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Can Utilities Fill the Green Energy Finance Gap?

Written by Jeff St. John

The collapse of several once-mighty Wall Street investment firms -- and the massive losses sustained by those that remain -- has put a crimp on financing for green energy projects . (Don't miss "BP Wind & Solar CEO: Project Money 'Completely Dried Up'")

So the multi-billion dollar question on the first day of the Renewable Energy Finance Forum in Seattle on Monday was: Can utilities jump into that financing gap?

Weighed against all the bad financial news has been Congress' passage earlier this month of an $18 billion renewable-energy incentive package that included a first-ever eight-year investment tax credit for solar power, as well as new incentives for other forms of renewable energy, and a provision that opened up those credits to utilities previously barred from participating in the tax breaks.

Meanwhile, businesses that paid enough in taxes to benefit from extra credits could buy stakes in renewable-energy projects to take advantage of the tax breaks that came with them -- helping to finance those projects.

But those investment tax credits might look a lot less attractive to investors swimming in losses that they already can write off for tax purposes, several executives noted.

"Access to tax credit equity is limiting growth in the marketplace," Susan Nickey, CFO of renewable energy project developer Acciona Energy North American Corp. said in a Monday morning panel discussion.

"The amount of capital we need [in 2009] surpasses the current tax-credit equity model, in our opinion," she said.

Ben Lackey, general counsel for Iberdrola Renewables Inc.'s North American renewables unit, agreed that tax equity investments will be "tighter, more expensive and more difficult to place" in the future. (Don't miss "With Energy East Deal, Spanish Wind Firm Expands in U.S.")

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