Navigant Research Blog

NRG Goes All In on Distributed Generation

— September 6, 2014

One of the largest independent power producer (IPPs) in the United States, NRG, provides power for the wholesale power markets with more than 50 GW of conventional installed capacity.  More recently, under outspoken CEO David Crane, the company has made a name for itself in renewables, with approximately 2.5 GW of solar PV, concentrated solar thermal, and wind capacity.  NRG also made headlines recently with a reshuffling of its business units: NRG Business (focused on conventional wholesale energy including nuclear, coal, and gas power plants), NRG Renew (focused on large-scale renewables), and NRG Home (focused on distributed generation [DG] and energy services for residential customers).

The company has relied on both organic growth as well as a series of acquisitions to fuel its DG offerings, including Dominion Resources and solar PV provider Rooftop Diagnostics, which expands the company’s customer base – particularly in the Northeast – and its expertise in residential systems.  These acquisitions underscore the growing opportunity presented by DG – systems that provide power onsite or at the distribution level of the grid.

Power in the Wild

What’s more surprising is NRG’s acquisition of Goal Zero, a privately held manufacturer of portable chargers and solar PV consumer products. Based in Utah, Goal Zero supplies unique niches of outdoor/off-grid enthusiasts that need power in the remote, challenging regions in which they travel.  The company effectively markets itself like Red Bull, touting the X-Games: “Zero Apathy, Zero Regrets, and Zero Boundaries is our mission. Goal Zero is our name.”  The company’s numerous ambassadors keep it real by leading expeditions to Kyrgyzstan or photographing surfers in Iceland.  They power their laptops with batteries recharged by the Goal Zero portable charger (the Sherpa Power Pack), and they blog at night with light from the Goal Zero solar lantern.  The portable chargers can be charged via car adapters, a wall outlet, or solar panels provided by Goal Zero.

The company’s products are sold through retail partners such as REI, Cabela’s, other sporting goods stores around the country, and online.  And by all measures, to use the vernacular, they appear to be crushing it. With 100 employees, the company ranked #9 on Inc.’s 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in 2013, with 3-year sales growth of 16,981%.

This is a big move for NRG and takes DG to a whole new level.  The appeal to NRG goes beyond the extreme adventure lifestyle to cell phone charging stations (think airports, stadiums, convention centers, malls, etc.) and potentially to off-grid living in the developing world.  I profiled Goal Zero in my Solar Photovoltaic Consumer Products report, along with Oregon’s Grape Solar, which sells similar products.  There I observed that large corporations have been circling the waters to get into the portable power/off-grid lighting niche through acquisition, but I was mostly thinking Panasonic, Schneider, and other consumer electronics companies – not the third-largest U.S. energy IPP.  NRG just went super DG, and we can expect many more to follow suit.

 

Winners and Losers under the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan

— September 5, 2014

The most cost-effective and accessible way for states to replace retiring coal plants and comply with the U.S. EPA’s proposed carbon regulation (the Clean Power Plan, or CPP, released in June 2014) is through demand-side measures.  These include the energy efficiency programs that the EPA uses to calculate emissions rate targets in the CPP as well as other measures, such as demand response.  Analysis by Navigant and others shows that measures that cut demand growth will cut compliance costs.  However, most states cannot meet their targets by energy efficiency alone.

It’s in electricity customers’ best interest for states and utilities to implement the CPP with as much emphasis on energy efficiency and demand response as they are physically and financially able to.  For this primary reason, states and utilities will expand programs where they already exist and introduce new programs where there are gaps.

Accelerating Retirements

The costs to comply with the CPP, in addition to costs to comply with other environmental regulations as well as competition with low-cost natural gas, will drive approximately 45 GW of additional coal retirements by 2025, beyond anticipated retirements without the CPP (according to Navigant’s analysis).  The aging U.S. coal fleet already faces troubled times, with low natural gas prices expected to continue and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring hundreds of coal plants to install costly emissions controls or shut down.  As coal plant owners look ahead to a carbon-constrained future, they are weighing complex decisions about whether it makes sense to invest in improvements in the near term when the long-term future of their coal fleets is uncertain.  Much depends on what the EPA’s final regulation will look like and how states will choose to implement it.

While the discussion around coal retirements tends to center on replacement by natural gas, wind and solar will also play a role.  The CPP will drive solar and wind generation above and beyond existing renewable targets, even in states that do not currently have a Renewable Portfolio Standard.  Growth will be particularly strong in areas that have high potential for solar and wind, such as the Desert Southwest and the Texas Panhandle, and where higher power prices make renewables more cost-effective.  Although much of the new solar capacity will be distributed customer-scale generation, wind installations will continue to be larger, utility-scale deployments.

New Questions Raised

The power sector has been expecting federal-level climate change policy or regulations for years.  This has been a major area of uncertainty for future generation planning.  However, the release of the proposed CPP has not led to any concrete assumptions for the future, and it has likely generated more uncertainty than it has quelled.  How will the EPA fashion its final regulation?  Will states choose to band together to implement the regulation, and will the basis for their implementation be rate-based or mass-based targets?  How will energy efficiency be measured and verified?  How will differences between states be reconciled in a system where electricity is constantly moving across state lines?  The answers to these questions will drive broad changes in the power sector and have ripple effects across the national economy.  These ripples will be felt by all industry players that are electricity customers (i.e., everyone) and, indirectly, by the healthcare industry (handling fewer conditions brought on by poor air quality) and the insurance industry (facing lessened impacts of climate change).

It’s not surprising that the CPP will transform the domestic power generation landscape, reducing coal use, lowering demand growth (due to energy efficiency and conservation programs), and increasing gas-fired and renewable generation.  Thinking globally, the plan could be just what the international community has been calling for: leadership on climate change from the United States that will push other nations (notably China and India) to follow suit.

 

Solar PV Helps Eliminate Kerosene Lamps

— August 20, 2014

About 250 million households, representing 1.3 billion people, lacked reliable access to electricity to meet basic lighting needs in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency.  Until recently, kerosene lamps were one of the few options for illumination in communities with household income as low as $2 per day.  Kerosene is highly detrimental to health and the environment, subjecting people to multiple pollutants, including fine particulate matter, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.  Exposure to these pollutants can result in an increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and death.  Despite these hazards, kerosene is the leading source of illumination for most people in developing countries.

There’s now growing momentum to displace the estimated 4 billion to 25 billion liters of kerosene used each year, driven by a combination of government policy, clean energy businesses, and investment.  Kenya, Ghana, India, and Nigeria are a few of the countries that have announced initiatives to phase out kerosene and replace it with solar and other clean energy options, as covered in Navigant Research’s report, Solar Photovoltaic Consumer Products.

  • Kenya’s kerosene phase-out program, announced in 2012, aims to eliminate the use of kerosene for lighting and cooking, replacing the fuel with clean energy products.  Norway has pledged $44.5 million toward the initiative.
  • India’s National Solar Mission seeks to achieve 20 GW of solar power by 2022, in part through the installation of rooftop PV systems.  It has also set the specific goal of providing 20 million solar lighting systems in place of kerosene lamps to rural communities, with the goal of reaching an estimated 100 million people.
  • The Ghana Solar Lantern Distribution project provides subsidies to support sales of 200,000 solar lanterns between 2014 and 2016 using money formerly allocated for fuel subsidies.

Kerosene remains the most important lighting fuel for off-grid and under-electrified households and small businesses in Africa, and accounts for approximately 55% of total lighting expenditure for those living on less than $2 per day, according to Lighting Africa.  Kerosene has been increasing as a percentage of household expenditure.  Ted Hesser developed the following chart with data from the United Nations, Saviva Research, World Bank, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, highlighting the growth in kerosene prices.  Between 2000 and 2012, kerosene prices increased 240% in the developing world, from an average price of roughly $0.50 per liter in 2000 to about $1.20 per liter in 2012.  In high-cost markets – including Burundi, Guatemala, and Panama – kerosene costs can be as high as $1.80 to $2.10 per liter.

Price of Kerosene by Country, Selected World Markets: 2000-2012

 

(Source: Ted Hesser)

Beyond CO2

The climate impact of kerosene lamps has been dramatically underestimated by considering only CO2.  Recent studies estimate that 270,000 tons of black carbon (i.e., fine particulate matter that results from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass) are emitted from kerosene lamps annually – leading to a warming equivalent of about 4.5% of U.S. CO2 emissions and 12% of India’s, according to a Brookings Institute study.

The Brookings study points out that kerosene lamps are not the largest emitters of black carbon.  The leading source is residential burning of solid fuel, such as wood and coal for cooking – which emits 6 times more black carbon than lamps.  Similarly, diesel engine black carbon emissions are 5 times that of lamps.

Solar PV and other lower-emissions consumer products, such as improved cook stoves, are making their way to the market through a variety of private, non-profit, and public initiatives.  Education and awareness of the options available to consumers are the biggest challenges to changing the behavior of customers in remote communities.  But the combination of new business models, government leadership, and technical innovation are leading to a growing number of success stories that could lead to significant reductions in black carbon emissions.

 

A Comeback for Community Storage

— August 20, 2014

Two years ago, community energy storage (CES) was heralded as the most promising distributed storage market.  The market subsequently stalled when demonstrations failed to take off.  Originally, most utilities in the United States pared back on ambitious pilots due to high transaction cost.  Although the business-to-business model of community-level systems was appealing, North American utilities struggled to secure permission from homeowners to install systems and transaction costs skyrocketed.  System development for distribution transformers in North America was also costly, and this, combined with the high cost of customer engagement, killed all large-scale projects.

Now this model could be staging a comeback.  Toronto Hydro, along with eCAMION Inc., the University of Toronto, and Dow Kokam LLC, recently installed a CES system at the Roding Arena and Community Centre in Toronto, Canada.  The pilot project will allow Toronto Hydro to monitor the technology and will help validate its benefits to Toronto’s electrical grid.  This system uses 250 kWh/500 kW Dow Kokam lithium polymer nickel manganese cobalt cells, along with thermal management and controls from eCAMION.  The University of Toronto is managing the control, protection, and power management.

Small Is Beautiful

Situating storage near the customer provides several benefits.  First, it allows a utility to correct power quality where it matters most – near the customer.  Community storage can also help utilities maintain service during grid outages, at least for a few hours.  Finally, CES gives the utility information about what is happening at the edge of the grid, which is an important management tool.

More interest is developing in Europe, where distribution system operators are experiencing difficulty with behind-the-meter solar PV and instability from intermittent renewables upstream.  The United Kingdom is especially bullish, with several departments funding community storage.

Sharp Laboratories of Europe was awarded a grant of £396,541 ($661,858) from the United Kingdom’s Department of Energy & Climate Change to develop and scale up a new battery technology for residential energy storage and CES systems.  Electrovaya began delivering systems to Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) in the second quarter of 2014 as part of an order for 25 distributed and independent energy storage systems.  The systems range in energy capacity from 12.5 kWh to over 80 kWh.  SSEPD has a separate community storage demonstration with S&C Electric that consists of three 25 kWh lithium ion units on the low-voltage network.

Europe is emerging as a leader in community storage by launching small pilots to test and prove the concept, instead of ambitious 80-unit projects.

 

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