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Bill Gates: How to Fund Energy Miracles

— August 21, 2014

Through the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has taken a stand on improving global public health, investing in programs focused on basic advances such as developing a next-generation condom to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, creating a standalone vaccine cooler for communities that are stranded without electricity, and inventing a toilet that can solve sanitation issues by pyrolizing human refuse into something more usable (using solar power, no less).  Meanwhile, Gates is also challenging U.S. energy policymakers and their funding practices for energy R&D.

In a June blog post titled “We Need Energy Miracles,” Gates called for the United States to look hard at R&D allocations, potentially redirecting funding from the military and healthcare sectors toward energy research and pilot projects (presumably renewable ones).  Given the imperfections (intermittency, inefficiency) of existing renewable resources, Gates argued, this research is necessary to establish an equitable energy mix, both in the United States and abroad – especially in developing nations that must increase energy use to grow their economies.  He stressed the need to invest in projects that are “high risk/high reward,” in order to achieve the sort of miracle needed to support growing demand and limit climate change.

Memo to Bill: DIY

Responding to Gates, Solar Wakeup (republished by Clean Technica) noted that Gates has been active in investing in energy storage with Aquion and LightSail but challenged him to be the major financer of the next energy miracle.  Why? Simply put, it’s unreasonable to expect increased investments (private and public) in risk-agnostic energy R&D, and if one of the world’s richest men wants it to get done, he should do it himself.  Payoffs are slow for energy projects, the uncertainties many: macroeconomic conditions, volatile energy and resource markets, policy reversals, infrastructure needs, and high operating and maintenance costs.  Solar Wakeup’s challenge is based in reality.

But the cleantech and renewable energy sectors are already substantial in countries all over the world, and growth is accelerating.  China has recognized this.  In recent years, China’s public and private investments in cleantech, both at home and abroad, have explodedReports by Azure International explore the drivers for increasing investment in cleantech in China.  Risk is inherent in investors’ strategies for expanding their energy-related portfolios, and intangible values, such as technological and innovative prestige, sometimes compete with return on investment (ROI).  Encouraged by the government, Chinese investors have become increasingly willing to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects, such as smart grid and smart buildings.

The topic of investment in renewables and smart grid is thorny, with many caveats and nuances that tend to shape the potential for ROI – but it’s safe to say that with China’s example, maybe Gates has a point in his stance against being risk-averse toward investing in potential energy miracles.

 

With Thread, Nest Targets Wireless Energy Devices

— July 29, 2014

It’s been a busy year for Palo Alto, California-based Nest.  In January, the firm was acquired by Google.  Last month, Nest announced that it would acquire Dropcam, which offers a Wi-Fi-enabled portable camera that pairs with a cloud-based video monitoring service.  Days later, the company launched the Nest Developer Program, enrolling early partners Mercedes-Benz, LIFX, Whirlpool, and Jawbone.

More recently, Nest introduced Thread, a personal area network (PAN) specification for device interconnectivity.  This specification will be regulated by the Thread Group, of which Chris Boross of Nest will be president.  Competing with other wireless specifications such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth Smart, Thread is a low-power mesh-based solution that follows the IEEE 802.15.4 and IPv6 standards.

Much of the coverage (see here and here) of the Nest/Thread announcement has asked whether we really need another standard for networking in-home devices.  Thread, though, has some advantages over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  Wi-Fi uses a lot of power, which makes it impractical for low-power battery-operated devices such as thermostats or smoke alarms.  Bluetooth Smart is already installed in most smartphones and is low power, but its range is limited.  ZigBee has encountered problems with vendors making proprietary adjustments to the specification, making it impossible or very difficult for devices to interoperate.

Looking for Options

The burgeoning number of entrants in the networking protocol space signals increased competition and perceived high value to be found in the market for connected devices.  For retail consumers, this means better products at lower prices that are easier to integrate into their connected life schema.

Unfortunately, for utilities looking to integrate energy-saving devices such as smart thermostats and lighting controls into their energy efficiency and demand response programs, multiple network protocol alliances present problems.  In order to implement these programs, utilities are subject to numerous technology restrictions and standards from state public utilities commissions or regional independent system operators.  OpenADR and ZigBee Smart Energy Profile are among these standards, and the further that protocol competition pushes the retail device market away from these, the narrower the options will be for utilities.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has engaged in extensive research on different models of smart thermostats, hoping to identify those that are easy to use and will yield a stronger customer experience (as well as meet energy efficiency and curtailment goals).  However, any model that the utility looks at is subject to a number of technical requirements.  Since these are set by regulating bodies, it’s unlikely that requirements will remain in stride with developments driven in the commercial market.  As it is, the economics of utility deployments are not always favorable to vendors, particularly in programs where more than one thermostat option is offered and sales volumes are uncertain.  It remains to be seen whether vendors will offer devices and platforms that can be used by the organizations that will require them to meet energy efficiency directives and load curtailment needs.

 

With Developer Program, Nest Raises Questions

— June 30, 2014

This week Nest Labs introduced its Nest Developer Program, which integrates smart devices for both home and lifestyle uses.  The results suggest that energy efficiency is going mainstream without most people even knowing it.  This program, which has already enrolled partners such as Mercedes-Benz, Whirlpool, Jawbone (UP24 maker), LIFX, and Logitech, allows communications between smart devices in order to influence and optimize their overall functionality.  For example, the Nest thermostat could receive better information on a homeowner’s sleep/wake cycle, whereabouts, and habits from data transmitted through the UP24 bracelet.  It can then incorporate this information into its intelligent algorithm for determining household heating and cooling patterns.

But that’s only a small part of it.  Nest has already taken a stab at utility-scale demand response (DR) through its Rush Hour Rewards program for climate control, but the program can now enroll other energy-heavy appliances, such as washers and dryers, in the same DR events.  Following device trends in electric vehicle charging, where smart communications are increasingly integrated and relied upon, it’s fair to speculate that this type of developer program has the potential to solve a lot of the problems utilities are currently facing as growing renewables penetration causes instability along the distribution grid.

Privacy Pushback

The potential to optimize energy usage will grow significantly as cloud-based home energy management advances technologically and adds functionality.  But the market is likely to experience setbacks as privacy issues are raised.  Nest and Apple have both created privacy guidelines for data as it is communicated between devices, but protection and control over this information will still be an issue for customers.  As public utilities incorporate software platforms for managing connected devices, it’s unlikely they will be able to avoid the type of pushback (seen here, here, and here) that has hindered the deployment of smart meters.

Another question inherent in this move to a connected life is how the interaction between devices and software will take shape.  Nest and its associated partners have built value propositions off the premium quality of their networked thermostats and the software that controls them.  But competitors like EcoFactor and EnergyHub build value off the ability be flexible in the devices they connect to – asking if premium devices are really all that necessary to realize the same gains.  When you involve multiple customer demographics (with different levels of income and values) and budget-conscious public organizations, different needs and limitations will require different solutions.  There’s no denying that people become emotionally connected to well-made, well-designed hardware – and they will pay a premium for it.  But, as the cellphone industry has shown, there are limitations in terms of hardware development.  So how long will the novelty last for thermostats?

 

German Utilities Struggle in Renewables World

— June 24, 2014

Germany’s energy policies have promoted strong growth for the country’s renewables industry and have served as guidelines for countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada in adopting similar laws.  They have not, however, benefited German utilities.

Power generators in Germany are struggling as the combination of renewables and other Energiewende policies continue to shift the economics of the country’s power market.  The result has been frightening drops in per-unit wholesale electricity prices, the proliferation of low-cost/high CO2-emitting generation resources, and desperate calls from utilities for policy reform to preserve capacity markets that will provide revenue stability.

Germany allows renewables to take priority on the grid.  Because its energy market is deregulated, compensation for energy resources is set by supply and demand dynamics and marginal costs per unit.   As a result, renewables flood the grid when they are available, which is mostly during daytime peak periods (when prices used to be the highest).  But because the marginal cost per unit of renewable electricity is essentially zero, even when fossil fuel-powered resources are utilized, they are compensated at a much lower price than they have been in the past.  That’s bad news for German utilities (which are surprisingly underinvested in renewables), as they have traditionally made most of their income by generating electricity.  E.ON reported revenue losses of 14% compared to 2012, while RWE reported a loss for the first time in 50 years.

The Brown Stuff

One of the most noticeable consequences of this is the growth in coal consumption.  Due to the intermittency of renewables, utilities are required to ensure sufficient backup power at all times.  Since they are not guaranteed the ability to actually sell these reserves – and face low marginal profits when they do – they choose the most inexpensive generating option – usually coal.  Currently, lignite (brown coal) provides about 25% of Germany’s energy supply, a figure that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is growing steadily year-over-year.  This is unfortunate because it is the dirtiest fuel source in terms of CO2 emissions.  Furthermore, plants take upwards of 6 to 8 hours to ramp up, which means that it is more cost-effective to keep them running at all times.  But utilities claim that they must increase their use of lignite in order to maintain financial stability.

So what’s the answer? After so much push for renewables and dedication to reforming the energy industry in Germany, it doesn’t make sense for Chancellor Angela Merkel and German regulators to return to the status quo ante.  Grasping the futility of seeking to reverse the Energiewende, utilities have proposed a number of market reforms.  In particular, following France, there has been an increase in lobbying for the establishment of capacity markets that would guarantee utilities a source of income regardless of whether they actually sold their resources.

High Anxiety

Proponents argue that capacity markets would enable utilities to not only use cleaner fossil fuel sources, but also increase their investments in efficiency-related grid projects.  And this makes sense; the Energiewende has proposed grid investments to decrease overall transmission and distribution losses and extend the reach of renewable resources (also promoting energy efficiency).  In addition, the extension of demand response technologies (something that could also proliferate if curtailment is allowed to be sold as capacity) could ease some of the problems surrounding intermittency and high CO2 emissions from spinning reserves.

With anxiety rising among both utilities and regulators as the energy business in Germany becomes more and more disparate, it seems important to take a close look at establishing market mechanisms that simultaneously promote renewables and allow utilities and grid operators to maintain financial and operating stability while developing new revenue streams based on energy efficiency.

 

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