The transformational Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) contains a number of provisions designed to entice a large numbers of community and regional banks to deploy capital into renewable energy projects across the US.
Large U.S. banks and corporations have made significant renewable energy tax credit investments for over a decade. Through the IRA, there is greater opportunity for community and regional banks to participate.
The act extends solar tax credits, or more broadly renewable energy investment tax credits, (REITCs) for at least 10 more years, until greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 70%. It also retroactively increases the investment tax credit (ITC) rate from 26% to 30%, effective Jan. 1, 2022. This extension and expansion of ITCs, along with other meaningful incentives included in the act, should result in a significant increase in renewable energy projects that are developed and constructed over the next decade.
Community banks are a logical source of project loans and renewable energy tax credit investments, such as solar tax equity, in response to this expected flood of mid-size renewable projects. REITCs have a better return profile than other types of tax credit investments commonly made by banks. REITCs and the accelerated depreciation associated with a solar power project are fully recognized after it is built and begins producing power. This is notably different from other tax credit investments, such as new markets tax credits, low-income housing tax credits and historic rehabilitation tax credits, where credits are recognized over the holding period of the investment and can take 5, 7, 10 or 15 years.
Like other tax equity investments, renewable energy tax equity investments require complex deal structures, specialized project diligence and underwriting and active ongoing monitoring. Specialty investment management firms can provide support to community banks seeking to make renewable energy or solar tax credit investments by syndicating the investments across small groups of community banks. Without support, community banks may struggle to consistently identify suitable solar project investment opportunities built by qualified solar development partners.
Not all solar projects are created equally; and it is critical for a community bank to properly evaluate all aspects of a solar tax equity investment. Investment in particular types of solar projects, including utility, commercial and industrial, municipal and community solar projects, can provide stable and predictable returns. However, a community bank investor should perform considerable due diligence or partner with a firm to assist with the diligence. There are typically three stages of diligence:
- The bank should review the return profile and GAAP financial statement impact with their tax and audit firm to validate the benefits demonstrated by the solar developer and the anticipated impact of the investment on the bank’s earnings profile and capital.
- The bank should work with counsel to identify the path to approval for the investment. Solar tax equity investments are permissible for national banks under a 2021 OCC Rule (12 CFR 7.1025), and banks have been making solar tax equity investments based on OCC-published guidance for over a decade. In 2021, the new rule codified that guidance, providing a straightforward roadmap and encouraging community banks to consider solar tax equity investments. Alternatively, under Section 4(c)(6) of the Bank Holding Company Act, holding companies under $10 billion in assets may also invest in a properly structured solar tax equity fund managed by a professional asset manager.
- The bank must underwrite the solar developer and each individual solar project. Community banks should consider partnering with a firm that has experience evaluating and underwriting solar projects, and the bank’s due diligence should ensure that there are structural mitigants in place to fully address the unique risks associated with solar tax equity financings.
Solar tax credit investments can also be a key component to a bank’s broader environmental, social and governance, or ESG, strategy. The bank can monitor and report the amount of renewable energy generation produced by projects it has financed and include this information in an annual renewable energy finance impact report or a broader annual sustainability report.
The benefits of REITCs are hard to ignore. Achieving energy independence and reducing carbon emissions are critical goals in and of themselves. And tax credit investors that are funding renewable energy projects can significantly offset their federal tax liability and recognize a meaningful annual earnings benefit.