US Prez Joe Biden's $400 billion man | Mint

US Prez Joe Biden's $400 billion man

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden

Summary

Jigar Shah, who runs the Energy Department’s loan program, is trying to hand out a lot of money for green-technology projects, while navigating an unforgiving political environment.

Jigar Shah, who runs the Energy Department’s loan program, is trying to hand out a lot of money for green-technology projects, while navigating an unforgiving political environment

Jigar Shah is living an investor’s dream, one with more strings attached than a symphony orchestra.

Shah has $400 billion of government funds to pour into businesses touting green-energy projects. But he has to do it under the eye of critical lawmakers, cautious bureaucrats and the White House, which has already clashed with him on the politics of his lending juggernaut. Losses are likely and will be frowned on by Congress.

The line for Shah’s cash stretches to 150 companies seeking $127.7 billion in loans, ranging from new companies with unproven products to giants such as General Motors and PG&E, the California utility blamed for deadly wildfires. Funneling that much money to climate startups in a short time would be near impossible. Shah has begun writing bigger checks, including a record $9.2 billion commitment to a Ford joint venture making batteries in Tennessee and Kentucky.

The source of Shah’s financial firepower is the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, an overlooked piece of the Biden administration’s strategy to address climate change. Largely quiescent for almost a decade, the office is designed to finance businesses that are important to the country’s energy transition but unable to borrow from traditional lenders, often because their technology is seen as too risky or because the terms are too onerous.

“We would absolutely look at investing alongside them," said Jehangir Vevaina, a managing partner at Brookfield Asset Management who helps oversee the private firm’s $15 billion energy transition fund. That fund, one of the largest of its kind, typically invests in a company’s equity, which can become less risky when government loans give businesses a stamp of approval, as well as lower borrowing costs than commercial banks.

Climate-related provisions in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act gave Shah’s office a windfall, multiplying its lending capacity 10-fold. That pile of cash is at least 20 times as big as most private green-energy funds, giving Shah and the Loan Programs Office a major role in shaping the American energy landscape.

That is how Shah found himself in early 2021 calling hundreds of clean-energy executives to pitch the loans his office could provide. Primary targets were clean-energy startups that had raised at least $100 million in equity financing. He also wooed big businesses with the resources to pay back large loans.

Some were reluctant to apply, worried about the complicated approval process and the risks of taking a government loan. Shah, eager to get funds out the door, can be impatient. In September, he pressed a startup company that has a plan for recycling batteries to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to construct a plant.

The company’s chief executive, Ajay Kochhar, was hesitant, unsure how quickly it could repay. “Get your ass to Pittsburgh," where a clean-energy conference was about to start, Shah told the executive, according to people familiar with the conversation.

At a coffee shop soon after, Shah told Kochhar, of Li-Cycle Holdings, that its recycling plant could easily generate enough revenue for repayment. Five months later, the two announced a $375 million federal loan.

Shah’s office is “the clean-energy bank of the United States," said Peter Davidson, who led it from 2013 to 2015. With its burst of funding, “the floodgates have really opened," he said.

The loan program is part of the reason the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits and spending represent one of the largest outlays of taxpayer-financed industrial stimulus since the 1930s New Deal.

In early June, Shah’s office committed $850 million to startup battery maker Kore Power. The loan would fund what the company calls the KOREplex, a giant battery manufacturing facility in the desert about 35 miles west of Phoenix.

Shortly after, the Loan Programs Office announced the record commitment to the Ford battery venture. The $9.2 billion agreement is bigger than the $5.9 billion Ford borrowed from the office starting in 2009, when it was struggling through the financial crisis.

Solyndra PTSD

Hanging over the Loan Programs Office’s every move is what Shah called “Solyndra PTSD." Despite the office’s successes, which include backing Tesla, it remains dogged by a busted loan to solar-panel startup Solyndra.

Solyndra failed in 2011 after China flooded the market with low-price panels. In addition, an investigation by the Energy Department’s inspector general found Solyndra had misrepresented facts and omitted key information in getting the loan. The $535 million loan that went sour made staffers cautious, borrowers nervous and critics of the program aggressive.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has called the expanded funding “Solyndra on steroids" and said the Inflation Reduction Act’s new spending and lending “has heightened the risk for waste, fraud and abuse." She said her committee is in regular contact with the loan office.

Shah’s first loan deal after taking over in 2021 was a $1 billion commitment to Monolith, a company that aims to produce hydrogen from natural gas. The company’s technology will capture the carbon that the process yields and turn it into a material for everyday products such as tires. Clean hydrogen is an alternative to oil and gas.

Several members of Shah’s staff worried the deal was too risky, people familiar with the matter said. Shah argued it was safe because it required Monolith to set aside revenue and meet rigorous requirements before getting the money, such as showing its production process would work at scale. Monolith hasn’t yet met them.

Last summer, Monolith raised more than $300 million in equity from investors including BlackRock and NextEra Energy, the most valuable power company in the U.S.

Staff members raised concerns about a potential loan to a company called Syrah Resources, a producer of graphite, which is used in rechargeable batteries, people familiar with the matter said. Raw material for its Louisiana processing facility would come from a mine in Mozambique, the scene of terrorist attacks, raising concerns that disruptions would threaten Syrah’s project. Shah pushed ahead, on the grounds that the program was protected in the deal and the U.S. needed to lessen its dependence on China for graphite. The office issued a $102 million loan last summer.

When Shah supported granting a loan for an Occidental Petroleum project, White House officials told him it could backfire. The project involved removing carbon from the atmosphere via a new technology, then injecting it into the ground to extract more oil. Administration officials worried about a backlash from environmentalists, a person familiar with the discussion said.

Shah argued it was worth exploring as a way to develop carbon-removal technology. The loan application is still working its way through the office. Occidental’s first big carbon- removal plant is under construction.

Despite having lived for decades around Washington, D.C., Shah seems more like a creature of Silicon Valley’s high-tech culture than a Beltway denizen. He co-founded a solar-energy company, SunEdison, in 2003 with a home-equity line of credit. It revolutionized the way businesses and homeowners paid for rooftop solar panels. Under its financing concept, which Shah drew up for a business-school class project at the University of Maryland, the panels are typically paid for over a 20-year stretch, in part with buyers’ savings from generating their own power, making the panels almost free in the long run.

Installations exploded, and SunEdison became North America’s largest rooftop-solar provider. Shah left in 2008, the company was sold in 2009. Years later it went bankrupt after an aggressive growth strategy backfired.

Shah co-founded clean-energy investment firm Generate Capital about nine years ago. His effusive personality and list of contacts helped build Generate into one of the largest clean-energy investment firms. At Generate’s San Francisco office he would hold court in a cavernous space known as the “Jigar-torium."

When approached by the Biden transition team about leading the Loan Programs Office, Shah was reluctant. On a podcast he used to co-host called, “The Energy Gang," he once called the office “irredeemable" because it was doing so little.

Patti Poppe, now the CEO of PG&E, listened to the podcast in the mornings while exercising on her treadmill. “It would make me run faster because he’d make me mad," she said. Shah often criticized utilities for moving too slowly. Poppe eventually invited Shah to talk to the management team at her previous job in Michigan and became convinced the industry needed to be more aggressive.

At PG&E, she is seeking a roughly $7 billion loan to upgrade and bury the utility’s outdated power lines, to reduce wildfire risk and keep up with rising electricity demand driven by electric vehicles.

‘Damn you!’

Before Shah took the job, his Generate colleagues told him accepting was a dumb idea unless he could make the office more efficient, he said in an interview at his Energy Department office, clad in his blue fleece vest and Stan Smith tennis shoes.

He outlined his demands, including provisions that would make it easier to lend to companies in the electric-vehicle supply chain. On a call with DOE officials, they agreed to all of his conditions, he said.

“I was like, ‘Damn you!’ " he recalled.

He tripled the agency’s staff to roughly 250 and recruited debt experts from banks. He sought energy specialists such as Bill Magness, a former CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, that state’s power grid operator.

According to Magness, Shah invited him to meetings even before he agreed to join. “How could you not do it?" Shah told him, Magness said. Magness was a consultant for the office for a year before departing in 2022.

In April, Shah expanded on the rooftop-solar financing model he developed for his first company by improving access to loans for people with below-average credit scores. Through a $3 billion commitment to home-solar company Sunnova, the office would guarantee that even if some users default, many investors would be repaid. Shah is confident defaults will be low, and the backstop won’t be needed.

“If you have a normal government person coming into this spot, they’ll never think of something like that," said Sunnova’s chief executive, John Berger.

The Loan Programs Office had largely been dormant since the second Obama term. The bulk of the office’s loans in the last decade went to utilities building the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, a nuclear power project in Georgia.

Shah’s tenure and the program’s aggressive lending could prove short-lived if Republicans win back the White House next year. In Congress, McMorris Rodgers has criticized the loan office’s high funding level and promised greater oversight.

Shah says the government is more protected with today’s deals, through provisions that ensure the government will get some money back even if a borrower fails. The program has beefed up goals companies must meet before receiving funds.

The office’s default rate of 3% is comparable to the performance of loan portfolios of commercial banks, Shah has said. It has made money for the government over its lifetime.

All the loans need a series of approvals from a committee of senior Energy Department staff, as well as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department.

“If anyone can crack through some of the red tape, it’s a force of nature like Jigar," said Scott Jacobs, who co-founded Generate Capital with Shah and one other person. “Yet I’m not sure anyone can get through all of the bureaucracy."©2023 Dow Jones & Co, Inc.

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