Consider the current energy industry situation:
- For the first time in the 100-year-old electric utility industry, revenue from sales of electrons did not go up after the US economy emerged from the recent great recession. Energy efficiency, renewable energy and behind-the-meter generation schemes are part of the reason.
- Oil and gas industry revenue and margins are suffering from very low prices as a result of overproduction, regulatory tightening on negative externalities and other factors.
- The coal industry is at a point that prompted the CEO of one the largest coal producers to state publicly that coal as a dominant generation fuel is in significant decline. Natural gas at historically low prices is rapidly replacing coal for base load generation. Coal is also impacted by strict limits on emissions as a result of the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards(MATS). International markets, long thought to be a lucrative export valve for US coal, are in decline. China and other large coal burning nations have enacted new laws to wind down their coal generation, as the reality of climate change sets in and the cost-competitiveness of renewable energy continues to rise.
- The future energy picture, broadly speaking, is generally viewed through an electric industry lens. “Electricity is the energy of the 21st century,” according to Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of the large French oil company Total, which has been making initial strategic investments in renewable energy and energy storage over the last six years.
- The majority of the world’s countries (174) have come to agreement on slowing down climate change at the United Nations COP21 in December 2015, which attempts to limit warming to 2° C compared to pre-industrial levels. With energy generation contributing average of 35% of emissions, the implications for the energy sector is clear.
In this era of market turmoil and low prices across all fossil fuel energy sectors, renewables are highly cost-competitive AND gaining ground. The recent BNEF 2016 Outlook verifies what renewable energy cheerleaders have been saying for many years – renewables with energy storage and next-generation grid technology are ready to lead the imperative global transition away from carbon-intensive generation.
So why is the fossil fuel industry still sitting on the sidelines? Renewable energy companies and assets throughout the supply chain are relatively inexpensive now, due to the low cost of the gas and oil it competes against. The timing to present a diversification effort to shareholders has never been better. The timeline for return on investment for renewable diversification is significantly shorter than building fossil fuel assets. This would appear to be a first-mover’s diversification market.
The renewable energy industry represents a natural, highly profitable diversification strategy given the fossil fuel industry’s large balance sheets, synergistic services and capabilities, very low cost of capital, leverage with regulatory agencies and built-in customers in many cases. Yet many fossil fuel companies continue to dig in deeper on their traditional extraction-and-burn model, even as a Deloitte survey of oil and gas executives back in
2009 uncovered major concerns about the sustainability of their industry. The majority of these executives also expressed strong support for, and confidence in, the future of renewable energy.
There are signs that a tentative transition by some entities is underway. Major electric utilities such as Duke Energy, Georgia Power, NRG Energy and Exelon domestically have their toe in the renewable energy water, and the large European utilities Enel and E.ON have announced long term transitions to 100% renewable energy. Other smaller electric utilities are testing renewable generation, and decoupling their profitability from electron-only sales into energy efficiency and other services. The oil & gas sector is increasing their involvement in renewables with recent announcements from Shell, Total, and Statoil, as well as a number of smaller firms that service the large multinationals.
However, with the exception of Total and few others in the electric utility industry, diversification capital investment budgets are small, generally under 0.6% of the total. And there is always the lingering suspicion, based on past pronouncements, that these latest diversification efforts are merely green-washing to counter urgent climate change action calls.
To be sure, diversification from a core competency is not simple for any company who has shareholders to satisfy on a quarterly basis. Patience for executing a diversification strategy is not something the investment community is good at, as witnessed by the removal of electric utility visionary David Crane from the electric utility NRG last year. And E.ON in Germany is an example of the difficulty in maintaining profitability while crossing the diversification chasm.
But with the continual and rapid lowering of the installed cost and levelized cost of energy, as well as plunging cost reductions in the energy storage sector, diversification into solar and wind and other renewables can be achieved with a well timed diversification plan and lower risk. There’s money to be made, jobs to be created and the urgent health of our planet to consider. How about now?
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) held its twenty first Conference of Partners (COP21) in Paris in 2015.
The conference negotiated the Paris Agreement, a global agreement on the reduction of climate change, the text of which represented a consensus of the representatives of the 196 parties attending it. The agreement will enter into force when joined by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions. On 22 April 2016 (Earth Day), 174 countries signed the agreement in New York, and began adopting it within their own legal systems.
The key result was an agreement to set a goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (°C) compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century.
This is all a very large challenge given the many sectors, beyond energy, contribute massively to climate change.
The great visualization below from the UN explains why the 2 degrees Celsius target is so important to stabilizing the earth’s atmosphere. (click on the play button in middle of graphic)
According to the IPCC (get to know more about IPCC), global warming of more than 2°C would have serious consequences, such as an increase in the number of extreme climate events. In Copenhagen in 2009, the countries stated their determination to limit global warming to 2°C between now and 2100. To reach this target, climate experts estimate that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be reduced by 40-70% by 2050 and that carbon neutrality (zero emissions) needs to be reached by the end of the century at the latest.
It’s fitting for me to return to blogging right after the release of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Outlook 2016 report. While I have always been an optimist that solar energy and renewables generally would eventually disrupt the centralized fossil fuel paradigm, this report exceeds even my optimistic thinking.
What is astounding about this report is that as solar and wind continue their steep cost declines to the point that even with coal and natural gas generation costs at historic lows, renewables are, and will continue to be, the preferred choice for new generation through 2040. In fact, the report states that zero emissions renewables will be over 60% of all new electricity generation by 2040, requiring $7.8 trillion investment (coal & gas will require $2.1 trillion). Natural gas has always been assumed to be a long term “bridge fuel” until renewables, storage and intelligent grid infrastructure could mature but that maturation is happening significantly faster than most analysts thought.
In addition, capacity factors are forecast to go through the roof for renewables as better technology, supply forecasting and
smart grid technology enable large jumps in capacity gains. This makes renewables much more desirable. Once the generation asset construction is completed, the marginal cost of the electricity it produces is essentially zero, while coal and gas have ongoing cost-variable fuel requirements for every watt produced. The choice is clear for the power utilities, IPP’s and commercial and industrial customers like Amazon, Apple and others even before factoring in the environmental benefits.
The report also forecasts Energy Storage becoming ubiquitous by 2040, with total behind-the-meter energy storage to rise dramatically from around 400MWh today to nearly 760GWh in 2040, representing a $250b market. PV+ storage, in the near and future terms, will be come the norm, not the exception.
On a more sobering note, coal use in India other countries will still be expanding, which in turn means that the world will exceed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘safe’ limit of 450 parts per million and the 2⁰C scenario agreed upon at COP 21 in 2015. While China (long demonized as the mega coal offender) is on a massive and rapid transition from coal to renewables, India has a long way to go. As a result, in addition to the $7.8 trillion capital investment for renewables through 2040, another $5.3 trillion investment in zero-carbon power by 2040 is required to prevent CO2 in the atmosphere rising above the COP 21 goal.
Lazard Ltd. puts out their annual Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) Analysis in Q4 every year, and I always greet it as a worthy piece of market research. Others, however, shower it with critique – some dubious, some accurate. (2014 post on this research here) While there are significant variables that affect the effort to quantify LCOE in one metric, this annual research is quite accurate and appropriately footnoted regarding these variables.
LCOE is defined as all the expense line items of a PV system’s installed cost + the total lifetime cost of the PV system divided by the total amount of energy output in kW hours that the system will put out over its lifetime. (A simple LCOE calculator here).
The latest Lazard research reveals what others including Deutche Bank, UBS, NREL and other analysts have been saying over the past year: utility-scale solar and wind power are increasingly cost-competitive on the wholesale level with traditional energy sources such as coal and nuclear, even in the absence of subsidies. At the retail level cost comparison, its widely competitive unsubsidized with highly subsidized traditional fossil fuel generated power.
The research also shows the all-important progress of energy storage cost reduction and the large benefits of coupling storage with PV to reduce the demand charges and/or provide instant grid frequency stabilization. (A great list of all the energy storage benefits can be found here.)
As a long-term participant in the utility and solar energy industries, it’s breathtaking to see the progress of the PV industry and its market penetration in the last 3 years. The industry has continually had to compete with highly subsidized fossil fuel generation while consistently improving LCOE through hardware, process and regulatory efforts to name a few. Significantly, all of this market penetration progress was achieved with 10X less in government subsidies than traditional fossil fuel-based industries. And with current cost reduction roadmaps throughout the supply chain showing continual lowering of cost’s, the future looks bright.
I wrote previously that The Club of Rome sponsored a report by MIT in 1972 titled “The Limits to Growth”, which found that earth’s non-renewable resources can support a global population of about 6 billion. The focus was on tracking and modeling the extent to which population, food production, depletion of resources, pollution, and industrialization would cause declines in many aspects of human civilization including economic growth, population numbers, and quality of life.
It did not consider the multiplying affects of climate change.
The authors were predicting a significant change to global humanity in the 2015 – 2020 timeframe. Forty years later the their forecast is lining up with the current ecological overshoot problems we are facing as a result of 7 billion voracious human inhabitants. I like the term “Peak People” to define this situation.
An interesting and illustrative symptom of Peak People is the worldwide shortage of sand. Who would have guessed this was a problem? (interesting movie on the topic, and a great U.N. piece here.) Sand suitable for cement production, hydraulic fracking and other construction is now becoming scarce. In many developing countries the problem is so severe that sand is being removed from beaches and coastal waters to support infrastructure development rather than to support tourist and pleasure industries. (with enormous environmental and habitat damage) In Dubai, sand from Australia was barged in to provide the correct type of beach-quality sand, as the plentiful desert sand found there is lightweight silt that blows away with the slightest breeze and is not easily usable for cement construction, let alone beaches.
Various types of sand were generally thought to be in large supply. Silica, which is used to manufacture silicon for semiconductor chips and crystalline solar cells, was thought be in inexhaustible supply, as its root element, Silicon, is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust. But large scale damming of rivers blocked the natural flow of silica-rich sand from the mountainous regions, and when combined with growing global industrial demand, has resulted in the drying up of accessible low cost supply. Consequently there is a mining boom in full gear globally to strip the last known silica sand quarries as well as hoard construction quality sand. A good example of the latter is the boom taking place in the upper Midwest United States, where most of the output is supporting the oil and gas industry fracking boom.
While I have always viewed Peak People from the agricultural, water, climate change, and biodiversity lens, the depletion of sand due to human activity was more than surprising and it’s another validation of The Limits to Growth thesis on resource depletion. Up until recently, technology has delayed the impact of over population especially in agriculture but I believe it will require hyper-accelerated innovation and new classes of material science to continue the current “business as usual approach“.
How do we transition to a sustainable and stable civilization that leverages the limitless human creative and technological capacity that is responsible for the quality of life we currently enjoy?
Important and great NASA modeling and visualizations using data from around the globe and from space observations.
Click here to view CO2 visualization video: A Year in the Life of Earth’s CO2
View temperature visualization video: Earth Surface Temperature from 1950 – 2013
We have all the science proficiency we need from exceptional government science sources to validate anthropogenic global warming, and yet our political leaders will dispute scientific knowledge when it does not line up with their narrow focus and constituents. Worse, the knowledge is often corrupted with junk science which nonpartisan, science based organizations like the Union Concerned Scientists work diligently to debunk and correct.
Please consider supporting their great work by becoming a member on the UCS site: www.ucsusa.org
For the first time in its 100-year history, the electric utility industry in the US did not have an uptick in electron sales exiting a recession. This is due to a number of factors including the strong emphasis on energy efficiency programs over the last 10 years, growth in distributed generation behind the utility meter, demographic shifts with movement to warmer climates and an economic downward reset after the large bubble burst which led to the great recession.
Combined with growth in renewable energy and independent power producers (IPP), this lack of growth has caused extensive discussionand consternation about the future of the electric utilities and their ongoing viability as going concerns in the energy industry and on Wall Street.
Recent discourse centers on the rise of residential PV due to the well-documented reduction in cost of PV systems over the last 6 years. PV deployed on homes now competes with retail priced energy from the electric utilities, which is now at cost parity in many locations. With the emerging development of PV combined with energy storage using batteries, the conversation is about a utility death spiral that goes like this: as more and more homes deploy solar with batteries, the electric utility loses more and more revenue which requires them to raise rates which then encourages more adoption of residential PV by home owners.
While there is no question that the electric utility industry is going through a large and painful transition to a new and yet to be defined business model as a result of the aforementioned issues, it would seem highly unlikely the electric utility business model would go away completely as many pundits would suggest, for the following reasons:
1) They possess a regulatory-granted monopoly which evolved to serve a nationwide public need for robust and reliable electric service;
2) They have low cost of capital in an industry that requires large capital expenditures;
3) They operate at unprecedented scale with corresponding efficiencies;
4) They own and operate the grid infrastructure.
There is no question that the utility industry has historically been slow to react or plan for the current disruptions in the energy industry. They also have a dismal record when entering new markets and seeming unwilling to accept new or disruptive technology trends and business models. With the exception of a few forward-looking utilities such as NRG, the power utility providers of today have been non-reactive to very large and visible recent trends that are a direct threat to their electron sales-only model. In many instances they have been hostile and retaliatory. But the reasons above provide a very strong platform for a competitive advantage that is unlikely to see the electric utility demise anytime soon especially now that they are waking up to not only the threats but the opportunities.
Many high profile participants and pundits have been predicting that renewable energy will be larger than 50% of total generation in the future and that all clean energy generation will come from the non-utility players. While I have very little doubt that renewables and in particular solar energy will be a large piece of the generation pie (as smart grid technology and grid improvements are implemented), the electric utilities with their regulatory monopoly, cost of capital advantages, and ability to implement at enormous scale will own a much larger share of the clean energy generation than most observers realize.
Utility adoption of renewables, energy efficiency, energy storage, distributed automation grids and other new business models are beholden to the same issues that IPP’s and other non-electric utility energy market participants face – the transition away from a 100-year old, one direction, aging grid infrastructure to a smarter, automated, bi-directional grid that is hyper-efficient. This will take time but I give the advantage to the larger electric utilities who are uniquely positioned to both steer the smart grid design and deployment and then efficiently phase their participation in the new energy economy accordingly.
As I have written previously, the concept of bankable solar products and services is complex and contradictory and has many interpretations depending on where you sit in the industry. When looking at the bankability of modules (aka panels) the situation is quite confusing.
In the PV industry, there is continual chatter about which module providers are tier one or tier two, and who is on various analysts’ bankable lists and who isn’t. The general metrics involve the business health of the manufacturer, the technology they employ, the manufacturing process, vertical integration and being in business for more than 5 years. Many of the tier 1 companies are relatively new, stand alone companies with weak balance sheets, so they don’t have the financial health to meet bankability standards and yet they are considered bankable. This contradiction was illustrated in spectacular fashion over the last 2 years with the bankruptcy of the largest PV module manufacturer in the world, Suntech, and another large Asian company, LDK, among others. Both were publicly traded with high visibility on the NASDAQ and had been considered highly bankable.
With this history, it’s hard to understand how module providers with weak business fundamentals continue to show up on various analyst and industry tier one vendor lists. Many times the answer to this contradiction is that the module company has supplied a couple of large projects with the project financed non-recourse by well-known capital providers. The analysts are relying on the finance entity and the finance entity is relying on the analyst, and then it would seem that herd mentality takes over.
From a technology standpoint, a crystalline PV module is a mature (40 year old), proven technology that desperately needs the kind of
manufacturing standards that are found in many other commodity product industries. Manufacturing and materials standards tied tightly to verification protocols would go a long way toward lowering the risk for long-term owners of PV systems. With adherence to standards and robust verification, business-side bankability becomes less of a pain point. Standards are paramount if the PV industry is going to continue its steep growth curve.
The crystalline PV manufacturing industry is maturing with the reentry and/or scale-up of diversified, large multi-national corporations’ PV programs. As a result, the secure bankable route has developing clarity with companies such as BYD, Hanwha, Hyundai, LG Electronics and other similar companies who can bring confidence to finance entities via large balance sheets, continual technology improvement and strong manufacturing heritage. Additionally, a few of the original large stand-alone crystalline module companies are becoming more stable again as growth has returned to the market, and their balance sheet burden due to manufacturing capacity over expansion in the past few years is diminishing.
In my next post I will discuss PV thin-film version 3.0 bankability. Thin-film CIS and CdTe is rapidly achieving performance parity or better when compared with crystalline poly modules, and there is potential for disruption to the crystalline vendors in particular application segments.
A previous poston derates resulted in a few follow up emails where these 2 terms—power and energy—were used interchangeably by the writers, which is a common occurrence despite significant differences in meaning. Understanding this terminology makes understanding various solar energy concepts easier to grasp, especially when talking about derates and how they are calculated.
Power and Energy are two distinctly different but interrelated electrical principles:
- ENERGY is the AMOUNT of power produced or used and is denoted in Watt-hours (Wh) or Kilowatt-hours (kWh)
- POWER is the RATE that energy is produced or used and is denoted in Watts (W) or Kilowatts (kW)
For example, solar energy module output is denoted in Watts – the rate of POWER they will produce under Standard Test Conditions (i.e. a 220W rated module). Installed PV systems have a POWER production output rating in Watts, but they are also typically discussed in kWh’s – the amount of ENERGY the system will produce over a period of time. Here is an example from a SunEdison media article describing the completion of a 2.2MW system at the University of Maryland: “. . . . the 2.2MW (MW = Megawatt) rated farm will generate more than 3.3-million kWh of energy in the first year and over 61-million kWh over the next two decades.”
Rather than energy production, a simpler way to look at this terminology is from an energy use standpoint. Utilities and their customers are all looking for ways to reduce utility bills. Emphasis is put on lower POWER appliances and the amount of time we use them. ENERGY (the kWh charge on your bill) is calculated as follows:
Energy = Time X Power
An uncomplicated example is a 100 watt light bulb. One hundred watts is the POWER (rate) the bulb uses. If you leave that bulb on for 24 hours it consumes 2,400 watt-hours of ENERGY or 2.4 kilowatts.
Lowering of either or both the POWER and time, will lead to reductions in ENERGY costs. The converse is true of solar systems – increase the POWER rating of the system and multiply by a given time frame and the amount of ENERGY output will increase.
After a recent presentation during a government renewable energy conference, I received a number of questions regarding why there was such a large difference between crystalline solar cell efficiency and a fully packaged and weatherized module. For instance, a 19% efficient crystalline photovoltaic (PV) cell, when packaged into a module with 60 cells results in a panel that is roughly 15% – 16.5% efficient depending on the manufacturer. According to the NREL, the cell to module loss is in the 11% – 17% range for most manufacturers.
The losses are a result of three distinct issues. 1) physical layout of the PV module and framing, 2) optical loss from encapsulation and glass, and 3) series loss from cell connections
The physical layout of the module affects the efficiency by having a large inactive area, meaning the space between cells, the edge of the module and width of the frame. The larger the inactive area of a module, the lower the efficiency.
The optical loss is a less straightforward problem and has a number of challenges resulting from the top glass and the encapsulation film.
The top glass needs to have low reflectivity so the maximum amount of solar radiation reaches the solar cells. The glass choice has to balance a number of factors including thickness, to meet hailstorm impact rating; tempering, to meet safety standards; and optical clarity, for maximum radiation absorption by the PV cells. A good, if technical overview here.
The EVA encapsulation film used to protect modules from moisture and the elements require a similar balancing act. These include letting the maximum amount of solar radiation reach the cells, while maintaining a near-100% moisture barrier with no significant expansion or contraction of the film over the 20+ year life of the module. And it needs to do this without creating an overheating of the module in hot climates. A module with a high temperature coefficient (loss due to heat) is the
enemy of high solar power production.
The series loss is due to series resistance in the cells themselves and in the cell and string connectors. The cells themselves are made from silicon, which not as good as metal for transporting current, and its internal resistance is fairly high, resulting in current loss. This loss is compounded by copper ribbon (silver looking ribbon between cells) interconnection loss, and the cells’ series configuration in the module. While cells are put in series to meet a target voltage for a given module, this results in loss from the large number of connections.
There are a number of efforts underway to reduce this cell-to-module loss to 5% or less with novel approaches in all 3 areas. While the reduction to 5% has been achieved in national laboratories in an academic environment, the challenge always is to translate these new methods into a highly efficient manufacturing production line where throughput speed and yield (sellable product) are not compromised.