Navigant Research Blog

Time-Based Rates: What Works, What Doesn’t

— June 30, 2015

A new interim study of time-based or time-of-use (TOU) electricity rate programs shows that certain approaches and technologies get better results than others and that utilities in the planning stages can learn some valuable lessons before they launch their own versions. For instance, the average peak demand reductions for customers on critical peak pricing (CPP) programs were nearly twice the amount (21%) compared with the average reduction among customers in critical peak rebate (CPR) programs (11%).

Opt-In or Opt-Out

The study also explored the process of enrolling customers in programs, employing either opt-in or opt-out approaches. The results showed that enrollment rates were much greater and peak demand reductions were generally lower with an opt-out approach, but retention rates were nearly the same (91% opt-out vs. 92% opt-in) for both. Given these results, there appears to be an overall cost-benefit advantage to opt-out approaches versus opt-in, though additional analysis is needed to validate and replicate this conclusion, the report authors noted.

In-Home Displays Make Little Difference

The use of in-home displays (IHDs) was also scrutinized, and results showed these devices made little difference to enrollment or retention rates. Moreover, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) found that its program offerings without IHDs were more cost-effective for the utility in all cases than those with IHDs. This has led SMUD officials to say they do not intend to offer IHDs in the future.

PCTs Show Better Results

The use of programmable communicating thermostats (PCTs) yielded generally better results than among customers that did not have this type of device. Peak demand reductions for CPP and CPR customers with PCTs (27% to 45%) were higher than among customers without a PCT (-1% to 37%). Results from Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) showed that rate offers for customers with PCTs were more cost-effective for the utility than for those without the device.

Besides SMUD and OG&E, the study involved eight other U.S. utilities that were part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) program: Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEIC), DTE Energy (DTE), Green Mountain Power (GMP), Lakeland Electric (LE), Marblehead Municipal Light Department (MMLD), Minnesota Power (MP), NV Energy (NVE), and Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC). The DOE plans to publish five more reports using data from these utilities in the coming months, with a final report expected in the first quarter of 2016.

Given the wide variety of options, designing effective time-based rate structures and processes can be a significant challenge for utility managers. What works for one utility’s customer base might not work for well for another. Yet, these interim results do provide some solid guidance, and with careful planning (noting what has and has not worked), a reasonably positive outcome is a likely result for both the utility and its participating customers.

 

Reliable Service Parts Critical to Autonomous Driving Future

— June 30, 2015

Thanks to advances in materials that increasingly avoid corrosion, modern engineering and manufacturing processes that improve build quality, and electronics that improve performance and efficiency, cars now last longer than ever. The average age of the more than 200 million cars on American roads today is nearly 11.5 years, and 20- to 30-year old machines are shockingly common. Despite how well-built vehicles have become, parts still eventually break or wear out and need replacement; this includes the sensors that control the vital systems in modern vehicles.

As cars become increasingly automated, the number of sensors has grown dramatically, and they need to be functional and reliable. This potentially poses a significant problem for vehicles after they are out of warranty or out of production. My friend Richard Truett, engineering reporter for trade publication Automotive News, buys older vehicles, repairs or restores them, drives them, and sells them before moving on to the next vehicle.

While most of Richard’s vehicles are older British sports cars that predate the electronic age, he recently bought a 1988 Pontiac Fiero with relatively low mileage that was in need of his TLC. As Richard went through the car from the wheels up, he attacked the engine control electronics that were keeping the car from running properly. In the process, he discovered issues that could pose serious problems for future automated vehicles. It’s actually not uncommon for people to manage to get around for months or years with the tell-tale “check engine light” illuminated, usually indicating some sort of sensor fault. For automated vehicles, that is less likely to be an option because of the dependence on sensors for basic functionality.

Lessons to Be Learned

Standard industry practice after a vehicle goes out of production is for automakers and suppliers to license the production of replacement service parts to third-party manufacturers. In many cases, these service part manufacturers will also reverse engineer the original parts and produce compatible replacements. What Richard discovered when trying to replace the oxygen sensors and spark plugs on his 27-year-old sports car was that compatibility and functionality were often not a sure thing. The electronic systems in the Fiero were comparatively primitive by 2015 standards, but brand-new components as basic as an oxygen sensor or throttle position sensor fail out of the box—that’s a bad sign, and these aren’t even safety-critical systems.

The sensors being used for automated driving systems are far more advanced, and the technology is evolving rapidly, so components are less likely to stay in production with the original manufacturer than they were 3 decades ago. It may not even be possible for third-party manufacturers to replicate the original parts, and if they do, they may not perform to the same standard, thus hampering the performance of safety-critical automated systems.

Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2030, 40% of new vehicles will have some sort of autonomous driving capability built in. Those vehicles will be totally dependent on sensors that must provide accurate and reliable information about the world around that vehicle in real-time. Before we become overly reliant on these systems to get us where we need to be on our daily rounds, manufacturers need to sort out solutions that will ensure a more robust and reliable stream of service parts. Perhaps this should even be part of the safety regulations that govern automated vehicles. There are still many fundamental questions to be answered before you can summon an autonomous Uber car from your wrist—and service parts is just one.

 

The Future of U.S. Solar Energy Companies – Part 1

— June 30, 2015

Note:  This blog is the first in a four-part series examining the evolution of U.S. solar companies.

There is good reason for the concern that the expiration of the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) will have a major (negative) impact on the U.S. solar PV market in 2017, and there is precedent. The on-again-off-again production tax credit for wind power enabled the U.S. market to surge to as high as 12 GW in a single year and then drop to 1 GW the following. In addition, when key solar incentives in Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic were removed or limited, similar reductions in deployment ensued.

However, the overall U.S. solar PV market, while expected to take a 60% hit in 2017, is projected to prove to be particularly resilient. New business models, international expansion, and continued cost reductions are expected to enable U.S. companies to compete in a post-30% ITC world.

In this four-part blog series, I will be taking stock of key trends in the U.S. solar PV industry that highlight the continued evolution of American solar PV companies and offer a glimpse of what to expect in the future.  Taken together, the key trends will provide a snapshot of what future U.S. solar and energy service companies are expected to look like. The blog topics will include financing, vertical integration, international expansion, microgrids, energy storage, and community solar. Two of these are covered below.

Financing

Marking one of the most important evolutions of the solar PV industry in the United States, in 2003, SunEdison pioneered a business model where the company would install, finance, own, operate, and maintain solar PV systems. This would enable customers to purchase the power from solar PV systems on their own roofs without putting any money down. SolarCity took this model to scale in the residential market, and now other companies, such as SunRun, Clean Power Finance, Vivint, SunPower, and Sungevity, are offering everything from leases, to power purchase agreements, to loans, in addition to direct sales. These financing schemes set the stage, in part, for the U.S. solar boom that reached 6.2 GW in 2014. This development is also representative of the way in which solar PV companies have adapted their business models to meet the needs of customers and increase investment in the sector as a whole.

Vertical Integration

Intense competition among hardware suppliers in particular has compressed margins and prompted companies to focus on more profitable downstream activities. SunEdison, for example, was one of the first to move toward vertical integration due to its 2009 acquisition by MEMC, a wafer manufacturer with a global presence and a deep balance sheet.

SolarCity has made strategic acquisitions including Silevo (modules) and ZepSolar (racking). SunRun, which started as a finance company, acquired an installer (RECSolar’s residential division), distribution company (AEE Solar), and mounting company (SnapNrack). Successful vertical integration has enabled solar companies to maximize cost reductions throughout the value chain–and also provide the best opportunity for sustained profitability, an elusive goal for solar component manufacturers and installers during a time of growing competition and market expansion.

In my next blog, I’ll take a look at the key trends of emerging markets and microgrids.

 

New Efforts Address EV Affordability

— June 29, 2015

Through the first 5 months of 2015, according to data from Hybridcars.com, plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales are down in the United States by 4% from 2014. This is due, in part, to the current price of gasoline being lower than the 2014 price by $0.89 cents per gallon (per the U.S. Energy Information Administration), as well as the drop off in sales of the Chevrolet Volt in anticipation of the updated model coming out soon. In fact, if the year-over-year Volt sales are ignored, the rest of the industry is actually slightly ahead of last year’s pace.

The higher upfront cost of PEVs is clearly one of the major hurdles to greater electric vehicle (EV) sales, along with greater consumer awareness of their benefits in reduced fuel cost, performance, and drivability. The higher price tag precludes many prospective buyers from considering a PEV, although several models are below the current average new car transaction price of $33,363, according to Edmunds.com.

Making PEVs more affordable would bring in EV buyers from a broader audience, as data from a recent Navigant Research survey of consumers in the United States indicates that the interest in PEVs is not limited to high-income families. Of the survey respondents who reported having an income between $25,000 and $50,000 annually, 15% said that they preferred their next vehicle purchase to be a PEV, which was higher than those with income of $50,000 to $150,000 annually (9%).

Incentives and Research

California is trying to make PEVs more appealing to lower-income families in areas where air quality is a concern. New programs for people living in the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District or South Coast Air Quality Management District provided incentives of up to $9,500 on a PEV purchase depending on the individual’s income level. While it won’t prompt a spike in nationwide sales, a successful program could encourage other regions to similarly target getting more PEVs into lower-income households.

The European Commission is also targeting lowering the cost of PEVs through three research projects. As reported by Automotive Fleet, the 3Ccar project is focusing on reducing the cost of the electronic components, which, along with the battery pack, are the primary contributors to the additional cost of PEVs. Greater volumes of PEV sales will lead to more competition in electronics, which will lower the cost and result in more sales.

Utilities are stepping up by creating programs to make EVs cheaper to operate and to make recharging easier. On June 8, the Edison Electric Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that will make utilities more active participants in reducing the cost of electric transportation and to build on the DOE’s goal of making EVs as affordable as a gasoline car by 2022. Greater utility involvement is critical to reducing EVs’ operational costs as well as providing the baseline charging infrastructure for consumer confidence that EVs can be recharged wherever drivers need to go in urban areas.

 

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