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Are Mexican Renewables Really this Cheap?

(Today’s post is co-authored with Veronica Irastorza, who is a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and former Undersecretary of Energy in Mexico. Veronica is Associate Director at NERA Economic Consulting.)

The winning bids in the latest Mexican renewables auctions were below two cents per kilowatt hour. Are renewables really this cheap?

The latest good news on renewable electricity generation comes from Mexico, where results were just announced for the country’s third renewables auction for large-scale projects. After average winning bids in April and September of last year of 4.8 cents and 3.3 cents, the average winning bids in 2017 were 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour. The list of winners includes both solar and wind projects, and represents a total expected investment of $2.4 billion.

These are shockingly low prices – 50% lower than last year and among the lowest prices ever observed anywhere in the world. These prices are especially remarkable because there are no subsidies here, either explicit or implicit. By all accounts, the cost of renewables has fallen dramatically. But 2 cents!?! Are renewables really this cheap?


Note: Wind farm on the Tehuantepec Isthmus in Oaxaca, one of areas with best wind resources in Mexico. Image licensed under creative commons.


Can Winners Renegotiate?

Are companies bidding aggressively, in part, because they believe they can renegotiate later? Renewables procurement auctions have now been held in 48 countries, and this issue has come up repeatedly. In India, for example, energy procurement auctions have often ended up in the courts, with developers sometimes being allowed to raise prices retrospectively.

This appears not to be the case for Mexico, however. Previous energy procurement contracts have not ended up in the courts, nor has any renegotiation been possible. In fact, under the terms of the latest auction, if a developer fails to deliver they must pay a “guarantee” equal to about nine months of revenues. And after a developer has invested sunk capital, why would Mexico agree to revisit the contract? This is a tricky area, but in Mexico renegotiation seems quite unlikely.


Note: Close up of solar panels. Image licensed under Creative Commons.


Are Companies Betting on the Future?

But even if renegotiation is unlikely, this still could be a bet on the future. Are companies bidding below cost today because they believe it will give them a competitive advantage in the future? Mexico is planning large future investments in renewables, so with good reason there are many companies jostling to be in position to claim a part of this market.

Betting on the future only makes sense if there are large learning spillovers. There needs to be something about doing a project today that makes subsequent projects cheaper. This could be improving working relationships with other companies, or learning about a country’s legal and regulatory systems. Ideally, this learning would spillover not only on future projects in a given country, but also to other projects elsewhere.

But key here is this learning must be company-specific. If you do a project which makes it easier for other companies to do subsequent projects, you’ve gained nothing in being the first-mover. Your company needs to somehow have intellectual property over this learning, which is not necessarily the case.

The hyper-aggressive bidding in this latest round in Mexico suggests that this “betting on the future” does seem to be part of the explanation. Our view is that this is a very risky strategy. Lose too much in the short-run, and you won’t even be around to participate in the long-run.


Great Fundamentals

So yes, there may be a bit of irrational exuberance here, but we think the main reason that prices are so low is that Mexico is a great place for solar and wind. The country has some of the best solar and wind resources anywhere in the world.


Note: Imaged licensed under Creative Commons SolarGIS © 2014 GeoModel Solar.

The map above shows that most of Mexico receives solar irradiation in excess of 2000 kilowatt hours per square meter annually. In contrast, early solar adopter Germany receives only about half as much sun. Lots of sun and wind means more electricity produced for a given capital investment, and thus a lower cost per kilowatt hour.

In addition, land and labor costs are low. Solar power, in particular, is just beginning to emerge, so all the best locations are still available, and labor costs matter both for  construction and operation. Low costs, and high quality sun and wind can’t explain the large decrease in prices between 2016 and 2017, but they can help explain the overall low level of prices.

Another factor is that the Mexican contracts are structured so that developers face zero risk from energy prices, macroeconomic fluctuations or currency devaluations. These are 15- and 20-year guaranteed price contracts in dollars, so even if Mexican wholesale prices collapse, this won’t affect revenues. Moreover, under the contract the buyer receives the power at the generation node, so the developer bears no transmission or congestion risk.

Interestingly, some of the developers are planning to build adjacent projects and sell the energy on the spot market. Mexican spot prices have been around 65 USD/MWh this year, so these “merchant” developments could end up being more profitable than those under long-term contracts. The risk profile is entirely different, however. If demand for electricity falls, for example, that would hurt the merchant project but have no impact on the contracted project.


Big Business

The results from the Mexican auction also highlight a broader global trend. Large firms are entering the renewables development business. Early renewables projects in Chile, for example, were developed by smaller companies that sometimes struggled to obtain financing.

Not true today. Now, the market is becoming dominated by large, well-financed multinationals. Indeed, two of the biggest winners in the latest Mexican auction were ENEL and ENGIE, both with the size and track record to command a very low cost-of-capital.

These are large capital-intensive projects, paid for over long time periods. So the cost-of-capital is crucial when it comes to determining total project cost. The entry of large, patient companies, during a time of low global interest rates means that these projects can be done at very low cost.



Note: Parques Eólicos Ventika wind farm in Nuevo León, Mexico. Image licensed under Creative Commons.


Consumers and the Environment

Whatever the exact mix of explanations, these results are very good news for electricity consumers. Mexican electricity demand is growing at 3%+ per year as a generation of households buy air conditioners and other electricity-intensive durable goods. Cheap renewables will help Mexico meet this demand without increasing rates. And, of course, cheap renewables are good news for the environment. Mexico has a goal of getting 35 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2024, and this is looking more and more possible.


Lucas Davis View All

Lucas Davis is an Associate Professor of Economic Analysis and Policy at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on energy and environmental markets, and in particular, on electricity and natural gas regulation, pricing in competitive and non-competitive markets, and the economic and business impacts of environmental policy.

15 thoughts on “Are Mexican Renewables Really this Cheap? Leave a comment

  1. I’m having trouble processing these apparently contradictory statements:

    ” These prices are especially remarkable because there are no subsidies here, either explicit or implicit.”


    “Another factor is that the Mexican contracts are structured so that developers face zero risk from energy prices, macroeconomic fluctuations or currency devaluations. These are 15- and 20-year guaranteed price contracts in dollars, so even if Mexican wholesale prices collapse, this won’t affect revenues. Moreover, under the contract the buyer receives the power at the generation node, so the developer bears no transmission or congestion risk.”

    Any help?

  2. The arguments presented are contradictory and incomprehensible. Do you have any facts or hard data or any evidence at all to support your claim that 2 cents / kwh is below generation cost? Or is this just your gut feeling?
    Have you seen or have you done any analysis of the technology cost curve of solar PV and how fast it is falling?

  3. First-mover advantage has also been suggested as an explanation for aggressive bidding in the Philippines to supply generation from LNG, a relatively new prospect for many Asian countries. There is an advantage not only in company-specific learning but in acquiring a reputation for expertise and reliability.

  4. Great post, I just have a small suggestion. In the section about “betting on the future” I would have liked to see a timeline of when these projects are to be developed and put online, and whether expectations of further decreases in hardware costs have also played a role. I would assume so, but it’d have been great from here from the authors. Perhaps this could be easily added if you think it is interesting.

    Thanks for the post, really enjoyed it!

  5. If these prices are replicable in the US, it implies a dramatic turning point in the renewable energy transition.
    These prices are competitive with the OPERATING COSTS of existing coal, gas, and nuclear power plants, which range from $20/MWh to $40/MWh. That means that a utility is wise to invest in these even if the only effect is to reduce operations at other power plants when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining (subject to the dispatchability of those units).
    American Electric Power seems to recognize we have reached this point, in announcing a 2,000 MW wind farm in Oklahoma, specifically for the purpose of reducing reliance on fossil energy resources.
    We passed a threshold just a couple of years ago, where new wind and solar became competitive with new natural gas generation. Now it’s apparently competitive with the operating costs of existing plants. That is truly seismic in implication.

  6. Like Lucas mentioned, the price includes the energy and CELs. The contract for energy is for 15 years and for CELs is for 20 years. I agree that there is some exposure to average spot prices if they under or over produce. The Mexican auction is pretty complex and impossible to cover all in one blog, maybe we will need part 2.

  7. good article but I agree with the comments that it´s a bit misleading on two points: (1) there is a subsidy with the CELs portion of the contract (particularly from year 15-20), and (2) there is merchant risk in the agreement, as the delivery is for fixed volumes of energy, there is risk when under and overproducing.

  8. I think this column would benefit from discussing the Renewable Energy Certificates (REC’s) that were included in the auction results.
    If the writer thinks the REC’s are worthless that should be stated.
    If the writer didn’t consider the value of the REC’s…

      • I am of the impression the CEL’s are designed to be a revenue stream – best source I’ve seen is this presentation preceding the first auction:
        With lower rates in the third auction, I’d presume CEL’s would now be expected to be a greater revenue source – but that would depend on builds outside of auction.

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