Navigant Research Blog

Solar Subsidies Attract Financial Schemes

— October 20, 2014

Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tuscon Power have recently come under a lot of scrutiny for their proposed rate-based solar programs.   The complaint from private sector companies is that rate-basing (i.e., the utility practice of raising funds for capital investments by increasing electricity rates) would create an uneven playing field in the solar industry, because rate-basing a capital expenditure gives utilities a guaranteed rate of return.  As SolarCity’s VP Jonathan Bass put it, “If there were ever a reason for a regulatory body to exist, it would be to stop a state-sponsored monopoly from unfairly competing against the free market in an entirely new industry.”

That’s hard to argue with.  However, I would add that another reason for a regulatory body to exist is to stop the free market from abusing the subsidies that are so crucial to an entirely new industry.  In the spirit of fair-minded analysis, let’s take a closer look at the solar industry and at how level the playing field actually is.

Pump and Dump

First, let’s examine the solar developers (SolarCity, Vivint, SunRun, Clean Power Finance, etc.) whose solar lease and solar loan programs are responsible for catapulting the industry into the period of rapid growth we’re seeing today.  Critics argue that solar developers base their business models around building solar arrays on the cheap and claiming an inflated fair market value (FMV) of the systems.  The FMV is supposed to reflect the fair price of a system, and it’s ultimately used by the government to determine the monetary value of the 30% income tax credit (ITC) that goes back to the owner of the system.  Ironically, the FMV is becoming increasingly difficult to determine as more solar companies are vertically integrating, which has made the true system costs less transparent.

For systems that are being leased (which are most systems), the owners and thus recipients of the ITC are actually third parties.  These third-party owners tend to be financial institutions, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Google, and Blackstone, that are constantly looking for tax credits, and they have found a slam dunk as financiers of residential and commercial solar arrays.  Typically, the developers bundle a group of solar customers together into a tranche (essentially a bucket of leases), which is then backed by the third-party ownership groups.  The financial firms own the leased systems for 5 years and then dump them, but not before taking advantage of the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), which is a method of depreciation that allows third-party owners to recoup part of their investment in the solar equipment over a specified time period (5 years) through annual deductions.  Basically, MACRS represents an additional subsidy, with a net present value of 25% of the initial investment.

The Treasury Steps In

So between the 30% ITC and the 25% MACRS, the owners should be getting a 55% subsidized investment; but with the inflation of the FMV, it turns into a much larger subsidy, on the order of 80%.  Then consider the high rate of return (up to 15%) that investing in solar offers on top of all these subsidies, and it starts to sound pretty good to be a solar financier.  Solar developers readily admit that their business models are dependent on government subsidies, but this sounds like manipulation of those subsidies.  Indeed, this practice is currently under investigation by the Department of the Treasury.  While the developers claim they haven’t done anything wrong, if the government tightens the rules around the ITC or tries to recoup the inflated subsidies, it could be a major blow to the solar industry.

What’s more, the developers themselves don’t seem to be reaping the rewards of their innovative business models that have brought solar to the masses.  If anything, they seem to be bearing all the risk while the third-party owners reap most of the profits.  Is there some merit to rate basing solar?  In my next blog, I’ll examine this question.

 

Truck Fuel Economy on the Rise

— October 20, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just published its 2014 fuel economy trends report, and though the news is generally positive, some potential storm clouds remain on the horizon for manufacturers.  While the overall average fleet fuel economy hit a record 24.1 mpg for the 2013 model year, the monthly update from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) showed a 0.5 mpg drop in September 2014, equal to the 2012 to 2013 annual increase.

The long-term trend has definitely been upward.  Last year represented the eighth increase in the past 9 years for the American new vehicle fleet.  Automakers will have to maintain this momentum if they expect to hit the 2025 corporate average fuel economy target of 54.5 mpg.  Fortunately, attendees at a fuel economy technology showcase at the EPA emissions testing lab in Ann Arbor were all publicly confident that the targets were achievable.

As for the sudden drop in September, that can be explained by what are likely temporary market conditions that led to a significant uptick in full-size truck sales at General Motors (GM) and Chrysler.  As the 2014 model year drew to a close, combined sales of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra jumped 46%, aided by incentives of up to $4,500.  Ram sales were also helped along by retail incentives of up to $3,000, as well as the popularity of the new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel.

From Steel to Aluminum

Sales of Ford’s F-series trucks were essentially flat, as the automaker began the transition to its all-new, aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150.  It appears that GM and Chrysler are hoping to grab some market share in the financially lucrative big truck segment in hopes that Ford would stumble in the complicated transition from steel to aluminum trucks.

At this point next year, even if truck sales continue to climb, we’re unlikely to see a similar drop-off in fuel economy, thanks to new technology in the segment.  The weight savings and new power plants for the Ford trucks are projected to deliver up to 20% better fuel efficiency than the steel-bodied versions.

Chrysler and GM also have to meet the new fuel economy standards.  Ram pickups are already available with ZF 8-speed transmissions, and GM is adding its first 8-speed automatic transmission to 2015 pickups with a 6.2-liter V8.  As GM ramps up production of the new 8L90 transmission, it will probably get paired with other engines as well.  GM and Ford also have a joint development program to produce 9- and 10-speed transmissions for trucks and other vehicles in the next few years.

Diesel Debuts

Chrysler is also building on the success of the 28 mpg Ram 1500 EcoDiesel by doubling production to 20% of its total production volume of trucks in 2015.  Ford is still awaiting final EPA certification on the 2015 F-150, but the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 is also expected to get a highway rating in the upper 20s.  GM’s new midsize Colorado and Canyon pickups are already rated at up to 27 mpg with a gasoline V6, and a diesel version is coming some time in 2015.  Ford is also offering a diesel engine option in the new Transit full-size vans that replace the E-series this year.  Ford will likely be closely following the sales trajectory for diesel engines in the Chrysler and GM trucks, as well as the next-generation Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra, which will both be available with a Cummins-sourced 5.0-liter diesel V8.

With the huge sales volumes of pickup trucks in North America, lightweighting, advanced powertrains, and automatic stop-start, trucks will make a big contribution to reducing fossil fuel use in the next decade.

 

Innovative Energy Storage Technologies Gain Ground

— October 18, 2014

According to the Navigant Research Energy Storage Tracker 3Q14, the 2007 to 2013 period has seen the commercialization of a number of key technologies in energy storage, including several advanced battery chemistries, flywheels, and power-to-gas.

The Energy Storage Tracker is a database of energy storage projects that tracks announcements and deployments of energy storage across a range of technologies in an effort to identify industry trends.  The chart below shows the deployed power capacity for six advanced storage technologies in utility-scale applications.  There was a peak in installed capacity across most of these technologies in 2011 and 2012 in response to stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The purpose of this funding was to jumpstart the energy storage market, and while 2013 was a slow year for most battery technologies, preliminary 2014 data (not shown) indicates improved numbers over 2013 levels.  In contrast to advanced batteries, flywheels and power-to-gas saw an uptick in deployed capacity from 2012 to 2013.

Utility-Scale Energy Storage Power Capacity by Technology, World Markets: 2007-2013

(Source: Navigant Research)

Playing Catch-Up

Although no single technology is a clear winner in the global stationary energy storage market, lithium ion (Li-ion) has arguably established itself as a key frontrunner going forward.  Over the past 13 years, sodium sulfur (NaS) batteries, manufactured solely by Japanese power infrastructure giant NGK, have established themselves as the clear leader in terms of installed power capacity in the stationary energy storage space, with 243.7 MW from 2007 to 2013.  However, publicly announced deployments are typically large orders in the tens of MWs, which results in peaks and troughs in NGK’s market activity.

Li-ion sits in second during the same time period, with 231.9 MW aggregated over all its subchemistries.  In 2013, Li-ion had the highest number of MW installed and managed to keep output steady with 2012.  Of this 231.9 MW, lithium iron phosphate (manufactured by A123 Systems, now NEC Energy Solutions and BYD) accounts for at least 114.8 MW, lithium titanate (manufactured by Altairnano and Toshiba) accounts for at least 10.6 MW, and lithium manganese spinel (manufactured by Samsung SDI and LG Chem) accounts for at least 16 MW.

Peaks and Valleys

Other technologies that have seen significant deployments from 2007 to 2013 include advanced lead-acid batteries (71.4 MW), the vast majority provided by Xtreme Power (now a part of Younicos).   More than 58 MW worth of advanced flow batteries were deployed, primarily by ZBB and Premium Power, during the same time period.  In addition, 50.9 MW worth of flywheels were deployed, with 45 MW of that capacity coming from Beacon Power (though 4 MW of Beacon’s installations have since been decommissioned).   Lastly, 11.1 MW of power-to-gas storage capacity was deployed between 2007 and 2013, primarily by ETOGAS and Hydrogenics.

In the early period of commercialization, it’s not unexpected to see strong years and weak years for technology deployment.  Li-ion is maturing and is showing signs of being a fully commercial technology, similar to NaS batteries.  Advanced lead-acid, flywheels, and flow batteries will continue to grow, but in some cases will be limited due to the small number of suppliers in the market.  Power-to-gas is in the very early stages of commercialization, and will likely see growth and decline in deployed capacity in the demonstration stages before commercializing, similar to Li-ion.

 

Shakeout Looms in Fledgling E-Truck Market

— October 17, 2014

Despite significant government and private-sector investment over the past 10 years, the global market for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and pure electric trucks has been slow to grow.  Although it’s challenging to get fleets to provide numbers on how many of these trucks  they are running – many companies view it as competitive information –the Navigant Research report, Transportation Forecast: Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles, estimates that, in 2014, hybrid and plug-in technologies constituted well under 1% of medium and heavy duty (MHD) trucks fleets in North America and Western Europe.  This lack of progress matters, because MHD trucks account for 32.6% of U.S. fuel consumption.  Electrification could significantly reduce this rate of fuel guzzling.  Yet, as my colleague John Gartner noted in a recent blog, there is a real lack of PEV options in the trucking world.

Investment in these technologies has borne fruit, however, and will help the electric drive truck market grow.  Deployments have helped fleets determine the applications for which hybrid or plug-in trucks will work best, both in the sense of being able to meet the demands of the duty cycle, but also providing the greatest fuel savings benefit.  The range of MHD truck applications into which hybrid and plug-in technology can be integrated is broad, with widely varying performance requirements.

Filling the Gaps

First are vocational applications, including delivery and distribution trucks, such as refrigerated vehicles and service vehicles, especially those used by the utility and telecommunications sectors.  And within these segments, there is a multitude of usage patterns.  Delivery trucks may be long haulers, traveling at steady, high speeds; used for suburban delivery, operating with both high and low speeds; or used for delivery exclusively within an urban center, with stop-and-go driving and very low mileage.

All of these variances mean that there is no single technology that will meet all the needs of the trucking sector.  Thus, this sector will be highly segmented, with each technology option fitting into certain niches.  While hybrids have no range limitations, it can be challenging to achieve payback of the price premium unless the vehicle operates with some stop-and-go driving and accrues significant mileage – probably a minimum of 20,000 miles annually.  By contrast, while the range of a pure battery electric truck has proven too short for most applications, these trucks are ideal for deliveries within an urban center.  This application is likely to see more interest in the Western European market in particular, as cities are increasingly looking to limit vehicle access to the city center.

Winnowing Ahead

So, as the British say, it’s horses for courses for the trucking industry.  This will pose a challenge for the sector given the very high percentage of small firms supplying this market.  These are companies that may struggle to stay afloat in a market with low volumes in its early stages.

But pressure on truck OEMs and fleets to reduce the environmental impacts of their vehicles – a major theme of the Automotive Megatrends conference held by Automotive World in Brussels in September – is likely to increase.  A small company with a proven technology will find increased interest from fleets to trial new vehicles and perhaps interest from the major vehicle manufacturers in securing access to their technology through investment or acquisition.

 

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