Navigant Research Blog

Regulating the Energy Cloud

— April 8, 2015

As discussed previously on the Navigant Research blog (Offense and Defense and Open or Closed?), the electrical grid is evolving toward an energy cloud model in which two-way energy flows support distributed energy resource (DER) integration, transactive energy, and other complex market structures and transactions. Representing a platform on which stakeholders will engage to facilitate greater coordination and sophistication in selling and consuming energy, this network of networks has the potential to be far more flexible, dynamic, and resilient than the traditional grid. These changes are detailed in Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Energy Cloud.

But ensuring reliable, safe, and cost-effective service—the core focus of utilities—is not guaranteed merely by the energy cloud’s emergence. An enforceable regulatory model will need to emerge that balances innovation and the economic benefits of open market competition with the need to maintain interoperability and coordination across a network made up of many layers of disparate elements.

Avant Garde

Today, we’re witnessing a period of rapid experimentation with respect to regulating utilities of the future in the energy cloud. The dramatic rise of DER on the grid has pressed regulators and utilities alike to respond.

Although many factors will determine how the energy cloud will evolve across different markets, states like New York, Hawaii, and California remain at the vanguard of regulatory experimentation in the United States.  In New York, for example, regulators have proposed initiatives to transform utilities into so-called distributed systems platform providers that would act as the interface between consumers and the bulk power system. Other states (e.g., Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the Carolinas) are beginning to explore alternative models as well, but have yet to challenge the utility’s role as the owner and operator of the distribution system.

The issue of who ultimately owns the distribution grid is at the heart of the energy cloud’s evolution. On one hand, the government and the public want to increase competition to achieve lower cost and additional service for customers. On the other hand, the increased complexity and cost to manage distributed intermittent resources across the grid could drive reregulation and consolidation.

Independent Operator

In the latter case, few challenge the need for a centralized authority to do so. Proponents of this approach, such as former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman Jon Wellinghoff, support the creation of an independent distribution system operator to manage the distribution grid even if utilities ultimately own the system.

This trend stands in direct opposition to a historic transition toward deregulation in the United States that is already underway. Deregulated markets are expected to allow for more experimentation with respect to business models, thus creating a competitive market for power generation and allowing retail customers to decide who supplies their electricity. However, a lack of standardization and coordination within these markets could make it much more difficult to ensure reliable, safe, and cost-effective operation due to a high level of market fragmentation. The growing footprint of DER, for example, requires much tighter integration and a stronger coordination of demand and supply across the energy value chain.

While it might seem that over-regulation or reregulation would stifle innovation, with respect to the energy cloud, the opposite may in fact prove true. Regulated markets, it turns out, may provide more stable platforms for a coordinated rollout of energy cloud infrastructure and capabilities.

Jan Vrins contributed to this blog.

 

In Golden Age, Natural Gas Becomes Generation Workhorse

— March 9, 2015

The promised golden age of natural gas has begun to take hold globally. Fortunately, rising natural gas demand will not require a corresponding increase in infrastructure spending across the United States, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy. These findings hold even as the U.S. electric power sector—currently the largest consumer of natural gas in the country—saw generation from natural gas replace that of coal in recent months. This corresponds with a sharp increase in demand for natural gas from multiple end-use sectors.

With the Henry Hub reference price for natural gas in the United States lingering below $5 per million Btu (mmBtu) since the early part of 2014, a demand surge is expected to continue across the power generation sector.

Renewables and Gas

The United States, already the largest consumer of natural gas in the world, is expected to see a 33% increase in demand by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 reference case. Growth is expected to be 42% for the electric power sector between 2012 and 2040 under the same scenario.

Living up to its promise as a bridge fuel to a low carbon future, natural gas is helping backfill baseload generation, especially in areas where coal plant retirements are highest. The combination of wind or solar power and gas-fired generation, meanwhile, has emerged as an option for states looking for more access to lower-carbon electricity. This hybrid approach is playing out across the expansive areas of the West, where electrical grid transmission bottlenecks have made it difficult to export renewable generation from areas of high productivity (e.g., Wyoming) to population centers on the West Coast, for example.

Not Laying Pipe

The increased use of natural gas in the electric power sector, however, is not without potential challenges. Unlike competing fuels, natural gas is delivered as it is consumed, and cannot be stored onsite like coal. Furthermore, adequate infrastructure is needed to maintain electric system reliability. The investment of $65 billion in new interstate pipeline construction over the past 18 years appears to be sufficient to deliver natural gas from producing regions to end users across the country without substantial new investment.

Unlike the U.S. electrical grid, natural gas power plants and natural gas production are both broadly distributed rather than geographically concentrated, reducing constraints on interstate pipeline capacity. What’s more, lower-cost investment options, such as improving the utilization of existing infrastructure and rerouting gas flows, are far cheaper than building new pipelines.

As the U.S. power sector faces several concurrent transitions—retirement of coal-fired generation, aging electrical transmission infrastructure, and a surge in the use of intermittent renewables—these findings suggest that natural gas will continue its emergence as the workhouse on the modern electrical grid.

 

Reforms Drive Renewables, Grid Modernization in Mexico

— March 3, 2015

A recent ranking of the most attractive power markets for investors in Latin America, based on a survey conducted by BNAmericas of power sector stakeholders, places Mexico at the top. The updated rankings cite reforms to the country’s power sector, which are expected to allow for greater levels of private investment and a loosening of Mexico’s state-owned Comisión Federal de Electricidad’s (CFE) monopoly over the national power grid.

Mexico, which ranks 16th globally in installed generation capacity, is among the largest power markets in the world. Currently, CFE controls more than three-quarters of the country’s installed generating capacity and holds a monopoly on electricity transmission and distribution. The status quo has made it difficult for the country to keep up with rising electricity demand, effectively acting as a headwind for broader economic growth across the country.

Reform and Renewables

Although Mexico is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for power generation—representing 86% of delivered electricity—estimates suggest that it has sufficient resources to meet 50% of its generation demand with non-fossil fuels by 2050. Among non-hydro resources, geothermal, biomass, and waste are currently the most utilized. But like Chile, which previously topped BNAmericas’ rankings, Mexico is increasingly being seen as a haven for solar PV and wind development.

Energy sector reforms are designed to enable private firms to sell electricity to commercial and industrial consumers, as well as partner with CFE to finance, build, and operate transmission and distribution infrastructure. Private sector companies can participate through an open permitting process for independent power producers and self-supplied and combined heat and power (CHP) facilities that are typically located at industrial plants. Ultimately, these changes are designed to create a more competitive electricity market, according to Fitch Ratings, and to encourage the use of renewables by awarding clean energy certificates.

As a result of these reforms, private investment inflows could mirror similar trends already underway in Chile. According to some estimates, Mexico will add 66 GW of capacity to its power grid over the next 15 years, with investments in renewables potentially reaching $90 billion.

Wind as Well

U.S.-based solar firms see Mexico as among the countries with the highest growth potential. According to Navigant Research’s report, Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast, the country is expected to add more than 800 MW of distributed solar PV over the next decade.

Mexico is rapidly emerging as a substantial wind market as well, second only to Brazil among Latin American markets. Deregulation is expected to accelerate the wind market. The federal energy secretariat (SENER) has targeted 12 GW of new development by 2020. CFE plans to commission eight wind farms, totaling 2.35 GW of capacity, by the end of 2018, and private investors such as Iberdrola, Pattern Energy, and Cemex have announced significant investment targets for the same period. These investments, along with projects under development in Baja California and southern Mexico, are expected to help fuel a 5.5 GW expansion in wind capacity across the country through 2019, according to Navigant Research’s forthcoming report, World Market Update 2014 – Wind Energy.

Mexico’s power generation system is plagued by inefficiency and regulatory rigidity. It currently has the highest distribution losses among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. While the reforms are designed to liberalize the sector, a likely flood of new intermittent renewable generation capacity and customer-sited distributed generation will likely further strain Mexico’s already inefficient, old, and outdated transmission grid. These challenges are expected to drive an estimated $36 billion in emerging transmission, distribution, and grid modernization technologies over the next decade.

 

Oil-Gas Price Swings Slow New Energy Investment

— February 18, 2015

As I wrote in this blog in 2012 and in 2013, rising volatility in the oil-to-gas ratio points to a substantial shift in market dynamics for clean energy. Even if short-lived, this shift will have substantial implications for investment in new energy technologies.

In recent years, as the price of oil climbed to over $100 a barrel, the oil-to-gas ratio—which compares the price of a barrel of crude oil to that of a million Btu (mmBtu) of natural gas—spiked to as high as 52:1 in a single month from a relative constant of around 10:1. While this apparent equilibrium had held steady since the mid-1980s, the widening gap between the price of oil and that of gas seemed to represent a new reality, with natural gas prices holding below $3 per mmBtu (Henry Hub).

In the last several months, as oil prices have slid to less than $50 per barrel, that ratio has come crashing back down to Earth. At a current 13:1, the oil-to-gas ratio is once again nearing historic levels—and again reshuffling the deck for a cleantech industry yearning for macroeconomic certainty.

Ratio of Crude Oil to Natural Gas: 1990-2015

Oil-Gas

(Source: Navigant Research)

While the boom in shale oil and gas recovery (among other factors) has ushered in an apparent return to historical equilibrium, experts are divided on what the future holds. Some argue that the recent spike in the oil-to-gas ratio was a short-term anomaly and that forces will continue to act to bring prices back into their long run equilibrium. Others question whether a stable long-term relationship between crude oil prices and natural gas prices even existed in the first place.

While the jury is still out on the putative correlation between oil and gas prices, we can expect continued volatility in the oil-to-gas ratio. This creates a challenging environment for new energy technologies going head-to-head with existing infrastructure.

The Incumbent Edge

Volatility dampens growth in new energy technologies in several ways. First, it cools investors’ appetite for clean energy ventures, due to the potential risk that seemingly profitable investments one day may turn out to be unprofitable due to changing fuel costs. Building natural gas infrastructure may look attractive in 2012 if you’re in the United States, for example, but not so wise when the price of a barrel of crude oil drops by more than 50% in 2014. This is an issue of asset stranding.

Second, it lowers customers’ tolerance for risk. As noted in our recently published report, Combined Heat and Power for Commercial Buildings, the impact of price swings are most acutely felt by consumers looking to hedge with one fuel against the other. When oil prices accelerated past $100, consumers of heating oil and gasoline, for example, began looking to natural gas alternatives. These decisions can be straightforward when price signals are stable, but actual (or even perceived) volatility favors a wait-and-see approach.

The Underminer

Third, it undermines the role of incentives and other mechanisms for stimulating the deployment of new energy technologies. Still more expensive than incumbent technology in most cases, clean energy has enjoyed incentives that put emerging energy technologies on an even playing field with fossil fuels. Fuel price volatility can make it especially challenging to establish reasonable incentive levels for the long term.

While Navigant Research’s forecasts for distributed generation technologies like solar PV (see our Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast report) and energy storage (see our Community, Residential, and Commercial Energy Storage report) in the United States remain strong despite lower energy prices, volatility is likely to mostly benefit the status quo.

 

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