Navigant Research Blog

On the High Plains, Wind Industry Comes into View

— September 25, 2014

Most of us who study the utility industry know that utility-scale wind generation has been rapidly growing in many parts of the country, but I think we have chronically underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as an electric power generation resource and a totally clean and green contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) targets.

Driving cross-country from San Francisco to our cabin in Northern Wisconsin this summer on I-80, I was amazed by the number of large-scale wind farms we saw in every state.  Through Nebraska and Iowa, I kept seeing flatbed semi-trucks with 100-plus-foot wind generator blades heading west.  Other trucks had tower tubes and generator unit housings as well.  It was clear to me that something was really happening here.  As we crossed the state line into Iowa, we passed a rest area with a huge 148’ turbine blade mounted vertically to honor the wind industry.  As tall as a 15-story building, the blade was donated by Siemens.

I was also struck on the drive by the ubiquity of high-voltage transmission power lines, large-scale substations, and huge coal-fired generation plants on the horizon.  The utility-scale wind farms were a welcome diversion and a signal that the power generation and transmission system industry is moving on.

More on the Horizon

Later in July we headed back to the Bay Area, taking the northern route, following I-90 across western Minnesota and South Dakota.  Again, the prevalence of utility-scale wind farms was striking.  However, the landscape, crisscrossed with new high-voltage transmission lines, was also remarkable and signaled to me that utilities and investment firms (through companies like Berkshire Hathaway Energy) are doubling down on their $15 billion investment in wind generation and the transmission infrastructure needed to support our country’s electric capacity requirements as coal and nuclear generation resources are retired in the next few years.  Berkshire Hathaway Energy also has another $15 billion in reserve.

The following graphic produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows the wind energy potential across the nation.

Wind Energy Intensity, United States

(Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

You can see why utility-scale wind power is happening primarily between the Texas Panhandle and the borders of North Dakota.  In fact, Southwest Power Pool says that its major congestion problem is now in the Omaha to Kansas City to Texas Panhandle region, which explains why there are now double the high-voltage transmission lines going north and south as well as east and west at the Minnesota/South Dakota border at Sioux City.  Based on what I saw through our car window, I expect more investment in both utility-scale wind generation in the region and the high-voltage transmission systems necessary to deliver that energy to diverse population centers.


High-Voltage Transmission System Landscape Undergoes Dramatic Change

— June 24, 2014

The high-voltage transmission system (HVTS) landscape can only be described as vast and evolving, as the forces of modernization, urbanization, and industrial expansion are transforming the power grids in Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.  In my forthcoming report, High-Voltage Transmission Systems, I explain why each of these regions represents a tremendous opportunity for the seven major HVTS technologies and why the market is expected to grow strongly.  These HVTS technologies include:

  • High-voltage direct current (HVDC) systems
  • High-voltage alternating current (HVAC) systems
  • Submarine and superconducting cables
  • Flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) solutions
  • Asset management and condition monitoring (AMCM) systems
  • Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems
  • Substation automation (SA) systems

Both Europe and North America are clearly more mature markets.  Aging infrastructure and the adoption of utility-scale wind and solar generation will drive the reconfiguration of the HVTS network in those regions, likely creating many new opportunities.

Tectonic Shifts

The increasing investment from the private sector is exemplified by Berkshire Hathaway’s rebranding of MidAmerican Energy Holding Co. as Berkshire Hathaway Energy.  The Electricity Transmission Texas (ETT) partnership, which combines Berkshire Hathaway Energy and transmission system operator American Electric Power, demonstrates the foresight needed to invest in these large-scale infrastructure projects and points to financial markets seeing long-term opportunity in the next generation of the HVTS network.

The HVTS market has a history of epic mergers, such as Alstom and Schneider Electric acquiring parts of Areva and General Electric’s (GE’s) takeover of Alstom, that point to a shifting landscape of HVTS players.   From a technological standpoint, we are seeing the beginning of a new era where the Internet of Things (IoT) hits the HVTS market full force with inexpensive, easy-to-install wireless and remote sensors and cloud-based computing resources that use complex analytics and machine-learning algorithms to manage all aspects of the HVTS.  Indeed, the HVTS roadmap will be an interesting and profitable journey over the next decade and beyond.


With Alstom Bid, GE Steps Up T&D Competition

— April 30, 2014

The news that General Electric’s (GE’s) $13 billion bid to acquire Alstom SA has been accepted by Alstom’s board – coupled with Siemens AG’s announcement that they are considering a counterbid  – represents a clash of titans in the global marketplace for electricity generation and transmission and distribution (T&D).  For the last decade, that market has been led by three companies: ABB, Alstom, and Siemens.  GE, a huge global corporation with multiple business lines across finance, healthcare, and electric T&D, has focused its T&D business primarily on generation, digital energy software solutions, and some high-voltage system components, such as series compensation (SC) devices used to correct voltage loss and other instabilities on the electric transmission grid.

In 2012, GE announced a joint venture partnership and equity position in XD Group, a Chinese heavy industrial manufacturer that sells a full range of T&D equipment, substations, transformers, and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines.  The deal not only opened up the booming Chinese T&D market to GE, but also allowed the company to white-label XD’s T&D system equipment for resale in other regions.  In my discussions with the Big 3 (ABB, Alstom, and Siemens) vendors at the recent Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) T&D systems trade show in Chicago, they mentioned that GE has become a significant competitor, signaling that the market structure has now morphed into a Big 4.

Mind the Gaps

However, I also saw that there are significant gaps in GE’s technical product lines and global manufacturing and installation capabilities, which need to be filled.  For example, flexible alternating current transmission systems (FACTS) solutions for voltage drop and power quality on transmission lines represent a $4 billion dollar market that continues to grow annually.  GE has traditionally provided SC solutions, but not the faster-responding static VAR compensator (SVC) and static synchronous compensator (STATCOM) solutions that are now being adopted as the aging transmission grid is being upgraded.  The Alstom acquisition is the perfect solution for filling that gap, as Alstom SA has manufacturing, design, and installation capabilities for SVCs and STATCOMs in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.  A broader discussion of this market and the FACTS technologies can be found in Navigant Research’s recent report, Flexible AC Transmission Systems.

At the time of this writing, it appears that the GE offer will be approved by the French government, and that Siemens is preparing a counteroffer.  ABB’s CEO has stated that his company will not enter this fray, but I am certain that ABB’s internal analysts are running the numbers and assessing the opportunity.  In this ongoing clash, the Big 4 all have a long-standing history of growth through acquisition.   However this works out, we can expect the market to sooner or later be whittled down to the Big 3 again.  These developments will definitely add color to my upcoming report on high-voltage transmission systems, which will be released later in 2Q.  Stay tuned.


The FACTS about Distributed Wind and Renewable Generation

— March 4, 2014

Since the mid-1990s, during my annual pilgrimage to DistribuTECH, I’ve always picked up a new emerging trend or a newly released technology.  This year’s show in San Antonio, Texas was no different.  I went to Texas to learn more about flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) technologies and had the opportunity to talk to many of the major vendors and some interesting new companies.  My focus started with traditional FACTS technologies (i.e., series compensation [SCs], static VAR compensators [SVCs], and static synchronous compensators [STATCOMs]).  These are almost always complex engineered systems designed to correct voltage drops in long-distance, high-voltage AC lines to perform power factor correction in areas where generation stations have been retired.

Smaller-scale SVC and STATCOM technologies were typically used to correct voltage sag, power factor, and flicker at large industrial sites such as steel mills, large-scale mining, crushers, pumps, and other inductive loads.  At DistribuTECH, vendors like S&C Electric, ABB, and AMSC talked about the use of D-SVCs and D-STATCOMs to stabilize the megawatts produced by distributed renewable sources on the edge of the grid.  These new, downsized versions of transmission grid-scale SVC and STATCOM technologies are now being modularized in familiar 8’ x 40’ containers that can be delivered quickly for any application, sometimes coupled with modular battery storage, to smooth out the intermittency of distributed renewables.

Small and Scattered

This move to smaller-scale distributed FACTS solutions has other implications as well: they can be added quickly to both transmission and distribution substations, with minimal space requirements. They can also be deployed near the edge of the grid at distribution substations or even on local feeders where renewables and electric vehicle charging installations are stressing the local grid in ways that were not imagined when the distribution grid was originally installed.  Startup companies like Varentec Inc. are now introducing pole-mounted mini-FACTS systems.  These systems are wired into the transformer with wireless communications, enabling edge-of-grid corrections in near real-time, far beyond the local centrally controlled substation.

When I started my latest research on FACTS technologies, I imagined that they would be limited to the big iron at thousands of high-voltage transmission system substations where SC, SVC, and STATCOM technologies have been traditionally used.  It was eye-opening to see the emergence of FACTS technologies deployed on the distribution-level grid, where they are opening significant new markets for both traditional and emerging FACTS vendors.  Transmission system designs and technologies are covered in detail in Navigant Research’s report, High-Voltage Direct Current Transmission Systems.  In addition, recent Navigant Research reports, such as Emerging Wind Markets Assessment and Distributed Solar Energy Generation, cover the rapid adoption of distributed renewables in all regions of the world.  Over the next year, our Smart Utilities team will release a series of in-depth reports on the high-voltage transmission grid, starting with my upcoming report, Flexible AC Transmission Systems, which is expected to be released in 2Q 2014.


Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date


Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Energy Storage, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Smart Grid Practice, Smart Transportation Practice, Utility Innovations

By Author

{"userID":"","pageName":"James McCray","path":"\/author\/jmccray","date":"10\/1\/2014"}