasizes the need to accelerate our efforts, streamline processes, and reduce barriers to realizing net-zero ambitions — and further underscores the need to de-risk energy transition investment by removing uncertainties.
The solution is collaborating and harmonizing our goals with the main players in the energy sector across the private and public sectors, while establishing consistent, transparent, and supportive policy frameworks that encourage investment and drive technological innovation.
These tasks, while daunting, are achievable. They require vision, leadership, and action from all stakeholders involved. By adopting a new mindset about how we participate in the energy system and what our obligations are, we can stimulate the rapid progress needed on the road to net zero.
Dr. Tej Gidda (Ph.D., M.Sc., BSc Eng) is an educator and engineer with over 20 years of experience in the energy and environmental fields. As GHD Global Leader – Future Energy, Tej is passionate about moving society along the path towards a future of secure, reliable, and affordable low-carbon energy. His focus is on helping public and private sector clients set and deliver on decarbonization goals in order to achieve long-lasting positive change for customers, communities, and the climate. Tej enjoys fostering the next generation of clean energy champions as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Waterloo Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
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Dr. Tej Gidda