Monday, December 03, 2012

Qatar to build a large solar plant, and Islamic finance should be involved in the financing

There are reports that Qatar is looking to step forward with a large solar power plant in 2014, with total investment of between $10 and $20 billion and this is a perfect opportunity for Islamic finance to step forward and pull above its weight to finance the construction of the project.  It is a large project and banks are limited to financing a single customer no more than 20% of their capital and reserves (pdf), which amounts to roughly QAR4.7 billion ($1.28 billion) [1]

There are not suffience assets from Islamic banks alone to finance the project (the maximum amount conventional banks could offer is QAR16.27 billion ($4.47 billion) so neither alone could finance the project without either other (domestic and foreign) investors, assistance from the Qatari government and sovereign wealth fund, but the Islamic finance industry should view this as a way to show a strategic interest in a project like this, which is expected to move renewable energy generating capacity from nil today to 16% of total generating capacity when the project is completed.

The reason it is important is two-fold.  First, it is an ambitious project, but in a way that other ambitious projects funded by Islamic banks and sukuk were not.  Rather than financing the construction of another highrise focused on wealthy investors, it is focused on a project that will provide electricity that benefits the population as a whole (the project is focused on electricity to be used for water desalinisation plants).

Secondly, the project is focused in an area that should be incorporated more widely into Islamic finance if it wants to develop a wider degree of interest in the industry beyond Muslims, but with the same ethical motivation: a focus on the environment (see this newsletter from May 2012 [pdf]).  Qatar has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, even as Doha hosted the UN climate change conference in November, the seeming conflict did not go unnoticed.

Clearly the carbon emissions are closely linked with Qatar's dependence on oil and gas export revenues, which is unlikely to change.  Yet, a push by Islamic financial institutions to provide significant financing to a project to lower the climate emissions would make a statement, as well as providing tangible benefits to the Qatari economy.  By substituting oil and gas use with renewable energy in Qatar, where energy subsidies are among the highest in the world (Figure 1, PDF), and instead export those products, it will provide a significant economic benefit for the economy which will help make the project itself economical, even if it receives lower subsidies than oil and gas use, particularly now that efficiency of solar panels has risen significantly in the last decade.  

[1] Estimated with the October capital plus reserves, QAR105.5bn, times 20% concentration limit, times 22.1% share of Islamic banking assets as a share of total assets as of September 2012.

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