State power utilities' (major power purchasers) insensitivity to projects' debt service commitments and delays in making payments - problems specific to conventional energy developers - are now plaguing renewable energy projects, says India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra). The central government's initiative - Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana scheme - aims to lessen the cash flow strain on distribution companies through the transfer of debt loads to states. However, until the scheme gathers further momentum and meaningfully bears any fruits to the sector, renewable energy projects are compelled to tide over the elevated risk of liquidity strain.
In the backdrop of several developers embarking on capital market transactions, counterparty delays could not only jeopardise bond potential issuances, but also erase the confidence of stakeholders. This is especially in view of the growing interest of developers to tap the capital market and investors' penchants for RE bonds. Also, at this time when the masala bond and dollar bond market is fledgeling, a default on a domestic bond may prove costly and could skew risk spreads. Counterparties' timely payments are inevitable to nurture the nascent non-recourse capital market debt instruments. Any event of default on the capital market instruments or invocation of a security/credit enhancement would have an adverse impact on the government's effort in deepening infra bond markets.
The debt structure of RE bonds includes a debt service reserve, equivalent to the maximum or six months of debt service obligation to guard against unforeseen events. Despite robust structural features, the continued strained liquidity has dented the projects' standalone credit quality.
Maharashtra utilities are a new addition to the league of unreliable utilities, not only on the count of rising receivables but also due to their unwillingness to sign up for energy sale agreements. Although the receivable periods may vary, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan state utilities uneven payment records weigh heavily on projects' risk profile. On the contrary, newly formed Andhra Pradesh and Telangana state utilities not only pay renewable energy project developers on time but also claim the rebate delineated in the power purchase agreements.
Although the direct impact of delayed payments will be apparent on projects' liquidity, the ultimate impact could be on the lenders if the situation exacerbates. Increasingly, the historical payment record appears to be unreliable and elevates the need for a working capital line higher than the historical average receivable days of projects. However, the zeroing down on the size of the working capital line has become difficult. In many cases, the credit profile of RE projects is constrained by the weak financial health of the counterparties rather than operational and supply-related risks.
Given the reasonable historical payment record of Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company, many sponsors failed to anticipate debtor days of over seven months and it was not the agency's base case as well. Notwithstanding projects' operational strength, debt service could be impaired on prolonged payment delays by the state utility.
Although a majority of power purchase agreements mention a letter of credit as a backup for payment delays, it is rarely established by discoms. Uttar Pradesh utility in a few thermal power projects has entered into default escrow agreements wherein the revenues from a particular customer segment is escrowed to a default account, which is marked to the power generators' escrow accounts. A similar structure has been proposed by Uttar Pradesh for renewable projects. While the federal government set ambitious targets in creating new capacities, projects remain hostage to rising receivables from state utilities, a continuance of which could impact investments in renewable projects and hurt the infra debt market. There is therefore a dire need to improve the liquidity of state utilities so that renewable projects do not become unviable.
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