Can Chinese investment bring sunshine back to Iran’s solar industry?

Bourse and Bazaar | Sepehr Arefmanesh: Renewable energy has been one of the brightest sectors in the Iranian economy, achieving 70 percent growth in the last Iranian year according to official data. There are currently 85 large-scale and more than 1,850 small-scale renewable power plants feeding electricity into the national grid. The overall capacity of renewable power plants in Iran reached 637 MW this month. A further 41 large-scale power plants with a total output capacity of 431 MW are currently under construction across the country.

Overall, the sector is projected to generate 1,000 MW of clean electricity annually by 2022. This additional capacity is especially important as policymakers seek to meet rising electricity demand and prevent summer blackouts in coming years. It is also a source of export revenue. Iran has exported USD 4.1 billion worth of electricity to its neighbors over the last five years, with renewable energy a growing contributor.

The environmental benefits are also significant. Growing use of renewable energy has saved541 million liters of increasingly precious water and replaced the consumption of 600 million liters of fossil fuels in the past ten years.

At a smaller scale, an increasing number of farmers, struggling with a chronic shortage of water supplies, are turning to solar power generation on their farms. Farmers in Esfahan who are no longer permitted to cultivate rice are taking advantage of a 20-year government guarantee for the supply of electricity. It is estimated that over 1,000 small-scale solar power plants are now installed in farms across rural Iran.

Attractive Legal Structure

But this encouraging growth is now in doubt. The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal has brought economic uncertainty for local investors and made foreign direct investment increasingly difficult.

Mohammad Sadegh Zadeh, deputy minister of energy and head of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Organization (SATBA), recently announced that the sector has attracted IRR 100 trillion (USD 940 million) from local private-sector investors over the last two years. Foreign investment has been even more important, contributing USD 1.7 billion, nearly 70 percent of total investment since President Rouhani took the office in 2013.

Foreign investors completed several projects in this period. These include a 20 MW solar farm in Mahan backed by Swiss investors, five German-backed solar power plants in Hamedan with a total capacity of 38.5 MW, the first phase of a 50 MW solar plant backed by Italian investors, two Greek-backed 10 MW solar farms in Yazd and Isfahan; a 10 MW solar farm in Tehran backed by French investors, as well as further projects developed by Turkish, Austrian and Swedish companies.

However, Trump’s unilateral exit from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and his decision to re-impose sanctions against the country, pose a new threat toward foreign investments. The effects are already being felt in the sector.

British developer Quercus, which was set to develop Middle East’s largest solar power plant in Iran, decided to halt its work in the country, while other developers are reportedly re-thinking their plans for their future activities in the country, especially as even routine banking transactions become more difficult.

The depreciation of the rial and the tight foreign exchange market also pose a challenge for developers and make the incentives in Iran’s electricity market less attractive, according to Shahriar Sabet, a London-based renewable energy investor.

“Iran has created an attractive legal structure for investors which includes the power purchase agreement and FIPPA [Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act]… Also the feed-in-tariff (FiT) is an important factor as it remains one of the highest paid in the world,” Sabet says.

“Although with depreciation in rial, the FiT has dropped significantly but under FIPPA investors can still repatriate their capital and revenue under official exchange rate”, Sabet explains. “ The government is working hard to continue allocating the official exchange rate to the sector for the repatriation of revenues which in this climate is another positive sign,”

Sabet also emphsises that “institutionally, Iran has tried very hard to prioritize the renewable energy sector, with coordination between the Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Economy, SATBA, and local grid companies, to create a very supportive platform with clear procedures for foreign investment.”

“The current conditions, internally and internationally, have adverse effects on the market. However if Iran maintains its current structures, our view is that it is a market to invest in. I do believe those who are on the ground should not abandon their projects and confront the headwinds and new investors should also explore ways to enter this highly attractive and relatively stable sector in Iran,” Sabet insists.

The Need for Government Guarantees

But the government still has options to save the sector. Ehsan Imani, an expert in feasibility studies of renewable power plants, believes that the government needs to focus on three major issues to keep foreigners interested in the market.

“Payment guarantees could be the very first and the most effective tool to revive the market’s attraction. The feed-in-tarrif also should remain high although it is still higher than some other countries even after drops in recent months the. Investors cannot easily ignore Iran if the government reconsider its pricing policy and issue payment guarantees,” he explains.

Sabet agrees on the need for guarantees: “Issuing such guarantees for smaller projects will create more confidence and boost the flow of investment albeit at smaller scale.”

Regular settlement is also of high importance from Imani’s point of view: “Late payments naturally could change the minds of those investors who are plans to enter the market.”

Until the recent currency crisis, SATBA had reportedly managed to meet its payment requirements on time. The Central Bank of Iran has offered to make payments in yuan instead of euros, a move not favored by European investors.

The Sun Rises in the East

As with other sectors of Iran’s economy, the withdrawal of European investors from Iran’s solar industry may mean that “Chinese money turns out to be the best available option while other investors have to miss the opportunity,” as Sabet puts it.

Chinese investors face fewer barriers to investment according to Imani, “They face no serious restrictions to sell facilities to Iran, and payments are easy to make–[even if it is paid in yuan].”

This is especially true because Chinese companies lead the world in the manufacturing of solar panels. Because the panels merely need to be installed in Iran, up to 80 percent of the total investment cost for a solar project in Iran can be paid directly to Chinese panel suppliers or plant designers in local currency.

Recent developments in the market suggest a growing role for Chinese investors. In July, Yazd province officials signed an agreement with a partnership of Chinese and Italian firms for the development of a transformative 500-1,000 MW of solar projects. The agreement includes installing 20,000 small 5 KW power plants in residential units across the province.

The provincial government in Qom province  signed an MOU with a major Chinese company to develop of a 30 MW power plant in the central province. Chinese firms have also reportedly reached agreements for development of large solar power plants and the local manufacturing of solar panels in Fars, Zanjan, North Khorasan and East Azarbaijan provinces.

For Iran’s solar sector, the sun may be setting in the West. But it may rise again in the East.