Navigant Research Blog

Nature’s Role in Renewable Energy Innovation

— July 6, 2016

BiofuelHuman innovation has led to some astounding advances throughout history. We now live in a world that past generations couldn’t possibly imagine. One of the primary drivers of this increase in global development comes from the use of fossil fuels. While fossil fuels are responsible in part for the rapid rise in standard of living that many of us experience, the continued reliance on these resources has led to issues of environmental pollution and scarcity among others. While renewable energy technologies have emerged to help alleviate some of this dependence, issues with regards to efficiency continue to hinder the industry and its technologies from reaching their true commercial potential.

One of the more intriguing fields of study attempting to improve some of these efficiency levels is biomimicry. Biomimicry refers to the imitation of natural systems and elements for the purpose of solving complex human problems. This field has an incredible number of potential applications, and has already led to advancements in the areas of energy, architecture, transportation, agriculture, medicine, and others. With the use of biomimicry, we can draw inspiration from nature’s complex elements and systems to help improve the efficiency of today’s renewable energy technologies. Whether it be something as small as a butterfly or as large as a whale, nature is starting to provide us with ideas to help save us from ourselves.

A Gap in Potential

While the solar energy industry has continued to witness increases in efficiency limits alongside falling costs, there is still a gap to be filled in order for the industry to reach its full potential. Researchers from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute are looking to biomimicry—more specifically, butterfly wings—as a means of maximizing the efficiency of solar concentrators. Before taking flight, the Cabbage White butterfly has been observed warming up its muscles by using its wings to reflect sunlight onto its body, a process known as reflectance basking. Insights gained from these observations have already led to promising results. Researchers were able to produce a solar cell using butterfly wings that resulted in 42% greater solar output than their traditional solar cell using reflective film tape. Continuing to advance these ideas into a new generation of solar cell prototypes can help fill in some of the gap associated with solar technologies.

Biomimicry has also led to advances in the field of wind power. Looking to the oceans of the world, humpback whales need dexterity and maneuverability in order to adequately feed themselves and navigate the open ocean with efficiency. This is accomplished primarily through tubercles—large, irregular bumps on the animals’ fins that increase lift and angle of attack. These tubercles are now being replicated on wind turbines and have been shown to help improve lift, reduce drag, and increase the angle of attack before stalling. Even these relatively small advancements in efficiency can have a significant impact when applied to the large installed wind turbine bases we see in the United States, China, Germany, India, Spain, and beyond.

Looking Ahead

The evolution of renewable energy technologies has accelerated in recent history. In order to maintain significant change, an array of innovative, economical, and feasible solutions will need to be implemented. One of the drivers in this recent push to address environmental problems is an attempt to save the systems and elements invoked in biomimicry. Studying the natural world in order to derive solutions to human problems is a powerful thought and will hopefully provide a means of addressing the gap that remains between the status quo and the upper limits of these technologies.


New York State Is Embracing the DER Revolution

— June 9, 2016

clean energy backgroundA significant decision was recently handed down from the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) as part of the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding. On May 19, the PSC approved measures aimed at improving distributed energy resource (DER) integration and overall system efficiency through new revenue models. While the rate-of-return model has traditionally served utilities well, the advancement of renewable energy technologies requires incentivized revenue models in order to maximize the benefits to consumers and utilities alike.

Altering the Status Quo

Traditionally, utilities have earned revenue from their capital outlays through ratepayer returns. Investments in transmission lines or substations can be recouped, incentivizing a centralized power generation structure. With the recent influx of solar and wind energy, DER is now beginning to alter the status quo. While state and local governments across the nation are encouraging the integration of DER, many utilities lack proper incentives to address the problem head-on. In order to incentivize these types of distributed technologies, utilities in New York are now eligible for financial rewards for behavior that increases consumer economic and environmental benefits. Such behavior includes greenhouse gas and carbon emissions reductions, reaching energy efficiency targets, instituting customer engagement programs, and improving renewable energy project interconnection times. There are already examples of this DER strategy in action. Consolidated Edison, serving 3.4 million customers, was recently able to defer investment in a distribution substation through the more cost-effective means of DER adoption.

Along with the reformed revenue models, major utilities will also now be required to develop an overall system efficiency proposal by the end of this year to reduce generation during periods of peak demand. This measure is intended to promote more decentralized and efficient power generation sources. Finally, these reforms will enable the deployment of smart meters within New York. Barring ConEdison’s anticipated smart meter deployment in 2017, there is essentially no smart meter activity within the state. With over 8 million electric meters statewide, these reforms will hopefully improve the adoption of this fundamental smart grid technology. With this latest New York PSC decision, utilities are now left with a business case for advancing a more decentralized electrical grid that will ultimately provide benefits to both utility stakeholders and consumers. Following these and other REV reforms, the state is on track to meet its ambitious goal of achieving 50% renewable energy by 2030. My colleague Brett Feldman highlighted New York’s REV framework in a previous Navigant Research blog.

Reliability and Flexibility

DER allow for the prospect of a decentralized, reliable, and efficient electrical grid. With public demand for renewable energy resources climbing, states have an obligation to address consumer concerns. States troubled by the potential issues surrounding DER integration could benefit from studying the results of New York’s recent reforms. The future success of DER may well lie in these solutions aimed at addressing the concerns of both utilities and their consumers.


A Case Study in Solar Leadership from an Unlikely Source—New Jersey

— May 11, 2016

Rooftop SolarWhen thinking of solar energy here in the United States, what one place comes to mind? Sun-laden states such as California and Arizona are often conjured up when envisioning solar energy across the country. While countries like Germany have broken this generalization, there’s another case study here in the United States that is proving the viability of solar nationwide—New Jersey. This unexpected leader in solar energy has taken advantage of its open lands, brownfields, and vast amount of rooftop space to spur solar energy generation across the state.

REC Programs

New Jersey’s movement toward the adoption of solar began in 2005 with the initiation of the country’s first solar-exclusive renewable energy certificate (REC) program. Under this system, solar energy generators are allocated credits dubbed SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) for every 1,000 kWh of generation. These credits in turn can be bought and sold in an open marketplace. This has led to a mix of utility-scale projects as well as an influx of residential and commercial properties (retailers, self-storage facilities, sports complexes, grocery stores, government buildings, etc.) installing solar. Since the inception of this program, New Jersey businesses and citizens alike have demonstrated the environmental and monetary benefits that come along with the early adoption of solar energy systems.

This isn’t to say that the program hasn’t had its bumps in the road. There was a need for policy adjustment in 2012 after falling technology costs and federal incentives led to a surplus in the supply of solar energy. This outpacing of demand caused SREC prices to plunge, decreasing overall demand for solar energy installations and investment. The state adjusted its strategy with the signing of the solar resurrection bill. This legislation improved marketplace volatility by adjusting the state’s renewable portfolio standard/solar carve-out framework and promoting the development of solar installations at landfills and brownfields.

Expanding Adoption

States with solar carve-outs and SREC markets now include New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Expanding beyond this Northeastern territory would greatly improve the potential for solar energy to make its next leap toward wide-scale acceptance. The adoption of solar energy within large corporations should be highlighted, as it not only creates a valuable source of energy but can also provide retailers and their stakeholders with a business case for solar. With companies such as Walmart and Kohl’s prescribing to this solar energy program in New Jersey, it not only proves the viability of solar within these organizations but also enhances the legitimacy of the technology as a whole. Brownfields and landfills are also worth mentioning as they can inject value into otherwise forgotten properties.

While the thought of brownfields and superfund sites often evoke imagery of pollution, outdated technologies, and shameful practices, New Jersey has chosen to redefine these wasteful properties by putting them back to work for their communities rather than detracting from them. The United States has come a long way since the early days of solar but more progress is needed to reach industry maturity. The next big leap may lie in other states looking to New Jersey’s example of how long-term renewable energy planning can provide benefits to its constituents and communities alike. 


DOE Makes Headlines and Encounters Headwinds with Clean Line Approval

— April 13, 2016

Der Rotor wird angesetztThe U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) made headlines last month with its approval of the Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project. Headed by Houston’s Clean Line Energy Partners, this venture aims to erect a 720-mile, 600 kV transmission line across the Midwest to help facilitate wind energy delivery throughout the region. Originating in western Oklahoma, this clean energy pathway will traverse eastward and deliver 4,000 MW of power to Arkansas, Tennessee, and other southeastern markets. The project’s path to approval has been beleaguered by opposition and now sets up an interesting conversation surrounding the future of large-scale transmission projects and the DOE’s contested use of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Energy Policy Act

To understand the total implications of this decision, we must discuss the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and specifically Section 1222. Section 1222 authorizes the Secretary of Energy to “participate with other entities in designing, developing, constructing, operating, maintaining, or owning, an electric power transmission facility and related facilities.” This authority is subject to a set of conditions pertaining to project need and operating standards. This legislation provides a solution to projects plagued by state-level obstacles. The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is the first project being developed under the umbrella of Section 1222.

An array of benefits stemming from the project have been touted by Clean Line Energy Partners, including increased job creation, renewable energy investment, new wind energy generation, pollution reduction, water savings, voluntary payments and ad valorem taxes to local counties, and right-of-way payments. The line would deliver 500 MW to Arkansas utilities and 3,500 MW to the Tennessee Valley Authority, greatly opening up the Southeast to clean energy.

Not without Opposition

While activists have been quick to tout the multitude of project benefits, there is strong and vocal opposition to the project. Much of this opposition has emanated from Arkansas, including state legislators and the Cherokee Nation. Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton have aligned with other representatives in asserting that the project doesn’t meet the statutory requirements of Section 1222 and omits serious concerns that ought to be addressed in a state-level review. These legislators have stressed that decisions regarding electrical transmission siting should be left to the states, as they historically have been. The Cherokee Nation has also let their grievances be known, openly opposing the project due to its perceived impacts on property value and the cultural insensitivity of siting the project alongside the Trail of Tears and through the Nation’s ceremonial ground. Regarding local property values, the project is expected to result in declines of 10%-30% in affected areas.

This landmark approval sets the stage for potentially significant change in the wind energy industry and beyond. This project has the ability to spur wind energy investment throughout the region via increased line capacity. Creating this wind superhighway could inject value across the supply chain through increased demand for wind turbines, components, and associated services. This was the first project to be developed under Section 1222, leaving open the possibility that other similar initiatives can survive the seemingly unavoidable obstacles met by large-scale projects. Who will ultimately decide the fate of these projects is still left unclear, as the state versus federal debate can be expected to continue into the future.


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