The Green Bank across the pond


February 17, 2014

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Evidently, it’s contagious. Last week Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, officially opened the New York Green Bank.

The institution will work to stimulate private sector financing and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. It is initially capitalised with $210m and has an ambition to increase this to $1bn. It may not be the first such initiative in the US – Connecticut holds that honour – it certainly looks set to be the largest.

And, with a clear focus on increasing the existing pool of capital following the early injection of seed funding, the bank soon intends to be self-sustaining. Some insiders suggest that its capitalisation could be as much as $8bn within ten years.

If that happens then it would be a smart investment. Just nobody mention Solyndra.

Solyndra was a manufacturer of cylindrical panels that created a revolutionary thin-film solar cell and, that for a while, looked set to revolutionise the solar markets.

In 2009, the Californian company posted revenues of in excess of $100m and this figure was only ever expected to climb. The Federal government duly opened its chequebook, providing a $535m loan guarantee and some healthy tax breaks.

But nobody foresaw that silicon prices would plummet and leave the company unable to compete with traditional solar panel manufacturers. As a result, in autumn 2011 the firm collapsed, filed for bankruptcy and left taxpayers about $500m out of pocket.

As the NY Green Bank starts seeking funding proposals there are, therefore, a couple of important lessons here for Alfred Griffin, President of NY Green Bank.

First, investing in new ventures is one thing, but backing the right ones at the right level is quite another.

And second, the institution needs freedom and autonomy if it is to do this effectively. For an example of how this can be achieved, Griffin could look at what is happening in the UK.

The UK’s Green Investment Bank – established in 2012 – has a market capitalisation of £3bn and in its first year of operations committed over £700m in new capital that has encouraged a further £2bn of private investment.

It has supported the first listing of a renewable energy infrastructure fund, undertaken the refinancing of a minority stake in an offshore wind farm, and, in total, has backed more than 21 separate projects across each of its core sectors.

It is by no means perfect as gaining true bank status has taken longer than expected – and Shaun Kingsbury and his team would be the first to admit that – but it’s a start. It’s also an important example of what can be done. As Griffin and his team start ploughing through the expectant proposals they would do well to keep an eye on Kingsbury’s progress.

In particular, they should take note of of the speed with which the Green Investment Bank has distanced itself from the machinations of government. The NY Green Bank currently sits within a state agency.

Its success needs to be measured not just by the size of its investment portfolio, but by its ability to set itself free from the restrictions of public office.

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