Navigant Research Blog

The Energy Cloud by the Numbers: Supergrids Go Mainstream

— February 24, 2017

A common misconception around the rise of distributed energy resources (DER) and the Energy Cloud is that investment and innovation in the power sector is focused almost exclusively across the grid edge. While the grid’s center of gravity is shifting downstream, utility-scale generation and bulk transmission remain a key buttress for the grid in the midst of a historic transformation.

The global high voltage transmission network connecting centralized generation sources to the distribution grid is estimated to stretch across 3.5 million km. To put this in context, there is enough high voltage infrastructure deployed globally to wrap around the earth 75 times. Although already extensive, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that an additional $7.2 trillion investment is needed for transmission and distribution (T&D) grids through 2030—40% of which is just to replace existing infrastructure.

High voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, which function as arteries that move large amounts of electricity above and separate from the existing alternating current (AC) grid, are a key focus of this investment. Currently, there is more than 200 GW of HVDC capacity deployed globally.

According to Navigant Research’s Supergrids report, global investment in HVDC infrastructure is expected to increase from $8.3 billion annually in 2016 to $10.2 billion by the end of 2025. An estimated 65 supergrid projects heavily leveraging HVDC are in development or planned around the world. One such project, dubbed the Asia Super Grid, was born out of a memorandum of understanding among Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia in 2011.

Why So Much Fuss Over Expensive Hardware?

Since large-scale renewable energy projects tend to be built in remote areas where resource anomalies exist (such as wind in remote plains, solar in desert regions with high insolation, and geothermal power tapping underground steam located near centers of volcanic activity), bulk transmission is necessary to deliver generated electricity to large population centers, sometimes located thousands of miles away. The largest pools of renewable energy tend to be the farthest from human population centers; supergrids connect these areas of high supply to areas of high demand.

As discussed in the Navigating the Energy Transformation white paper, the emergence of the Energy Cloud will mean an expansion of traditional grid boundaries to integrate local networks of DER—microgrids, virtual power plants (VPPs), and others—as well as expand internationally to tap far-flung pools of renewable resources.

The Expansion of Traditional Grid Boundaries in the Energy Cloud

Source: Navigant Research

China is currently the world leader in the development and deployment of HVDC infrastructure. This is partly out of necessity; not only is China playing catchup with domestic demand for electricity, but the majority of its population of 1.3 billion lives in the east of the country, 2,000 km or more from its most concentrated energy resources. According to an Economist analysis, three-quarters of China’s coal is in the far north and northwest of the country, for example. Meanwhile, four-fifths of its hydroelectric power is in the southwest.

China’s state-owned utility, State Grid, is halfway through its 10-year plan to spend $88 billion on HVDC lines between 2009 and 2020. As investments continue, we expect the prospect of a global grid to come more sharply into focus—though obstacles related to cost, standards harmonization, consensus around rules of free trade of electricity, and geopolitical hurdles will first need to be more firmly settled.

 

China Exploring New Avenues for Energy Storage in 2017

— February 8, 2017

BatteriesLooking back on 2016, the energy storage industry in China has had its positives and its negatives. Navigant Research believes that energy storage increasingly is valued based on the services that a system provides. Overall, China is an attractive market for energy storage, particularly lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries. Market activity in 2016 included increased sales of EVs throughout the country, electricity market reforms to spur grid-tied storage resources, and a multimillion-dollar increase in investment of national battery companies. The country is embracing a cleaner, more connected future going into 2017.

Electric Vehicles

Long projected to be the largest global EV producer and market (despite reports of inflated plug-in EV sales figures being used to garner government subsidies), policies that promote the development of alternative fuel vehicles drive EV sales in China. The central government began giving out subsidies for EVs in 2013, and the value of subsidies has decreased annually since then. The 2016-2020 Notice on the Financial Support Policy for the Promotion of New Energy Vehicles from the country’s Ministry of Finance announced that, compared to the 2016 level of subsidy, the 2017-2018 level and the 2019-2020 level will be reduced by 20% and 40%, respectively. In addition to the subsidy, the central government has also waived the vehicle sales tax. Additional subsidies in China can be found predominantly at city governments. For example, Beijing and Shenzhen allow a 1:1 matching subsidy for consumers, effectively doubling the national EV purchase subsidy.

On the grid-tied storage front, Navigant Research anticipates that China will be the single largest country market for energy storage, reaching 5.5 GW of new capacity by 2025 across the utility-scale market alone. Though the country’s electricity market has long been government-run, recent market reforms have allowed non-state wholesale power producers to enter the market, opening up opportunities for independent power producers (IPPs) to provide ancillary services by way of energy storage resources. Compounded with the big push for new variable generation resources within China, storage greatly improves the business case for renewables by eliminating the need for new transmission and distribution resources.

Battery Manufacturers

Large battery manufacturers headquartered in China (such as BYD, CATL, Lishen, and Wanxiang A123) have deployed several systems in various EVs and stationary storage installations; these companies introduced several rounds of investment plans to further develop their respective technologies. In April 2016, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that any EVs applying for the Chinese government subsidy had to utilize a battery manufactured by a Chinese-owned company listed on the ministry’s so-called White List, effectively eliminating competition from other large global manufacturers like Panasonic and LG Chem. Chinese battery companies are also targeting other applications in foreign markets. For example, Neovoltaic, GCL Integrated Storage, and Pylontech have launched residential solar plus storage solutions ranging from 2.5 kWh to 8 kWh for residential customers in Australian, German, and American markets. Several other Chinese Li-ion battery providers are looking to establish partnerships with other systems integrators to further expand into other attractive storage markets.

The battery energy storage industry in China goes where the government steers it. Though the effect of policy and demand-side incentives varies by territory, the country seems to have a clear plan on what role storage will play in its clean energy future. As the industry matures, customer needs and grid needs will evolve and allow for EVs and energy storage systems to penetrate new markets. It remains to be seen whether China’s aggressive clean energy adoption strategy will be successful in the long term.

 

China’s EV and EV Batteries Policy: An Update

— April 25, 2016

BatteriesWith some of the worst air pollution on the planet, China has been aggressively pushing for emissions reductions and sustainable development since the launch of its 12th Five-Year Plan. In March 2016, the 13th Five-Year Plan covering 2016 to 2020 was released. Some of the key goals include a 15% energy intensity reduction and an 18% carbon intensity reduction compared to 2015 levels. With air quality in the country being at such poor levels, the government is highly interested in new energy vehicles (NEVs)—referring to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs)—to curb emissions.

Backed by government support, the Chinese EV market has made headlines in recent years. The country is on track to achieve its goal of putting 5 million electric passenger vehicles and buses on the road by 2020. Over 300,000 NEVs were sold in 2015, amounting to approximately 500,000 in cumulative deployment by the end of 2015. Plus, the government plans to increase the share of NEVs in government fleets from 30% to 50% in 2016.

New Stance on Subsidies

Although the Chinese EV market has made significant progress thanks to generous subsidies, the handouts have encouraged subsidy frauds as well. Finance Minister Lou Jiwei expressed concerns over the NEV industry’s heavy reliance on subsidies in January 2016. NEV development appears to be driven by policy incentives more than technological breakthroughs, to the extent that there has been a spate of media coverage about subsidy frauds in China in the last few months. For example, a company might assemble substandard NEVs and sell them to its own car rental company with the intent of receiving subsidies. The deficient NEVs are then left in parking lots and not put into actual use. Another common scheme is to sell license plates on the black market.

Consequently, the central government launched a fraud investigation and vowed to severely punish those involved in fraudulent schemes. Additionally, the government plans to end NEV subsidies after 2020 to encourage technological innovation. China plans to cut subsidies by 20% between 2017 and 2018 from 2016 levels and by 40% between 2019 and 2020, eventually leading to a phaseout after 2020.

Battery Technology Strategy

Chinese leaders are aware of the need to improve the country’s EV battery technology in order to stay competitive in the global NEV market. Therefore, the government’s decision to suspend subsidies for electric buses using nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) batteries is rather surprising. While most Chinese companies manufacture lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, the global market prefers NMC or lithium manganese oxide (LMO) batteries for their superior performance and efficiency. Some Chinese manufacturers are making NMC batteries but have not yet mastered the technology yet—there were six reported cases of EVs with NMC batteries catching on fire last year.

This policy change is expected to affect NCM battery manufactures in China since subsidies can account for nearly 40% of the price of an NEV, and buses represent nearly half of the NEV market. In particular, South Korean battery manufacturers made major investments in new NMC battery production facilities in China. LG Chem formed a joint venture with two state-owned enterprises in August 2014 with plans to generate $1 billion in revenue by 2020. Samsung also formed a joint venture with Anqing Ring New Group and real estate investor Xian with plans to invest $600 million by 2020. Since subsidies will continue to be given for less-advanced LFP batteries, many Chinese battery manufactures will enjoy government support in the short run. However, China’s long-term battery technology strategy remains uncertain.

 

Is Natural Gas a Key Solution to China’s Air Pollution Problem?

— January 12, 2016

The recent air quality Red Alert issued by Beijing on December 8, 2015 has again drawn everyone’s attention to China’s notorious air pollution caused mainly by burning coal. As a cleaner alternative to coal, natural gas has become a focus of China’s energy reform. In 2014, the Chinese State Council  announced an ambitious target of increasing natural gas consumption from around 6% to above 10% of the total energy mix by 2020. Despite China’s determination, the road to a natural gas boom will likely be bumpy due to the risk of timely supply development and the challenge of forming a competitive market.

Supply Development

To support the projected growth of natural gas consumption, China is counting on its unconventional shale gas resource. China has the largest shale gas resource in the world (almost twice the size of shale resources in the United States), but development has been slower than expected. By the end of 2015, the production capacity of Fuling shale gas—the only shale gas field under commercial development in China—had just reached 0.48 bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day), less than 3% of the country’s total natural gas consumption. China also lowered its 2020 shale production target by half to 2.9 bcf/d. Even with a lower target, to increase the shale gas production sixfold in 5 years will require tremendous investment and innovation that will need to equal or exceed the shale gas revolution in the United States. Whether shale gas will become the main driver for natural gas consumption in China is still uncertain.

In addition to domestic production, China also needs natural gas imports through pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG). China currently operates two pipelines that import natural gas from Central Asia and Myanmar. The China-Myanmar gas pipeline has been severely underutilized since it began operation in 2013. The Central Asia Gas pipeline has also experienced frequent winter supply disruptions. Although a new pipeline from Russia will increase the import capacity, the lack of stable pipeline import will likely persist due to the geopolitical uncertainty. On the LNG side, since the regional LNG price is currently linked to oil prices, high price volatility will be a constant challenge to Chinese buyers. The current low LNG prices also pose challenges for LNG suppliers looking at serving the Chinese market. In general, cost and supply reliability are the two major factors that serve to place a cap on future levels of natural gas imports in China.

Chinese Market Development

The lack of a competitive market is perhaps the biggest challenge to China’s natural gas industry. Unlike in the United States, where natural gas prices are determined by the market, Chinese natural gas prices are determined by the national government. Since the natural gas prices do not promptly reflect market dynamics, natural gas sellers often have to operate at a loss while natural gas consumers sometimes prefer cheaper alternative fuels. In addition, China also needs a robust natural gas transportation system that can distribute natural gas in a timely and efficient way across its vast area. Currently due to the limited access to pipeline gas and lack of storage facilities, gas shortages are common. The recent gas supply crisis in Beijing highlights the vulnerability of the natural gas system. Whether China can boost gas consumption will depend on infrastructure development and market maturation.

2015 marked China’s slowest growth rate of natural gas demand in more than a decade, casting further questions on the prospect of achieving the country’s national target by 2020. Unless immediate actions are taken to address the challenges on both the supply and demand side of the Chinese market, the role of natural gas to fight air pollution might yet prove some ways off in the future.

 

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