Renewable Now Magazine, April 5, 2017
By Warren Kirshenbaum
Most real estate developers contemplating projects involving the creation of renewable energy are aware of the unique upside available to them in the form of tax credits from Federal or state government agencies.
A typical problem, however, is that few developers are in the position to immediately benefit from the credits their ventures earn. These projects can have long timelines; and the eventual ROI that would flow from the tax credits might be years away.
But the beauty of existing tax credit programs — whether in renewable energy, reclamation of contaminated land, or historic building preservation — is that often the earned credits are transferable to others. This opens up a lucrative market for individual investors looking to reduce year-end tax liabilities. The developer receives a cash payment for these tax credits; while the investor benefits from strong yields, carefully managed risk, low up-front investment, and an immediate dollar-for-dollar subtraction from current tax due.
But many investors — and their financial advisors — are unaware of just how strong an investment in tax credits can be. Here’s a basic primer on tax credits available for construction projects that are in the public’s interests:
How renewable energy tax credits are used:
While renewable energy credits could minimize tax burdens for developers with significant current income from prior projects, as a practical matter most developers are in need of inexpensive cash for their current projects and would prefer to “sell” their credits. The “buyers” are investors who make capital contributions to ownership equity which corresponds to a price per tax credit. That capital contribution is a discount to the value of the tax credits (and depreciation, if available) and the discount represents a tax savings to the investor — minimizing their year-end tax burden.
There are two types of federal tax credits for developers of renewable energy: those for production of power (Renewable Energy Credits – REC’s); and those for investment in renewable energy (Investment Tax Credits – ITC’s). A developer needs to choose between RECs or ITCs – one cannot benefit from both. The investment tax credit is more lucrative, so it often makes most sense to choose the ITC and to rely on a state subsidy for the production of the power (if one exists). Also, while solar installations are allowed to depreciate their cost over only five years, the accelerated depreciation rules allow a possible 60% depreciation benefit in the first year.
How tax credits motivate businesses and individuals to help the environment:
We don’t know exactly how much tax credit programs encourage people to jump into projects that protect the environment, but I certainly believe it’s a factor. The projects generating these tax credits evince social responsibility, historic preservation, environmental proactivity, green energy and community-centric values — altruistic opportunities equally attractive to small investors and large entities who are seeking a socially conscious platform (and positive public relations). It doesn’t hurt that net investment returns, thanks in part to the tax credit programs, can be significant.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts administers the “Brownfields Tax Credit” program, which has an objective to eventually clean up most of the contaminated sites in the state. REC’s and ITC’s subsidize the installation of renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and others. These technologies do not deplete natural resources and serve to lessen our dependence on foreign oil — all of which are positive for the environment.
Why these tax credits are important given the current political/economic climate:
Tax credits are a form of public-private partnership; as the Federal and State governments are, in effect, “outsourcing” public functions to the private sector which can achieve their objectives efficiently and cost-effectively. These programs create jobs, generate tax revenue well in excess of the credits, and bring about more property tax revenue. The current administration in Washington has expressed an intent to spend one trillion dollars to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. The continued use of tax credit programs would be essential to move such an undertaking forward.
Are many unaware of tax credits?
Some developers and most investors, indeed, are unaware of the unique benefits of tax credits. I suspect the Federal tax code changes of the late 1980s — which were meant to close the loopholes of dubious tax shelters — pushed individuals and small companies away from more complex forms of tax planning. Currently 90% of all tax credits in the U.S. are used only by large corporations, banks and insurance companies — only a fraction of those who could benefit from them.
Many smaller developers know how complicated tax credits can be, and their advisors — CPAs and lawyers — are generalists who might suggest such complexity is not worth the effort. This is why we suggest developers and investors turn to an experienced tax credit advisor to navigate the process and to safeguard their interests.
What’s ahead for the tax credit market:
My firm foresees great opportunity amid some instability. Tax credit statutes have sunset dates and need reauthorization. This can create a level of uncertainty that rattles a typical investor marketplace.
The tax credit industry is a statutory creation, and is therefore affected by state and national politics. The Massachusetts Brownfields Tax Credit has been extended until August 2018, and a proposal is pending to extend it for a further five years. (It has been extended consistently since 2006.) The Solar ITC is fixed at 30% until 2021 and is scheduled to decline to a 20% credit and then a 10% credit after 2024 — unless Congress reauthorizes the 30% credit (which likely will be dependent on the price for producing solar power at that time).
Warren Kirshenbaum is president of the Cherrytree Group: a Newton, Massachusetts firm offering tax credit consulting, brokerage and syndication services. The company assists developers of all sizes, general contractors, engineers, geotechnical scientists, individuals, and investment partnerships in applying for, securing, and monetizing available federal and state tax credits. The group has advised and closed on millions of dollars in state and federal tax credits, including small and large renewable energy projects.