Navigant Research Blog

Consumer Choice in the UK Energy Market: The Year of the Tracker Tariff

— July 11, 2017

A year ago, I wrote a two-part blog post (part one and part two) about the surge in consumer choices in the United Kingdom’s energy market. A lot has happened since those articles were written—the second of which was published on the same day as the Brexit referendum results.

Energy price hikes made headlines over the 2016/2017 winter, as five of the Big Six energy suppliers (EDF, E.ON, SSE, British Gas, Scottish Power, and Npower) raised prices by 8%-15%. British Gas was the only exception, promising to hold prices until at least August 2017. These increases put a political spotlight on energy prices during the country’s general election in June—during which even the Conservative Party (generally associated with free market policies) proposed energy price caps.

The Year of the Tracker Tariff

Although the political debate has not devolved into any specific energy policies yet, small energy suppliers and new entrants (such as Octopus Energy, Pure Planet, and ENGIE) have used the price hikes as an opportunity to launch a new class of energy tariff: the tracker.

Prior to May 2017 (when the first tracker was launched), consumers in the United Kingdom could opt for either a standard variable rate (SVR) or a fixed price rate:

  • SVR: In a SVR tariff, the unit price of electricity can go up or down at any time. The supplier must notify the consumer of price rises (and of any other changes to the consumer’s disadvantage) but the price charged is completely at the supplier’s discretion. This is the most basic offering from energy suppliers and it is usually their most expensive. Consumers usually end up on this tariff after a fixed contract expires.
  • Fixed price rate: In a fixed price tariff, the unit price of electricity is agreed upon at the beginning of the contract and remains fixed for a certain period (often 12 months in the United Kingdom). This fixed price is usually below the SVR.

Energy suppliers have been criticized by Ofgem (the United Kingdom energy regulator) for widening the difference between their best rates and their SVRs. So, in a bid to win consumer’s trust through improved transparency, a few energy suppliers have launched tracker tariffs.

Retail Price Comparison by Company and Tariff Type: Domestic (Great Britain)

(Source: Ofgem)

Tracker tariffs resemble SVR tariffs in that the price the consumer pays for electricity changes with time; unlike SVRs, the price is not discretionary. Instead, it is linked to the average wholesale electricity price on the day of consumption.

The precise structure of the tracker varies from supplier to supplier. For example, Octopus Energy charges a fixed standing charge per day and then the wholesale price plus transmission and distribution costs, other regulated costs, taxes, and a fixed margin per kilowatt-hour consumed. Another supplier, Pure Planet, charges a fixed membership fee that includes all non-energy related costs and then wholesale prices for each kilowatt-hour consumed (100% renewable, in this case). ENGIE, the last of the companies offering tracker rates, has not yet disclosed how its tariff will be structured.

It is too early to judge whether consumers will embrace trackers or if they will prefer the certainty of fixed price rates. Perhaps the majority of consumers simply do not care enough about energy contracts and will continue to pay SVRs. Regardless, trackers are a step toward a residential energy as a service product. This is especially true of Pure Planet’s offering: by incorporating its margin into the fixed component of the bill, it is in a position to offer add-on services that increase comfort—or reduce energy consumption—without sacrificing profit margin.

 

The Battle for the End Consumer: Residential PV and Battery Business Model Innovations in Germany

— June 29, 2017

While solar capacity additions in Germany have collapsed in recent years, the range of innovative residential energy solutions based on solar PV and batteries has blossomed. In recent months, battery OEM SonnenBatterie has introduced a free refills battery solution, while E.ON has introduced a batteryless electricity storage service.

The VPP Approach with SonnenBatterie

Sonnen’s solution, called sonnenFlat, allows the buyer of a Sonnen battery to opt in to sonnenCommunity. This is an independent virtual power plant (VPP) consisting of Sonnen battery owners and Enerix solar systems. The solar and battery assets are optimized to reduce the need to buy electricity from Germany’s wholesale market and to enable participation in Germany’s ancillary services markets.

A residential battery owner joining sonnenCommunity receives a €1,875 ($2,100) discount off the battery price. If purchased together with a PV system, they also get up to 6,750 kWh of free grid electricity on top of the electricity generated by the PV system. This is the approximate number for customers that bought a residential system with 9.5 kWp of PV and a 10 kWh battery, which cost around €27,200 ($ 30,500).

E.ON Envisions a Battery-Free Home

E.ON’s solution seeks to eliminate the battery altogether—at least in the customer’s home. The SolarCloud service offers to store the electricity generated by the customer’s PV system virtually in the grid and return it when needed by the customer (at night or on cloudy days, for example). E.ON charges a €21.99 ($24.60) monthly fee for this service (for a 4 kWp installation). If this service sounds familiar to US readers, that’s because it is net metering—but at a cost.

In essence, Sonnen is offering free electricity with its hardware and E.ON is offering free (virtual) hardware for a flat fee. Both aim to help their customers to reach 100% solar self-consumption (on a net basis).

The Battle for the End Consumer

Although E.ON and Sonnen are very different types of companies, nowadays they are battling each other for the long-term ownership of the customer relationship. From its background as a traditional power utility, E.ON knows that any customer who installs a PV plus battery system at home is a lost customer for at least 10 years (the lifetime of residential batteries). E.ON is therefore willing to use its energy trading capabilities to create a product that replicates what a battery offers.

Sonnen approaches the issue from a different direction. It knows that battery technology is being commoditized and therefore it cannot compete in the long term against utility players without monetizing the services its batteries can provide to other energy users and the grid. Hence, Sonnen has had to become a virtual utility to sell its hardware.

Regulation Matters

This sort of competition between traditional utilities and newcomers is something we expect to witness more and more as the Energy Cloud evolves. It is also important to highlight the key role of Germany’s energy market regulation in allowing this type of innovation. The German market was unbundled years ago with short intraday call auction times (15 minutes). It allows aggregators to participate in the market—and importantly, there is no capacity market. This allows companies like Sonnen to offer free electricity to their customers, which is paid for by trading the customer assets in the wholesale and ancillary services markets.

 

Eclipsing Solar Generation: Lessons Learned from the 2015 European Eclipse

— June 8, 2017

The United States will experience a solar eclipse at 10 a.m. PST on August 21, 2017. This will be the first total solar eclipse in 26 years—and the first since the solar PV industry expanded and PV became a meaningful source of electricity in certain US markets (especially in the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, territory). The eclipse’s route is expected to skirt the states with the most solar installations, influencing generation in states such as California and North Carolina.

Globally, this will be the second time a region faces this challenge. On March 20, 2015, a total solar eclipse passed through Northern Europe (and partially in the southern part of the continent) between 9:40 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. CET. My colleagues at Ecofys did a presentation at the time to explain the effects the eclipse could have on the German grid. Back then, Germany had a total generation capacity of about 190 GW, 39 GW (20.5%) of which were solar.

At the time, the Ecofys team projected that PV power generation could drop by up to 13 GW for more than 1 hour in Germany and by up to 34 GW across Europe for a few minutes. That would represent 2-3 times the magnitude of variation due to other natural events like sudden storms.

Projected Trajectories of the 2017 and 2024 Total Solar Eclipses

(Source: Xavier M. Jubier)

Prior Knowledge Maps the Way

The nature of solar resources means that the effects can vary significantly depending on the local weather. The day of the 2015 event had cloudier weather conditions than originally forecast, which led to a less severe reduction in PV generation. Those areas that did have clear skies were affected significantly, but European energy markets managed to cope. Some of lessons from the eclipse included:

  • The hourly day-ahead market was mostly unaffected by the eclipse. German transmission system operators (TSOs) successfully marketed the PV in a first step at the hourly market and in a second step at the quarter-hour market.
  • In case of high demand or supply, there is a de facto quarter-hour market (over-the-counter and power exchange) in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland that can provide significant contributions for intra-quarter-hourly compensation. This solution is a fine-tune balancing done by the TSO.
  • The quarter-hour market showed big spreads. A European coupling of quarter-hour markets should contribute to increased liquidity of the market and reduce these spreads. At the same time, the quarter-hour trading should be combined with the hourly market.

The main challenge is how to balance the power system against this dynamically changing generation backdrop. This requires flexibility in the power fleet and significant amounts of reserve control over a short period of time. To tackle this challenge, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) put in place the framework below to reduce the effects of future eclipses that the US regional transmission organizations/independent system operators (RTOs/ISOs) can use as a guideline:

  • Develop a plan to disconnect part of the installed utility-scale PV generation in advance of the eclipse and establish the amount and timeframe for disconnection and reconnection.
  • Detail the steps necessary to reconnect PV systems to the grid.
  • Add backup generation and/or interconnectors to allow transfers to fulfill load in the absence of PV generation.
  • Establish a clear description of the installed PV capacity and its capabilities to improve the accuracy of forecast studies.
  • Enable real-time measurement of distributed PV generation so operational strategy can be adapted in real-time.

The Effect of the 2015 European Solar Eclipse in the German Market

(Source: Energy Charts)

 

Could Global Distributed Solar PV Prices Drop Thanks to Suniva’s Petition?

— June 6, 2017

On May 24, 2017, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) announced that it will consider a petition by Suniva, a bankrupt solar manufacturer in Atlanta, Georgia, to place tariffs on the most common kind of PV solar cells imported from around the globe. Suniva put forward a petition to set a minimum import price (MIP) to $0.78/W and requested a 4-year tariff schedule on crystalline silicon imports. According to the petition, the floor price would fall to $0.72/W in year 2, $0.69/W in year 3, and $0.68/W in year 4.

While the outcome of the ITC investigation will not be known for some time, the uncertainty that the investigation brings to project developers and investors is important. Both short-term and long-term effects can be expected:

  • Short term: Module OEMs will increase imports to meet their firm contracts for the year. Projects in the late stages of development will try to secure modules before any decision on the tariff is made, potentially bringing projects forward. Uncertainty could boost installations for the rest of the year. Currently, there is a glut of module capacity, so any increase in demand could easily be met.
  • Long term: For those developers unable to make the arrangements necessary to lessen the risks to their projects, they may postpone investment decisions until the risks are better understood (i.e., after the ITC decision).

So What If It Happens?

For now, it seems that developers see the risk of the new tariff as manageable. On the same day that the ITC began its investigation, a new contract signed by Arizona utility Tucson Electric Power (TEP) and US developer NextEra Energy set a record low price for large-scale solar power in the country. The TEP and NextEra contract allows the United States to join a select club of countries with solar at or below $0.03/kWh (alongside Chile, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates). The project is expected to be commissioned by the end of 2019, when the tariff will have its full effect.

Navigant Research anticipates 2019 module prices will be $0.39/W. With module prices potentially leaping by at least 50%, on the surface the TEP-NextEra contract seems like a potential disaster. But while the drop in module costs over the last few years has been impressive, reductions in other costs have been at least as impressive, limiting the effect that the MIP will have on the final cost of the project.

According to the Navigant Research model, the cost of developing a utility-scale project in the United States with a 2019 commissioning date would increase from $0.93/W to $1.24/W (over 33%) due to the new MIP. In the case of the Arizona project, the cost per kilowatt-hour generated would increase from just below $0.03/kWh to just below $0.04/kWh.

More Bang (kWh) for Your Buck

Interestingly, the MIP requested by Suniva uses peak power (Wp) as its basis. This would drive a rapid shift toward quality, namely high efficiency modules. For example, developers could use SunPower’s X-series panels (currently with an efficiency of around 23%) instead of a conventional multi-Si module (with an efficiency of around 16%), thereby reducing the footprint of the plant by up to 30% for the same output. This would allow developers to offset higher module costs with lower balance of system costs and operations and maintenance costs. Using bifacial modules—which are hitting the market right now and could work well in the Arizona desert—could help reduce the footprint by another 15%-30%.

It is difficult to say whether NextEra could really bring the project cost back down to $0.03/kWh if the tariff comes into effect. However, it is important to remember that module costs do not make or break a project nowadays and that new technology is available that can reduce the module’s effect on the final cost of a project.

 

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