According to reports, the recent bid by the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) to set up 1000 MW wind power plants saw tariffs drop to ₹3.46 per unit. This has set a new benchmark for wind power in India, bringing the overall cost of power down in a rapidly growing economy.
Despite being India’s first wind power project tender, SECI was oversubscribed 2.6 times. Bids were concentrated in three States; with Tamil Nadu receiving the highest share of 1794 MW, followed by Gujarat with 700 MW and Karnataka with 100 MW.
The tender was floated by the SECI to help non-windy States access wind power by linking them to the inter-state transmission system. Project developers will sign a 25-year PPA with the Power Trading Corporation of India, which, in turn, shall sign back-to-back arrangements with discoms /bulk customers of non-windy States. Waiver of inter-State transmission charges and compensation for system losses till the interconnection point by allowing for construction of 5 per cent additional capacity were also provided as part of the tender.
Until now, wind energy in India followed the feed-in-tariff (FIT) route with tariffs for long-term PPAs with State discoms ranging from ₹4- 6 per unit. With the SECI tender mitigating key risks of off-take, evacuation and payment and going by the recent solar bidding process which witnessed tariffs fall below the ₹3 mark, the level of interest observed shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But, having lived through a situation where aggressive bidding in infrastructure projects has not worked in the industry’s favour, it does make us wonder about the strength of the underlying assumptions made in these bids.
A basic number crunching carried out with a tariff of ₹3.46 per unit at prevalent industry conditions – Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) estimated project cost of about ₹6.2 crore per MW, debt to equity of 70:30, financing at 9.5-10 per cent – indicates that Plant Load Factors (PLFs) of about 33-35 per cent may be required to fetch investors reasonable returns of 15-16 per cent.
Going by the historically available PLF data of wind power plants in India and limited availability of high wind density sites, achieving such PLFs consistently for the 25-year life of the plant seems far-fetched. Unlike solar energy, wind farms in India are concentrated in a few high wind States such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Even within these States, only selective sites offer high wind energy potential.
The Indian market is moving towards adopting higher capacity wind energy generators (WTGs) with hub height of more than 100 metres. Global players such as GE have come out with advanced technology turbines designed to offer increased swept area, facilitating higher generation in low wind density sites. While this will improve the project economics for developers, implementation remains largely untested.
Alternatively, lower PLFs need to be compensated by either cutting down the project cost substantially, or by obtaining best deals for operation and maintenance (O&M) of the wind turbines, or by locking-in low cost funds, most often a combination of all of these. Clearly, higher capacity wind turbines are going to come at a cost and there are limitations to the concessions that can be obtained from O&M players.
Despite the interest rate cuts and falling MCLRs of banks, securing low cost funding in today’s market will largely depend on promoter strength and credit rating. Without a substantial database of PLFs of 35 per cent available in India today and given the first time deployment of next generation wind turbines, lenders, having burnt their fingers more than once, might choose to play it safe this time around.
Unlike Ultra Mega Solar Parks (UMSP), for the SECI wind projects, project land and evacuation infrastructure up to the point of interconnection at the ISTS need to be put up by the developers. In India, these things come at a cost. Right or wrong, these unstated costs need to be factored in the project cost estimates.
Further, the drop in prices of WTGs has been very different from what has been seen in solar power. Since 2009, solar PV module prices have fallen by 80 per cent as compared to a 30-40 per cent fall in wind turbine prices. Solar module costs fell by about 26 per cent in 2016 alone and are likely to fall further this year, due to oversupply in the Chinese and European markets. Considering the low lead time in procuring solar panels and low time required for commissioning, the bidders for Rewa UMSP would have had sufficient buffer to factor in another round of drop in solar module prices.
No such cushion is available for wind. Bidders would have had to rely upon pre-bid tie ups with WTG manufacturers to work out their project cost estimates. In a way, the aggressive bidding would have trickled backwards and caused a fair share of competition among turbine manufacturers.
From April 1, 2017, the tax relaxation for infrastructure projects under 80IA shall cease. Further, wind power plants commissioned after this financial year will not be eligible for generation based incentives. Accelerated depreciation will reduce from 80 per cent to 40 per cent.
Also, the cloud of uncertainties that the implementation of GST poses needs to be factored for any reasonable viability assessment. Most wind turbines are domestically made. Currently, there is no excise duty to be paid for WTGs and renewable energy components attract a VAT of 0-5 per cent in most States. According to a report published by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, GST is likely to cause an increase of 11-15 per cent in project cost of wind power projects.
One can only hope that all these risks were adequately factored by the bidders. This kind of aggressive bidding is not new to us. Starting from BoT road projects awarded a decade back, to coal mining, telecom spectrum and more recently, solar power and hybrid annuity model (HAM) projects in the road sector, this issue has been ingrained in the system.
While it is good to see such investor interest in India’s infrastructure space, it is absolutely essential to tread carefully. Let us not forget all the BoT projects which became distressed assets in the books of lenders due to optimistic traffic projections or higher revenue shares promised during a competitive bidding war.
The writer is a Chennai-based finance professional