- Ongoing policy-related support and cost competitiveness has been instrumental in positioning wind energy as a compelling cost alternative to fossil fuels.
- Yet still, conditions for sustainable use in key regions remain questionable.
- FAN is not particularly well-diversified and its dividend record is mixed but it is one of the more efficient options in the renewable energy space and cheaper than solar.
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. – Bob Dylan
Key features and performance
Over the years, governments and policymakers the world over have been looking to help engender a shift away from fossil fuels to more greener initiatives. Understandably, certain investors have been looking to capitalize on this gradual shift to a more carbon-neutral world. If you’d like to be a part of this cohort and would like a dose of renewable energy in your portfolio, you may consider the First Trust Global Wind Energy ETF (FAN). What makes this different from other renewable energy ETFs is that it is more oriented towards the wind energy segment. About 60% of the total holdings in this ETF are oriented towards core wind energy-related stocks. For a company to qualify for this ETF, it needs to be actively engaged in some aspect of the wind energy industry.
Despite major COVID-19 global supply chain-related disruptions to the wind energy segment for much of 2020, this ETF has fared relatively well on a YTD basis, outperforming the major traditional energy ETFs – the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE), the iShares Global Energy ETF (IXC), and the S&P 500. Admittedly, it has been able to keep pace with its solar energy counterpart – the Invesco Solar ETF (TAN) that is up 122% YTD, but I would be rather wary of further upside there, as TAN currently trades at an elevated forecasted P/E of 37x vs. a more reasonable forecasted P/E multiple of 22x for FAN.
By general ETF expense ratio standards, an investment in the renewable/clean energy ETF universe doesn’t come cheap as most of the ETFs here trade at an expense ratio ranging from 0.6- 0.75%. However, within this renewable energy spectrum, FAN’s expense ratio of 0.62% makes it one of the more efficient options.
From a dividend angle, the ETF offers you a 1.49% yield on a trailing basis (other peers in this space currently offer yields between 0.13%-2.5%), and on a forecasted basis (based on YCharts estimates), you’re poised to receive a decent 2.4%. That said, their dividend track record in 2020 doesn’t make for pleasant reading, and we may likely see a continuation of this. In Q1, Q2, and Q3 of 2020, dividends had been cut by 56%, 9%, and 40% respectively. In 2019, the Q4 dividend was the highest of the 4 quarters, so given this high base effect and considering the trend so far, there’s a good chance the upcoming dividend gets cut as well.
An investment in FAN will give you access to 57 stocks. Looking at the texture of the holdings, I can see that in addition to wind energy stocks, there is also a tilt towards electric utilities. Those who subscribe to The Lead-Lag Report will note the importance I attach to the relative performance of the utilities sector (due to its bond-like characteristics) in determining risk-on/risk-off conditions in the market. As I’ve noted in The Lead-Lag Report the other day, utilities have demonstrated steady leadership in the recent past.
Another feature of this ETF is that it is not particularly well-diversified with an r-square of 65 (Source: Yahoo Finance) and the top 10 making up for 53% of the total holdings. I’ve also noted that in the top 10, you also have a lot of Canadian- based companies. The government there has been very supportive of the renewable energy industry and earlier this month announced a $7.5bn infrastructure plan primarily focused on pushing renewable energy initiatives.
Source: Seeking Alpha, Company Filings
The case for wind energy
Over the last two decades, power generating capacity on account of increased wind turbine installations has grown by 21% CAGR, and as you can see from the chart below, this rise in growth has become steeper over the last decade. According to the IEA, in the “onshore” wind energy space, capacity additions last year grew by 20% annually, driven mainly by additions in China and Europe. In fact, you’d also be interested to know that last year, for the first time ever, global additions in solar and wind capacity exceeded the traditional energy segments – gas and coal. Last year, total additions in solar and wind accounted for 45% of new capacity, up from less than 25% back in 2010.
Two broad drivers are pushing this tilt towards renewables such as wind energy. One is the long-term desire on the part of global policymakers to reduce the carbon footprint in the world, and two, on account of technological developments over the years, you also have the competitiveness of wind and solar energy as more compelling cost alternatives relative to fossil fuels.
I’ve been enthused by some of the recent policy-related tailwinds in key regions such as Europe and China supporting the ongoing penetration of clean energy. Europe recently finalized new climate rules targeting an increase in the share of renewable energy to 32% by 2030 whilst last month, China said that they would aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. (Incidentally, China is already poised to hit a grid-connected wind capacity of 210GW by the end of this year.)
Regulatory support has been going on for a while but what has really triggered a recent shift to renewables is the cost factor. As you can see from the chart below, the Levelized cost of energy (LOCE) per MWh on an unsubsidized basis for onshore wind energy has dropped by 11% CAGR over the past decade, to lows of $28 (in fact, more recent research from Lazard believes that the global LOCE may have even dropped to as low as $26/MWh). This is certainly a more compelling value proposition than what gas, geothermal or coal can offer.
The expectation is that in 5 years, it will be more expensive to operate an existing coal or natural gas power plant than to build wind farms. Even government agencies have been highlighting the rapid shift in cost benefits. Recently, in the Lead-Lag Report, I had highlighted the UK government’s reduced forecasts for wind energy costs, which had been slashed by 47% from its 2016 estimates (estimated costs for gas and nuclear tech have been more stable). This evidently goes to highlight the rapid pace at which technological advancements have caught a lot of people off-guard.
If you’ve been following my writings across Seeking Alpha and in The Lead-Lag Report all through this year, you’ll note that I’ve been prophesying the likelihood of various governments the world over resorting to infrastructure-related stimulus to help bring their economies out of the rut. Given the environmental benefits and compelling cost benefits of this technology, I also expect these stimulus-related infra packages to show greater impetus towards renewable energy projects such as wind energy (see Canada’s recently announced infrastructure plan).
The shift won’t be plain sailing and will require patience
Having said all this, it’s also important to not get too carried away as this shift from fossil fuels to renewables will take time, and not happen overnight. Besides the COVID-19-related disruptions have prompted the IEA to slash its wind growth forecasts by 12% YoY for 2020. The IEA expects growth to bounce back in 2021 as the disruptions this year are mainly on account of delays rather than cancellations, but yet still, its combined expected onshore wind growth forecast for 2020 and 2021 is lower than their October 2019 forecast by c.9%.
Longer term as well, you also have to consider that conditions for wind energy are still not optimal, with plenty of capacity utilization problems, and with the manufacturing supply chain being concentrated in specific regions such as China and India (leading to delays in procurement and project delays). As mentioned recently in The Lead-Lag Report, currently, the wind potential in some of the densely populated regions in the world are not sufficient enough, leading to questions of whether a majority shift may even take place.
Recent reports also highlight that China, a major energy market, has not shown a great deal of alacrity to shift away from coal as it wants to avoid power failures (something that was rampant to a great extent in 2011), become more self-sufficient in energy security, and also protect its economic growth.
I like the ongoing policy-related support and the cost-competitiveness of wind energy and expect this to become a key theme going forward. That said, the shift away from fossil fuels may not be as plain sailing as many people think it will be, and it would be wise to rein in some of the enthusiasm as there are likely to be a few stumbling blocks along the way. Investors looking for a renewable energy-flavored ETF may consider FAN which focuses on wind energy. By general ETF standards, it is not cheap and the dividend record is patchy but relative to other renewable energy peers, it fares well on this front. It is also much cheaper than its solar energy peers.
View: More news