How China’s power companies invest overseas

China’s power infrastructure investment comes in multiple forms, all of which entail different risks

By Wang Yan and Li Danqing

Over the past twenty years, China’s ‘going-out’ strategy has built Chinese companies an international role as the major suppliers of infrastructure around the world. Within the growing stock of infrastructure that China is building up, power infrastructure, especially coal power plants outside China’s borders, is attracting increasing attention both for their contribution to energy accessibility in developing countries, particularly South Asia and South East Asia, and for their climate impacts for decades to come (“carbon lock in”).

Articles, reports and academic papers have been written about this phenomenon as the world seeks a way to engage China in a dialogue about its coal build-up overseas. But before any serious conversation can happen, understanding the true nature of Chinese power companies’ operations overseas is key. Chinese companies’ role in supporting the development of coal power plants overseas comes in multiple forms, ranging from design and construction to part-ownership. Since 2013 Chinese companies have had an increasing preference for equity investments, a form of investment that entails both increased potential profit and increased risks. This blog tries to illuminate the landscape that the multiple forms Chinese coal power investments are made in.

Types of investment

A commonly overlooked aspect of Chinese – or for that matter any country’s – overseas infrastructure investments is that there are a range of investment model options available for companies and banks. Each option entails different types of contracts, partnerships, responsibilities, potential profit margins, and, inevitably, risk. To get a true understanding of how Chinese coal plant construction companies operate overseas operate, it is important for us to understand these different models.

Engineering, Procurement, Construction (EPC) was the dominant form of overseas investment for Chinese companies until 2018. An EPC contractor will carry out the detailed engineering design of the project, procure all the equipment and materials necessary, and then construct a functioning facility or asset as specified in the EPC contract. EPC+Finance (EPC+F) is one common derivative form of EPC, in which the project owner also wants the contractor to solve project financing.

Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) and Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) are typical types of public-private partnerships (PPP). In a BOT or BOOT project, normally large-scale, greenfield infrastructure projects, a government will grant a company the right to finance, build, own and operate the project with the goal of recouping its investment. Once investment has been recouped, the control of the project will then be transferred to the government after a specified time, normally 20 to 30 years.

Equity investment refers to companies’ investing in other projects or companies in the form of cash, tangible or intangible assets, in order to obtain an intended return in the future.

In the power sector, EPC revenues come from project payment as the plant function fulfills the contract, while BOT/BOOT rely on power purchaser’s continuous buying electricity from the plant during the project period, which is ensured by a Power Purchaser Agreement (PPA). Thus, long-term and steady project revenue is a determining factor in securing project financing.

In many cases, Chinese companies will set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV) via equity investment, registering it in the host country. The SPV becomes the project operator and engages with local and day-to-day businesses.

Chinese companies, therefore, play multiple roles in overseas power plant development – as investors, owners, designers, contractors, and operators.

From EPC to equity

Since 2013 Chinese companies have significantly increased equity investment in overseas coal power. In 2018 equity investment for the first-time outpaced EPC, the traditional investment avenue, in terms of newly-installed capacity. In the past decade, a total 10.8 GW of coal capacity had gone online with the backing of Chinese equity investment, 96% of which came after 2013 (Fig. 1). This shift from EPC contractors to equity investors with strong financing capacity appears to be the trend for future overseas coal power investments.

PPDC-coal-1
Fig. 1. Coal power projects (capacity) with Chinese equity investment and EPC over the past decade.

Why the shift?

The transition from EPC to equity investment fits into the broader arc of China’s ‘going-out’ strategy, which began in 1999 and increasingly encouraged outbound investment, besides merely product and service export. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has spearheaded China’s ‘going out’ since 2013, and in that time China’s outbound direct investment (ODI) in BRI countries has occupied a growing share of China’s total ODI, with 12.5% of China’s direct investment going to BRI countries in 2017. Despite a 19.3% year-on-year decrease in China’s total ODI in 2017, direct investment in BRI countries witnessed a 3% growth.

Equity investment brings more return for investors. As owners of a project, equity investors can potentially get higher returns in the long term. Equity investment also brings flexible options to investors. They can invest not just with cash, but also with current assets like materials and fixed asset. This offers both flexibility and lower cash flow risks.

In addition, equity investment, especially from state-owned companies, plays a credit checking role. It tends to enhance borrowers’ credit and lenders’ confidence and willingness, as well as attracting other types of lenders for project financing, such as seed banks and foreign capital banks. This means that equity investment can help a project to raise more money in less time, potentially lowering the overall cost. Lastly, with ownership of the project, equity investors take initiative for project management and risk control, and receive more rights to local resources, which also serves to lower the cost of the project.

In terms of coal plants, there are three key drivers underpinning the transition: global market trends, the company’s transition needs, and China’s top-down support.

1) The long-term benefits of exploring new markets, integrated industry chain and decision making power brought by equity investment. Equity investment allows companies to lock in long-term partnerships, acquire local resources in a lower-cost way, and ensure quick or steady growth in a foreign market.

Many Chinese companies are currently transitioning from EPC contractor to whole industry chain service providers. China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC), one of China’s oldest and largest coal plant constructors, noted in its 2018 yearbook that the company has tried to diversify and widen its industry chain in recent years, with more projects conducted via ‘EPC+Investment+Corporation’ model. As part of this transition, the company has also formed partnerships with GE in multiple overseas equity investment projects.

2) A more competitive environment for the EPC-driven model meets the rising need for private investment in public projects. Driven by a desperate need to ease power shortages, while worried about tighter public funding and debt burdens, host countries are embracing private investment into public projects, or EPC contractors with its own financial support.

For example, in 2015 Pakistan updated its 13 year old electricity investment policy to allow for 100% foreign capital ownership of project companies, increased allowed return of investment, and “take or pay mechanisms”, an electricity payment mechanism which will ensure investors’ returns. The updates were all intended to increase potential profit margins for foreign companies, attract foreign capital, and reduce electricity generation cost.

3) Top-down financial support and policy signaling for equity investment overseas. Boosting overseas equity investment in power sector markets has been highlighted in a number of China’s diplomatic agreement and official BRI documents.

For example, in China’s new cooperation with Africa on infrastructure development, the integration of investment, construction and operation has been underlined in developing power, transport and communications projects. These investments are supported either by loans from China’s policy banks, or from commercial banks. China’s concessional loans require Chinese companies’ holding shares in overseas projects.

More equity investment, more risks?

But higher returns come with a higher risk profile. Along with the responsibilities of designers, constructors, or equipment-providers that normally come from the EPC model, the equity model also brings Chinese investors in on feasibility study, business negotiation, financing plan, construction, to long-term operation and management with a variety of foreign and domestic stakeholders. Chinese companies, along with banks and insurers who give financial support, are more attached to long-term steady returns and interlocked in multiple project stages, exposing them to complex risk patterns. Fig. 2 illustrates the risks exposed at each stage of an equity power project.

 

PPDC-coal-2
Fig. 2. Stages and risks in project development (see Feb 2018 article in Infrastructure Economics 《建筑经济》

Most of China’s overseas coal power investment is in developing country markets (Fig. 3), which frequently present higher investment risks due to financial insecurity, political unrest, sovereign debt or uncertain business environment, causing uncertainties for China’s overseas investment.

PPDC-coal-3
Fig. 3. Total capacity of coal plants with Chinese equity investment in different regions. South and Southeast Asia are hotspots for China’s overseas coal investment, and together host 94% of Chinese equity-invested coal plants.

One of the most pressing challenges is changing or stricter electricity investment policies, which are already leading to project delays or cancellation. In Indonesia, for example, a gap between forecast electricity growth rate (8.3% for the period 2017-26) and actual growth rate (3.6% in 2017) has resulted in the postponement of 22GW of planned electricity generation projects.

In addition to electricity sector regulation changes, investors should not underestimate the risk posed by strengthening environmental regulations. As the principal culprit for air pollution and climate change, coal plants are in a particularly vulnerable position as governments race to strengthen their environmental regulations as they develop. This is also likely to cause project delay or cancelation, resulting in companies’ breach of agreement, economic loss or reputation loss. Meanwhile, many countries are aggressively making strides to speed up their energy transition and incubate renewables markets with ambitious policy goals, as in Vietnam for example. Public opposition, including protests and court cases, are also a major risk that can lead to project postponement or even cancellation, as happened to the Lamu coal plant in Kenya, for example.

Chinese companies’ investment in coal power plants overseas comes in multiple formats and is evolving as both domestic and international dynamics change. To become forward-looking investors, Chinese companies must raise their awareness of regional energy transitions and ongoing climate change action, and incorporate such aspects into their investment decisions. Beyond that, Chinese banks, insurers and supervisory bodies should also pay closer attention to the risks their overseas projects tie them to.

For anyone working on the issue of Chinese overseas energy investment – a “make or break” issue for global climate efforts – these types of investment arrangements and the opportunities and risks they entail are essential details. Policy makers, researchers, students and journalists should all take note.

Wang Yan and Li Danqing are both climate campaigners with extensive experience in Chinese overseas energy investment