When Macquarie Bank bought the UK’s Green Investment Bank it ignited a storm of opposition. There was doubt the Aussie bankers would uphold the original ambitions of the GIB, because these ambitions are not sufficiently protected. That’s certainly the conclusion of an investigation by British MPs on the UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Labelled a “Vampire Kangaroo” in 2013 by the Sunday Times, a view supported by a BBC investigation into Macquarie’s ownership of Thames Water, the sale was widely condemned at the time.

The committee was charged at looking at whether the controversial sell-off was conducted properly and whether the GIB performed well in the past and would fulfil its intended function to invest in promising new sustainable technologies in the future.

Since it was created in 2012, the UK Green Investment Bank plc (GIB) has been successful in attracting private investment into some sectors of the green economy, such as offshore wind projects, according to its former chief executive Shaun Kingsbury.

However, Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the government department which set it up, told the MPS it cannot be sure whether the GIB achieved its intended objectives of “encouraging investment in the green economy and creating an institution that lasts”.

This is because the government chose to sell the bank before fully assessing its impact. The decision was based purely on a desire to reduce public debt and secure cash for the public purse from the sale.

Macquarie bought the bank for £1.6 billion in August 2017 in a deal hailed in The Australian Financial Review as “a potential game changer for Macquarie globally because the assets, skills and connections it brings to the group will give it an edge in two of the biggest investment megatrends  over the next several decades – renewable energy and impact investing”

Certain measures were attached to the sale intended to protect the bank’s original Green Purposes, which cover greenhouse gas emissions, efficient use of natural resources, the natural environment, biodiversity and environmental sustainability. However the MPs found that these are not sufficient to ensure that the bank is an enduring institution.

“It is unclear whether Green Investment Group (GIG, as it has been rebranded under Macquarie’s ownership) will continue to support the government’s energy policy, or continue to have an impact on the UK’s climate change goals,” the MPs say, declaring it as “a misjudgement” that the Department has so little assurance over GIG’s future investment in the UK and in emerging technologies, which are crucial to ensuring that the UK’s green commitments are met.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, the Committee’s Deputy Chair, called the manner of the sale “deeply regrettable”. “The rebranded Green Investment Group is not bound to invest in the UK’s energy policy at all, nor to invest in the kind of technologies that support its climate objectives,” he said.

“Had the government been shrewder it could have secured a better return for taxpayers. It was a mistake to repeal legislation protecting GIB’s green investment obligations without securing firmer commitments from potential buyers.”

Ironically Macquarie actually told the MPs that such commitments did not affect the price it was prepared to pay, and indicated that the government could and should have strengthened these commitments contractually.

How successful was the Green Investment Bank?

The GIB attracted substantial private investment into some sectors of the green economy, such as offshore wind. By March 2017, GIB had committed $6.21 billion to fund or part fund 100 projects, and attracted $15.71 billion of private capital.

These projects were primarily in offshore wind, and waste and bioenergy, with some in energy efficiency and onshore renewables.

Many other technologies, such as tidal power and carbon capture and storage, were judged by the bank’s board to be not sufficiently developed to be suitable commercial investments. But because the BEIS did not give clear criteria, it could not judge whether GIB was addressing failures in the green energy market or only backing projects that would have been winners anyway.

GIB investment activity between October 2012 and March 2017, by sector
SectorOffshore windWaste & bioenergyEnergy efficiencyOnshore renewablesTotal
Number of projects11373517100
GIB capital committed (£ millions)2,2117562921503,409
Private capital mobilised  (£ millions)4,6603,4792861508,575
Average total transaction size  (£ millions)6251141718120

Will Macquarie continue its mission?

When it acquired GIB, Macquarie agreed to retain its five Green Purposes, the protection of which was the aim of the Green Purposes Company, which BEIS had established previously and given its trustees powers to veto any changes.

But this protection relies on Macquarie continuing to fund the Green Purposes Company and the powers of the trustees do not extend to approval of investment decisions.

Macquarie has committed GIG to investing or arranging over £3 billion investment in green energy projects over three years after purchase but these commitments are not legally binding and rely on a number of factors, including market conditions and future government policy decisions.

Mark Dooley, global head of green energy, Macquarie, told the MPs that GIG is not currently required or incentivised to invest in the UK, or innovative technologies, or to focus on any of GIB’s five Green Purposes.

MacBank wants government support to stick to the plan 

According to Macquarie, for the majority of potential investments in the UK it would want financial support from the government. These include the proposed world-leading tidal lagoon in Swansea, which, lacking government support based on a high strike price and an environmental impact report, seems unlikely to go ahead.

Since it became the Green Investment Group, it has continued to invest in safe sectors – wind and waste-to energy projects – rather than emerging technologies.

David Fass, head of Macquarie Group’s European operations says Macquarie will use the GIG to channel “billions in renewable energy deals over the next decade”… “unless Macquarie doesn’t meet the expectations of a range of stakeholders”.

A valuable asset in green investment definition

One asset of GIG which is little appreciated, but could be worth a fortune, according to The Australian Financial Review, is its proprietary definition of green investments which is backed up with a unique database, presumably acquired at least in part from the GIB.

“This piece of intellectual property could well be sold or brought to market in partnership with financial information companies, Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s Investors Service. A product that secures investor trust in green investments could be extremely valuable,” it says.

The UK Climate Investment

As a result of taking over the Green Investment Bank Macquarie now owns UK Climate Investments LLP. This was set up three years ago in March 2015 to invest the $365m commitment Britain (like most developed countries) has under the Green Climate Fund to donate to projects in developing economies that adapt to climate change and promote “green growth” in East Africa, South Africa and India.

For over two years no investment was made, but in autumn last year Macquarie announced $55m of the $365m had been pledged to Lightsource to develop and construct up to a total of 300MW of PV projects in rural India.

It’s still unclear who banks (and obtains interest from) the remaining cash.

The UK National Audit Office (who conducted some of the research for the MPs’ report) told me last September following a Freedom of Information request that their remit for this research (and therefore the MPs’ report) did not cover the UKCI. They did say that $22.65m of the total amount had already been spent – on consultants to do market surveys, of no direct benefit to developing countries.

It’s unclear how much say the UK government now has in how this money is spent, but surely it should be spent to the benefit of the poor in developing countries trying to fight climate change rather than the shareholders of a private investment company?

These countries are sick of waiting for the money to come to them.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown concludes his comment on the House of Commons report on the GIB by saying: “There are broader lessons here—not least for how government evaluates public assets and, when relevant, prepares them for sale.”

And the net benefit to the British taxpayer of all of the sale? Just £126 million.

David Thorpe is a UK based writer. His two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference.  He’s also the author of  Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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