Navigant Research Blog

Why It’s Still Too Early to Bet on Residential Energy Storage in the United States

— April 1, 2014

SolarCity announced recently that it is discontinuing the residential energy storage product that it rolled out in California 2 years ago.  The company put the blame on the shoulders of utilities, which SolarCity said were stalling permitting of its new units.  But, in fact, SolarCity has only itself to blame for the failure of its product.

That’s because the company never stopped to ask why a residential customer would want a battery storage system.  In some cases, such as with off-grid homeowners and homeowners (such as indoor horticulture enthusiasts) with very expensive equipment that needs reserve power, batteries are a requirement.  But the typical homeowner gets no financial advantage from shifting power from one point in the day to another.  Rates that would allow such an advantage, known as time-of-use rates, are rarely offered by utilities to residential ratepayers.  Because residential photovoltaic (PV) power is usually net-metered, meaning that homeowners can receive credit for putting energy back onto the grid, there’s no reason why a solar homeowner would receive a financial advantage from storing energy.

Diesel over Batteries

Meanwhile, SolarCity was trying to sell its residential storage units at an outrageous markup.  I have SolarCity panels on my house in Boulder, Colorado, and when I inquired about the cost of the battery backup system, I was quoted $25,000 for a 20 kilowatt-hour (kWh) system.  That’s despite the fact that Tesla Motors (which makes the battery packs for SolarCity) has told the world that it is able to build its battery packs for less than $300 per kWh.  It’s hard to understand why I should give SolarCity more than 3 times the money it cost the company to buy the battery pack for a system that doesn’t earn me one penny.  The only benefit that such a system could provide me is reserve power when the grid shuts down.  However, a far more reasonable solution to that problem would be an emergency diesel generator.  Yes, it’s dirty, but the carbon and pollutants produced by running a diesel genset during the few hours of a year that I would need it would be far less than that produced from the manufacture of 20 kWh of batteries.

Mind the Wiring

So, is there any merit to SolarCity’s claim that the California utilities are responsible for freezing out the battery system product?  It’s not very likely.  That’s because a battery pack that is situated behind the meter does not require any utility permitting, just as a diesel generator doesn’t.  What does require approval is the capability of an individual building to island itself from the grid (which means that it continues to operate as a nanogrid by itself and shuts itself off entirely from the distribution grid when it does so).  If that’s the case, then the electric utility has every right to deny permitting if it doesn’t feel comfortable with the system.  Improperly set up, islanding can cause a life-threatening situation for an electricity linesman.  The practice of islanding is governed by the IEEE 1547 protocol, which is an extremely complex, difficult to engineer, and expensive set of rules governing an islanded system.

There are ways to do residential energy storage well.  In our upcoming report on the topic, Navigant Research expects that almost 20,000 residential energy storage systems will be installed in Germany, Japan, and South Korea combined in 2014.  All three countries have made concerted efforts to standardize the specifications and permitting process for PV-integrated residential solar systems.  They have also introduced generous subsidies for such systems.  It’s an expensive and politically difficult process, but it’s getting results in those countries.

 

With A123 Buy, NEC Reveals Its Storage Strategy

— March 27, 2014

NEC has made a major play for a global energy storage system (ESS) business, specifically targeting the Chinese market and information technology (IT) and telecom sectors by acquiring A123 Energy Solutions to create a new company, NEC Energy Solutions.

NEC is no stranger to the grid storage market.  The company is using batteries from Automotive Energy Supply Corp. (AESC), similar to those installed in the Nissan LEAF, for both utility-scale storage (2 MW will be commissioned in Italy by Enel Distribuzione shortly) and the residential storage market.  It has also developed a residential system targeting the Japanese market with a 5.5 kWh home ESS.

There are three pieces to this transaction that will change the storage market going forward.  First, NEC is slated to establish a partnership with A123 Systems’ parent company Wanxiang to target the Chinese storage market.  Having a local partner will set NEC apart from other lithium ion (Li-ion) cell and system vendors targeting China.  Second, the acquisition includes A123 Energy Solutions’ ALM product line, a 12V Li-ion uninterruptible power supply (UPS) product housed in the same form factor as a traditional lead-acid battery.  This, coupled with NEC’s success and relationships in telecom and IT, will put the new company in a strong position to target the UPS market.

Finally, although A123 Energy Solutions has focused on the utility side of the meter using A123 Systems cells, NEC has experience on the customer side and also has its own Li-ion chemistry that’s manufactured in volume by AESC.

Storage Combinations

Navigant Research’s Advanced Batteries for Utility-Scale Energy Storage report forecasts that the market will reach $17 billion in 2023, with Li-ion taking a $7.8 billion share.  This estimate is strictly for the sale of ESSs to customers on the utility side of the meter, not on the customer side.  By definition, it excludes telcos, data centers, and other forms of commercial, industrial, and residential storage.  Navigant Research believes that the telecom market for Li-ion hit an inflection point last year, reaching $100 million in annual revenue, and is poised to grow quickly.  Regardless, NEC Energy Storage will have stiff competition in nearly all of these markets from major Li-ion cell manufacturers such as LG Chem and Samsung SDI.

What can we look forward to from NEC Energy Solutions?  A123 Energy Solutions will bring software, controls, and integration expertise, three facilities in the United States and China, a portfolio of existing installed storage assets, and any new orders to the table, whereas NEC’s strength lies with data, analytics, IT, and the cloud.  In fact, NEC’s original concept for the storage market revolved around the energy cloud.  It makes sense that NEC Energy Solutions would combine the two areas of expertise to deliver new product lines and cultivate new business models.

As a 114-year old company with 270 subsidiaries in its corporate umbrella and total annual sales in the last fiscal year of $30 billion, NEC has the resources and business relationships to use the A123 Energy Solutions acquisition as the platform for building a global business.

 

Six Questions Regarding Tesla’s Gigafactory

— February 27, 2014

This week, Tesla revealed the first details about its plan to build an enormous battery factory to provide cells for its future electric vehicles.  Among the revelations: the factory will be powered primarily by its own solar and wind power parks; it will produce more than 50 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of battery packs a year; and it will cost $6 billion to build.  To kick things off, Tesla also filed to sell $1.6 billion worth of convertible bonds today.

While these are intriguing details, there’s still a lot to determine about what this factory will actually look like.  Here are my questions about the Gigafactory:

Why isn’t California one of the states being considered for the plant?  The company named Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas as potential host sites.  To build the batteries in a different state and then ship them to California, even by rail, will add considerable cost to the batteries.  Why not locate the factory at or near the company’s vehicle assembly plant in Fremont, California? My guess is that environmental regulations for such an enormous factory are one negative factor weighing against California.  That leads to a second question: Where will the cars be built?  The batteries coming from this factory will be going into Tesla’s next-gen passenger car, not the Model S or Model X.  That means that a car factory could also come along with the battery plant.

How much wind and solar will be needed to supply power to the plant? A battery factory making 50 GWh of batteries will require enormous amounts of electricity – some for the actual making of the batteries and some for the initial charging of the batteries that is the last step in the manufacturing process.  This could require as much as 1 GW of renewable energy projects.  Is the price of those installations factored into the stated $6 billion cost of the factory?

Where will the extra 15 GWh of batteries come from? In the slides that Tesla distributed, the manufacturing capacity of cells was stated as being 35 GWh.  But the manufacturing capacity of packs was stated as being 50 GWh.  So where will the extra 15 GWh of cells come from?  From other battery company factories throughout the world? From more Gigafactories?

Why is this factory so cheap? $6 billion doesn’t sound very cheap.  But it actually pencils out to a little more than two-thirds the cost, on a per GWh basis, of other large battery factories.  Clearly, the large scale of the factory will make equipment purchases cheaper.  Nevertheless, the estimated cost of the factory seems extremely low and brings into question whether Tesla and its battery partners have some new manufacturing innovations up their sleeves.

Why wasn’t Panasonic mentioned in the news release? Most observers assume that Tesla will build the factory with Panasonic, which makes all the cells for the Model S and the upcoming Model X.  However, the news release only stated that the car company’s “manufacturing partners” will help finance and build the factory.  Is it possible that another battery supplier is inserting itself in between Panasonic and Tesla?

How much will the cells cost once the factory is up to scale? Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated in the past that Tesla buys its cells for between $200 and $300 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).  The slides distributed with the Gigafactory announcement claim that the facility will be able to cut the costs of the battery packs by 30%.  But how much of that comes out of cell costs versus price cuts in the other equipment in the pack?  Does this get Tesla down to $175 per kWh? To $100 per kWh?

There’s no denying that this is a bold venture.  If the company manages to follow through on these plans, it will construct the biggest factory in the world (not just for batteries, but for anything).  And it will yet again echo Henry Ford’s spirit with a 21st century version of the original megafactory, the River Rouge complex.

 

Winter Cold Shows Value of Plug-in Vehicles

— December 27, 2013

Over half a million utility customers in the northeastern United States and Canada were without power Christmas Eve following major snowstorms and frigid temperatures earlier in the week.  By late Christmas day, utilities in Michigan, Maine, and Toronto had returned power to many affected by the outages, but as of December 26, thousands were still without power.   Twenty-seven deaths were attributed to the storms and resulting power outages.  Many of the deaths were caused by traffic accidents and by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning stemming from diesel generator use.  Though cold weather can reduce the driving range of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), future PEVs with bidirectional power capabilities could have significant value in cold weather climates.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that an estimated 200 people in the United States die from CO poisoning associated with fuel-burning heating equipment every year.  CO poisoning is more common in winter months than summer months and is especially dangerous during power outages when diesel generators kick on to supply power to homes.  CO detectors are the best way to prevent CO poisoning, but the adoption of PEVs with bidirectional power capabilities can add security.

Generators On Wheels

Japanese PEV automakers Nissan and Mitsubishi have spearheaded the development of bidirectional systems, alongside the companies’ respective PEV models, the LEAF and i-MiEV.  These systems attach to the vehicle’s DC charging port and convert the DC power from the battery to AC power, which is compatible with the common home electrical system.  The Nissan system provides up to 6 kW of power and the Mitsubishi system can provide 1.8 kW.  Old fashioned incandescent light bulbs are rated between .04 kW and .06 kW, so these systems can keep the lights on for quite some time in the event of an outage.  Unfortunately, these systems are currently only available in Japan.

In the United States, development of PEV bidirectional capabilities has been focused almost entirely on fleet vehicles.  Vehicles developed by VIA motors, Electric Vehicle International (EVI), Boulder Electric Vehicle, and Smith Electric Vehicle are being used by fleets for various applications – primarily using bidirectional systems to enable fleets of PEVs to participate in grid operator-managed frequency regulation markets.  However, utilities have grown increasingly interested in the technology for emergency response applications.

A Nissan LEAF may be able to provide power to one home, but a utility-owned commercial PEV could supply power to an entire neighborhood.  VIA motors and EVI have developed PEVs for this purpose with power output capacities from 15 kW to 100kW.  These vehicles can not only get technicians to downed lines and damaged equipment but can also provide power to cold, dark homes.  A bidirectional PEV, whether in a garage or at the distribution transformer, can reduce the need for CO-emitting diesel generators for backup power support.  PEV automakers pioneering bidirectional capability as an option on their vehicles will be wise to bring their products to markets in outage-prone regions.

 

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