Archive for the ‘Electric Utilities & Solar’ Category

The Golden Age of Natural Gas Cancelled?

bnefIt’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

60% Zero Emission Generation by 2040

60% Zero Emission Generation by 2040

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.

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Lazard 2014 LCOE Research Report

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).

Lazard LCOE Chart from 2014 Research

Lazard LCOE Chart from 2014 Research

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.

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Electric Utility Extincton or Evolution?

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.

Solar Energy, utility Meter

A direct connection to the customer

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.

Solar energy, utility monopoly

Monopoly with significant barriers to entry.

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.

Solar PV, bankability

Utility Duke Energy owned North Carolina project

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.

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Creating Climate Wealth, Unlocking the Impact Economy

Everything you need to know about attracting mainstream capital to clean energy solutions.

A great read by Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison, innovator of the solar power purchase agreement model and former CEO of the Carbon War Room. With real world examples in many energy related industries, Jigar outlines how entrepreneurs and investors can unlock the enormous potential that climate change represents. And how this can be done utilizing existing, commercial off-the-shelf technologies combined with new and innovative business models.

A how to on financing your Climate Change Solution

A how-to on financing your Climate Change Solution

According to the International Energy Agency, $10 trillion can be invested profitably—today—in the world’s existing technologies, making Jigar’s plan of 100,000 companies each generating $100 million in sales a reality in catalyzing a new economy in the process.

A quote from the book that sums a large issue facing the solar industry, ““The utilities are playing this wrong, saying you’re with us or against us. It’s not the solar industry that’s the problem — it’s their refusal to recognize the benefits of new technologies.” I remember Jigar telling me years ago that the utilities where in trouble as distributed generation plants like solar are going to put an enormous pressure on them in the very near future. I was skeptical that the utility monopoly would be in trouble anytime soon.

Fast forward today and the writing is on the wall. With the exception of few forward thinking utilities, the majority are fighting back instead of embracing distributed generation and morphing their models to this new technological and business model. But this makes sense as the electric utilities have made large capital infrastructure and business investments with long amortization horizons and would of course fight for their profitability. Government regulators and the utility industry need to work on a coordinated and long road map fashion to transition to the rapidly evolving distributed generation model.Utility business model innovation can’t happen in a vacuum or without government guidance as its always been highly regulated contrary to the free market fundamentalist’s claims.

 

 

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