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The are 3 options for financing energy efficiency projects, using energy services provided by ESCOs :
ESCO financing refers to financing with internal funds of the ESCO and may involve own capital or equipment lease. ESCO rarely use equity for financing, as this options limits their capability of implementing a large number of projects on a sustainable basis. ESCOs may create a revolving business, including short term funding of projects through ESCO financing, while « selling » more mature projects that have a certain performance track record to a third party investment company fund to limit the impact on their balance sheet;
Energy-user/customer financing usually involves financing with internal funds of the user/customer, backed by an energy savings guarantee provided by the ESCO (for instance, a city or province can use its investment budgets to finance an energy project, in which the energy savings are guaranteed by an ESCO). Energy-user/customer financing may also be associated with borrowing in the case when the energy-user/customer as a direct borrower has to provide a guarantee (collateral) to the finance institution.
Third-party financing (TPF) refers solely to debt financing, although off-balance (for the private sector) or debt deconsolidating (for the public sector) solutions may be implemented. As its name suggests, project financing comes from a third party, e.g. a finance institution or an investment fund, and not from internal funds of the ESCO or of the customer. The finance institution may either assume the rights to the energy savings or may take a security interest in the project equipment. There are two conceptually different TPF arrangements associated with EPC; the key difference between them is which party borrows the money: the ESCO or the client. The first option is that the ESCO borrows the financial sources necessary for project implementation. The second option is that the energy-user/customer takes a loan from a finance institution, backed by an energy savings guarantee agreement by the ESCO. The purpose of the savings guarantee is to demonstrate to the bank that the project for which the customer borrows will generate a stable positive cash flow, i.e. that the savings achieved will certainly cover the debt repayment. Thus the energy savings guarantee reduces the risk perception of the bank, which has implications for the interest rates at which financing is acquired. The 'cost of borrowing' is strongly influenced by the size and credit history of the borrower.


When the ESCO is the borrower the customer is safeguarded from financial risks related to the project technical performance because the savings guarantee provided by the ESCO is either coming from the project value itself or is appearing on the balance sheet of the ESCO; hence the debt resides on someone else's balance list (ESCOs, finance institution's). Both public and private customers benefit from off-balance sheet financing because the debt service is treated as an operational expense and not a capital obligation; debt ratings are therefore not impacted. For highly leveraged companies this is important because the obligation not showing up on the balance sheet as debt means that company borrowing capacity is freed up. However, different countries apply various conditions that need to be met in order financing to be viewed as an operating lease, for example; unless conditions are met financing is automatically considered e.g. capital lease. Therefore parties seeking financing need to first inquire the country-specific conditions for operational financing.

Large ESCOs with deep pockets and hence high credit rating start to prefer TPF to own financing because the costs of equity financing and long-term financing are too high: the weighed capital costs for internal funds are often much greater than what can be accessed on the financial markets. If an ESCO arranges TPF, then its own risk is smaller. This would allow for lower cost of money and hence for the same level of investment more money would be assigned to the project. The cost associated with non-recourse project financing by a third party – e.g. one where project loans are secured only by the project's assets – is the highest as it entails more risk and hence higher interest rates. Furthermore, as already mentioned, equity contributions from the ESCO are often deemed undesirable by ESCOs as they tie up capital in a project. Local practices, the inability of customers to meet financiers' creditworthiness criteria and costs of equity financing are some of the factors that determine whether ESCOs will provide financing. Small and/or under-capitalised ESCOs that cannot borrow significant amounts of money from the financial markets believe that their role is not to finance energy efficiency investment. EPC is risk management and effective ESCOs have learned to use project financial structure to help manage the risks.

Determining and structuring the right financing may not be as easy as one might think. Using expert advice from a facilitator with financial expertise or from a financial consultant is often a good solution.

To read more about Financing Options for Energy Contracting, check out the manual developed by the IEA DSMIV Task 16 expert group on Competitive Energy Services, including several BELESCO members.