Navigant Research Blog

Are Corporate Clean Energy Initiatives Real?

— December 10, 2014

In November, Amazon made a commitment to power its infrastructure with 100% renewable energy over the long term.  Among tech companies, Amazon is late to the game in announcing its sustainability goal; Apple, Google, and Facebook had already released similar pledges over the past few years.  Although cloud computing is more environmentally friendly than previous computing technologies, according to Amazon, a “significant amount of unused server capacity and wasted energy consumption” still occurs when powering data center infrastructure.

Since 2008, businesses and corporations around the world have begun to more actively pursue sustainability initiatives.  Between 1992 and 2012, the number of corporations worldwide issuing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports jumped from 26 to around 7,500.

Fortune 500 Leads the Way

Many of the leaders in corporate sustainability are part of the Fortune 500.  In 2013, 43% of Fortune 500 companies had established goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, energy efficiency, renewable energy, or some combination of the three, and 60% of Fortune 100 companies had set sustainability targets.  Although large corporations have made progress in establishing sustainability initiatives, only 75 of the Fortune 500 had specific energy efficiency targets in place by 2013.  GHG reduction targets made up the greatest share of climate and energy initiatives.

Companies with long-standing commitments to reducing energy use have already seen energy and dollar savings from these initiatives.  Walmart, for example, laid out plans in 2013 to save $1 billion globally per year through energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.  The company has a long-term aspirational goal to achieve 100% renewable energy.  In the shorter term, by the end of 2020, Walmart aims to reduce emissions intensity by 30% from 2010 levels and produce or procure 7 billion kWh of renewable energy worldwide.

The Trouble with Long Term

Kohl’s is another leader in corporate sustainability efforts.  It has been implementing green building methods since 2005, and it had 432 LEED-certified stores as of June 2014, representing a full 37% of the company’s 1,160 stores across the United States.  The 432 stores represent a total floor space of 35,616,240 square feet.  Kohl’s plans to reduce absolute emissions and emissions intensity on a per-square-foot basis by 20%, both by 2020, compared to 2010 levels.

Although the growing prevalence of CSR and sustainability goals is encouraging, broad long-term goals have raised concern from some environmental groups.  Setting goals without defined milestones makes it more difficult to hold companies accountable for the clean energy initiatives they have in place.  Many companies, Amazon included, have not specified a roadmap to achieve their energy goals – an obvious next step to ensure those goals are achieved.  Publicly committing to a clean energy future is only a first step.


Severe Drought Hastens Hydropower’s Slow Decline

— November 4, 2014

Coal retirements, the shale gas bonanza, post-Fukushima Daiichi nuclear curtailments, the rising adoption of distributed generation, and emerging price parity for solar PV and wind – the dynamic changes affecting electricity grids worldwide are many.  Now, with prolonged droughts affecting leading global economies, like Brazil and California (the world’s seventh and eighth largest economies by gross domestic product [GDP], respectively), a slow decline in the prominence of hydropower is in the mix.

Historically, hydropower has been the primary source of clean and renewable energy in both economies.  Its decline has had a more severe impact on Brazil’s grid, but in both places, this development is expected to continue to coincide with a further rise in gas-fired generation and renewables.  Due to the current cost of renewables, the consequences of this shift may be a rise in greenhouse gas emissions in each country’s electric power sector.

California Copes

With a fleet of 300 dams, California is among the nation’s leaders in hydropower generation.  However, hydro in the state has declined from peaks in the 1950s, when it was responsible for more than half of the state’s generation mix, to just 9% in 2013.  Having prepared for hydro’s decline by broadening its generation mix over the last several decades, the California grid remains mostly insulated from the worst effects of nearly a half decade of severe drought.

California generates around 55% to 60% of its power from natural gas and has seen a 30% increase in gas-fired generation since 2002.  Meanwhile, California’s leading investor-owned utilities across the state – Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) – are on track to meet or exceed their 33% renewable procurement obligations by 2020 under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy.

Brazil Gasps

Facing its worst drought in 40 years, meanwhile, Brazil has been more severely affected by reduced hydropower generation than California.  Currently, the second leading producer of hydroelectric power in the world, trailing only China, Brazil relies on hydro for more than three-fourths of its generation.  According to data published by BP earlier this year, hydropower consumption fell 7% in 2013.

This rapid decline has prompted severe rationing in 19 cities, undermined hydropower generation, and resulted in blackouts across the country.  In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government provided more than $5 billion to subsidize electric utilities, replacing lost hydroelectric generation with fossil fuel-fired generation, including large amounts of liquefied natural gas.  While this helped stabilize the grid during the event, it has nearly doubled greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

Brazil’s experience provides a harsh lesson for drought-stricken areas with a high dependence on hydropower.  Although natural gas is a low-carbon alternative relative to coal-based generation, it may stall or reverse carbon mitigation efforts when used in place of hydropower.  Renewables can help make up the difference, but even with sharp declines in the price of solar PV and wind, they remain far more expensive than hydropower or natural gas.  While both California and Brazil are in a hole with respect to water supply and hydroelectric generation, persistent drought is unlikely to result in a significant increase in new renewables spending without the introduction of new subsidies.


Bill Gates: How to Fund Energy Miracles

— August 21, 2014

Through the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has taken a stand on improving global public health, investing in programs focused on basic advances such as developing a next-generation condom to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, creating a standalone vaccine cooler for communities that are stranded without electricity, and inventing a toilet that can solve sanitation issues by pyrolizing human refuse into something more usable (using solar power, no less).  Meanwhile, Gates is also challenging U.S. energy policymakers and their funding practices for energy R&D.

In a June blog post titled “We Need Energy Miracles,” Gates called for the United States to look hard at R&D allocations, potentially redirecting funding from the military and healthcare sectors toward energy research and pilot projects (presumably renewable ones).  Given the imperfections (intermittency, inefficiency) of existing renewable resources, Gates argued, this research is necessary to establish an equitable energy mix, both in the United States and abroad – especially in developing nations that must increase energy use to grow their economies.  He stressed the need to invest in projects that are “high risk/high reward” in order to achieve the sort of miracle needed to support growing demand and limit climate change.

Memo to Bill: DIY

Responding to Gates, Solar Wakeup (republished by Clean Technica) noted that Gates has been active in investing in energy storage with Aquion and LightSail but challenged him to be the major financer of the next energy miracle.  Why?  Simply put, it’s unreasonable to expect increased investments (private and public) in risk-agnostic energy R&D, and if one of the world’s richest men wants it to get done, he should do it himself.  Payoffs are slow for energy projects, the uncertainties many: macroeconomic conditions, volatile energy and resource markets, policy reversals, infrastructure needs, and high operating and maintenance costs.  Solar Wakeup’s challenge is based in reality.

But the cleantech and renewable energy sectors are already substantial in countries all over the world, and growth is accelerating.  China has recognized this.  In recent years, China’s public and private investments in cleantech, both at home and abroad, have explodedReports by Azure International explore the drivers for increasing investment in cleantech in China.  Risk is inherent in investors’ strategies for expanding their energy-related portfolios, and intangible values, such as technological and innovative prestige, sometimes compete with return on investment (ROI).  Encouraged by the government, Chinese investors have become increasingly willing to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects such as smart grids and smart buildings.

The topic of investment in renewables and smart grids is thorny, with many caveats and nuances that tend to shape the potential for ROI – but it’s safe to say that with China’s example, maybe Gates has a point in his stance against being risk-averse toward investing in potential energy miracles.


In Bangladesh, Solar Boom Benefits All

— August 18, 2014

More solar PV systems are installed in Bangladesh than in Germany and the United States combined.  At the end of 2013, Bangladesh had an estimated 2.9 million solar PV systems installed compared to 1.4 million in Germany and 445,000 in the United States.

This is despite the fact that Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on the planet, with per-capita income of less than $3,000 per year.  In Bangladesh, solar home systems (SHSs) range from 10W to 200W.  Approximately 50% of all systems sold in Bangladesh are between 20W and 30W – roughly 1% of the capacity of a medium-sized residential system in the United States, but enough to power a few compact fluorescent or LED lights, charge a cell phone, or power a radio.  At an average cost of about $230 for a 20W SHS in Bangladesh, an upfront cash payment is out of reach for people who make less than $9 per day.  But thanks to the success of micro-credit programs that made Mohamad Yunus and Grameen Bank household names, SHSs are affordable to all.

Home Systems Multiply

Grameen Shakti, based in Dhaka, is the solar power arm of the Grameen Bank and is the leading SHS installer in Bangladesh, with an estimated 1.3 million installations to date.  These installations represent more than 30 MW of installed capacity.   The model relies on an extensive network of sales agents who can reach remote areas, low interest loans, and numerous grants that provide seed funding.  Grameen Shakti provides free operation and maintenance services for 3 years after installation, with low-cost service options thereafter.

With a strong emphasis on grassroots education, Grameen Shakti has contributed to the industry’s high visibility in Bangladesh, where there are now around 40 providers of SHSs.   The company sells approximately 1000 SHSs per day and is targeting 2 million SHS sales by the end of 2016.

The government of Bangladesh – whose low-lying topography makes it especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change – has set a target of generating 5% of its power from renewable energy sources by 2015 and 10% by 2020.  The pipeline of projects started small, but is now growing considerably.  The country has approximately 10 GW installed capacity, with only 75% of that power actually available at any given time due to grid reliability issues.  That relates to roughly 136 kWh available per capita each year – one of the lowest rates in the world.  Compare that to an average household consumption of 1000 kWh per month here in Portland, Oregon.

Changing the Model

Rahimafrooz Renewable Energy Ltd. (RREL) represents the growing number of hybrid companies with a foot in the SHS market and many others, including agriculture, healthcare, education, telecommunications, rural street lighting, and marketplaces, as well as government and private institutions.  RREL has installed 300 solar water and irrigation pumps, 2 MW of solar rooftop solutions, and more than 100 solar-powered telecom base stations in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the company’s not-for-profit venture, Rural Services Foundation (RSF), has disseminated nearly 426,000 SHSs under the Infrastructure Development Co. Ltd. (IDCOL) program, representing more than an estimated 12 MW at the end of 2013.  This makes it the second-largest SHS installer in Bangladesh, behind Grameen Shakti.

As I’ve covered previously in blogs and Navigant Research’s report, Solar PV Consumer Products, countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania, and others are challenging traditional Western perceptions of developing countries and approaches for tackling poverty.   Investors have also taken notice.  Solar’s very favorable current market forces (low cost) and unique advantages in economic development (health benefits and cost savings) can be leveraged to enable the continued expansion of solar PV to even the most remote regions – and the poorest countries.


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