Alternative Energy

Renewable Energy Comes of Age

No longer a niche market, loss histories for renewable energy are reworking how green is insured.
By: | November 8, 2016 • 6 min read

Renewable energy can no longer be called alternative energy, now that wind and solar electricity are providing large percentages of total power in several North American wholesale markets.

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As a result, underwriters and brokers who serve green power producers have enjoyed growth, but have also been vexed by what can best be described as the challenges of an adolescent industry.

For example, when wind farms and solar arrays first began to grow in the middle 2000s, carriers made their best guesses in underwriting because there was a lack of historical loss and performance data.

Going on a decade later, there is plentiful data, but prevailing softness in the market limits what underwriters can do with it.

“The early wind farms in particular are going on eight years old, and we are starting to see failures beyond what was anticipated,” said Geraldine Kerrigan, managing director at Beecher Carlson.

The frustration, she said, is “there is a now a rich volume of loss data, but because there is so much [underwriting] capacity the market is very soft. Carriers’ hands are tied in underwriting trying to tighten terms and conditions. It is probably one of the few industries where you just can’t use trend data.”

After a shotgun start in the previous decade with many operators and investors trying a variety of generating options, some clear business models have emerged. This has also proved to be a mixed blessing for insurers.

Drivers of Solar Power

“Solar is more attractive to investors because that usually involves multiple smaller sites,” Kerrigan said. “That presents more of a challenge for underwriters. It is more of an administrative burden and a lower profitability profile from an insurance perspective.”

Geraldine Kerrigan, managing director, Beecher Carlson

Geraldine Kerrigan, managing director, Beecher Carlson

One important driver of growth in solar has been the rise of aggregators. Those companies will tie together several developments, their own or others’, and secure a single power-purchase agreement (PPA) from a utility.

That fosters the development of solar power as a viable commercial operation, but vastly complicates insurance and risk management, especially when the aggregator may lease actual assets or just space on a roof.

Similarly, insurers underwriting wind energy are grappling with higher-than-anticipated losses in equipment. They are also having to get vertical in a hurry as first-generation battery arrays are now being designed into second-generation wind farms, and being retrofitted into first-generation wind farms.

“Solar is more attractive to investors because that usually involves multiple smaller sites.” — Geraldine Kerrigan, managing director, Beecher Carlson.

“Lithium battery technology has reached the point that it is viable [commercially and operationally] to be a benefit to wind generation,” said Kerrigan. “Carriers are writing the new batteries, but they are not entirely happy about it.”

In effect, they are back to square one having to make underwriting decisions with little performance, loss or operations history.

Renewable Energy Surging

Despite the growing pains, renewable energy is now off the porch and running with the big dogs. In September, the Sabine Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York held a seminar on energy markets including coal, natural gas and renewables with a focus on regulation, and global supply and demand.

At that seminar, Anthony Yuen, director of global energy strategies at Citi Research, presented findings that renewables have grown from about 40 gigawatts in 2001 to about 75 GW today, and are expected to pass nuclear power — flat at about 100 GW — in about 2025.

Meanwhile, coal has fallen from about 230 GW in 2001 to 150 GW today. Citi’s projections show renewables catching a falling coal at about 120 GM by 2030 (see chart).

“The surge in both wind and solar against no increase in overall demand has definitely put the squeeze on both coal and gas.” — Anthony Yuen, director of global energy strategies, Citi Research.

“The surge in both wind and solar against no increase in overall demand has definitely put the squeeze on both coal and gas,” said Yuen.

Several other presenters supported the outlook that the gains in gas-fired generation at the expense of coal has mostly played out, and that as coal use declines further, the beneficiary is expected to be renewables.

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David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said that wind provided 32 percent of the energy in the northern region of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) in the seven months from October 2015 through April 2016.

The high point was 42 percent of the energy in April 2016. MISO covers all of Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin and south to Arkansas and Louisiana.

Schlissel also reported that 48 percent of the system load in the Southwest Power Pool (South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma) was served by wind on April 5. Also, 48 percent of the load in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas was served by wind on March 23, and 45 percent on Feb. 18.

Coverage Matures

As renewable power has gained maturity, so has insurance. “There are new types of coverage that were not available as recently as just a few years ago,” said Charles Long, area senior vice president at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

“Questions about gaps in coverage and what exposures to retain or transfer are happening in the early stages of a PPA,” he said. “We have seen some standardization in forms, but that is also a result of standardization in equipment.

“The industry has settled on a handful of key suppliers so when we go to market for a placement those components are well known.”

One of the insights gained from operational and loss history is a pattern in claims.

“Incidents with wind turbines are low in years 1, 2 and 3, then there is a spike in years 4 through 8, then a huge drop in claims years 9 to 12, and then an increase again year 13 and out,” Long said.

He stressed that operators and underwriters are still examining the newly emerging patterns to mitigate those losses.

Another interesting development has been the relative rarity of natural catastrophe claims.

Jatin Sharma, head of business development, GCube Insurance Services

Jatin Sharma, head of business development, GCube Insurance Services

“When wind generators first sought markets, they went to the Nat CAT carriers because they had the wind models,” Long said. “With wind power you want lots of wind, but not too much.

The Nat CAT covers were designed for low occurrence, but high loss. What we have seen in practice is higher occurrence of smaller losses. Gear box wear, blade issues — cracks, separation, bird strikes, even being shot — fires, even tower collapses. The least frequency has been Nat CAT.”

That creates a bit of a dilemma for underwriters, said Jatin Sharma, head of business development at specialist renewable energy underwriter GCube Insurance Services.

“Generators have achieved savings by doing their own operations and maintenance, and moved away from relying on manufacturers for that. The insurance sector has been naïve about operators doing their own maintenance.

“It is very different having a utility do its own, versus having it done by the manufacturer who knows the unit and maintains hundreds of them.”

As a result, carriers that are geared for CAT-scale losses have suffered instead from a thousand cuts.

“There are some underwriters seeing claims for just $100,000 to $300,000, but a lot of them,” said Sharma. “To handle that frequency and volume you have to have a claims team built for it.

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“At the same time, I sympathize with the risk managers. Buyers are coming out of a utility mind-set, likely mutuals, and are setting low deductibles to satisfy lenders or joint-venture partners. Risk managers’ staffs have been reduced despite the fact that they are managing a different risk profile than what they are used to. That makes them heavily reliant on brokers.”

GCube announced in October that it now provides coverage for more than 4GW of wind assets in Canada. As of last year, and following the installation of 36 new wind energy projects, Canada is seventh in the world in terms of total installed capacity.

At just under 12 GW, wind energy currently caters for approximately 5 percent of Canada’s electricity demands. However, the country has a long-term aim to reach a capacity of 55 GW by 2025, accounting for 20 percent of its total energy needs.

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]