Navigant Research Blog

Energy Storage Leaders Stumbled, Then Survived

— March 20, 2015

At a time when the major electric industry players were either unwilling or not nimble enough to develop energy storage systems integration expertise, four growing energy storage players with four distinct technologies took a risk to develop this expertise. Over the last few years, each of these companies failed financially and was subsequently acquired, in some cases more than once. In nearly every case, private equity firms stepped in, seeing an opportunity to invest in a maturing technology company with specialized expertise in the market.

Citing Tesla founder Elon Musk’s determination to build a massive Gigafactory to manufacture batteries for his vehicles, E Source Senior Fellow Jay Stein has argued that company failures like these indicate the shortcomings of the overall market. This is a logical fallacy.

Number of Deployed Systems Market Share by Top 10 System Integrators, Excluding Pumped Storage and CAES, World Markets: 1Q 2015

(Source: Navigant Research)

Detours Behind

The chart above is derived from Navigant Research’s Energy Storage Tracker 1Q 15, a global database of energy storage installations that includes 808 projects. This specific graph charts the top 10 systems integrators of energy storage in terms of number of systems deployed globally. Four of the 10 market leaders for systems integration have gone bankrupt and been acquired in the past several years. NEC Energy Solutions, formerly A123 Energy Solutions, was acquired following a bankruptcy filing, and the grid business was subsequently spun off and sold to NEC Corporation for approximately $100 million in 2014. Beacon Power was acquired by a private equity firm following a bankruptcy filing in 2012, and Xtreme Power (now Younicos Inc.) was acquired by Younicos AG in 2014, also after filing for bankruptcy.

All three firms were focused on a core grid storage technology (lithium ion batteries, flywheels, and advanced lead-acid batteries, respectively), but all spent a great deal of resources in the earlier days of the market learning how to integrate complete systems. Ultimately, all three firms developed this expertise, and NEC Energy Solutions and Younicos repositioned themselves as systems integration companies, offering software, controls, and integration expertise as opposed to pure-play battery suppliers. Beacon Power is a market leader in flywheels and flywheel systems integration and has developed a modular flywheel product with built-in power electronics for simpler integration and installation.

Managers, Not Markets

Finally, Coda Energy repositioned itself as an energy storage integration firm in 2013 after filing for bankruptcy. The company rebranded and shifted its product offering to target stationary energy storage using a battery management system, battery thermal management, and a sophisticated power source controller.

Together, these four companies account for 21% of the global market share for the top 10 systems integrators (although part of this market share is attributed to Younicos AG). These companies and others like them are challenging incumbents such as ABB and S&C Electric, demonstrating that their earlier stumbles arose out of flawed management and/or strategy, not failed markets or futile technologies.

Equating a management failure with a market failure ignores the value of the technology. Whether the Gigafactory will be Musk’s Waterloo or Austerlitz has less to do with the technology and much more to do with Tesla’s strategy and execution—and Musk has proven he can accomplish both in the automotive and the financial services worlds.


Fuel Cell Makers Seek an American Foothold

— March 18, 2015

In the United States, the topic of fuel cells is very often greeted with skepticism. One prominent fuel cell skeptic, Tesla founder Elon Musk, recently called fuel cell cars a silly idea.

So it’s interesting to compare that to the respect still given to fuel cell technology in Japan, where the 2015 FC Expo recently took place. The FC Expo is one of the largest fuel cell conferences in the world and attracts attendees from around the world. But the audience is predominantly from the Asia Pacific region, and the level of interest in the potential of fuel cells is dramatically different than in the United States. Japan and South Korea, in particular, are two of the biggest markets for fuel cell deployments to date.

Japan’s ENE FARM program has supported the deployment of 100,000 fuel cell combined heat and power systems in Japanese homes. At the Expo, companies like Toshiba, Panasonic, and Aisin Seiki spoke about their commitment to the Japanese residential fuel cell program, which aims to sell over 1 million fuel cell CHP units in Japan by 2020. South Korea’s POSCO Energy has developed the 59 MW Gyeonggi Green Energy fuel cell park and built a 200 MW capacity manufacturing plant for the molten carbonate fuel cell that utilizes FuelCell Energy’s technology.

New Beachheads

What’s most interesting is that these Japanese and South Korean companies are focused on expanding to new markets—in particular to the United States. Ironically, though skepticism toward fuel cells persists in the United States, the American market remains one of the most attractive in the world. That’s why South Korean companies have been buying up North American fuel cell companies, and their technology, over the past few years.

LG became a majority investor in Rolls Royce’s fuel cell business in 2012. In 2014, Doosan bought ClearEdge’s assets, and POSCO has continued to strengthen its relationship with FuelCell Energy. These companies bring significant resources and a long term outlook to the fuel cell sector, using their U.S.-based fuel cell businesses as a beachhead into the U.S. market.

Got a Match?

The U.S. market has many characteristics that make it a good market for fuel cells. The shale gas boom is driving interest in electricity generation that can take advantage of plentiful supplies of natural gas. High value markets, such as data centers, are growing in number and in energy demand, and companies like Apple and Microsoft are exploring using fuel cells to bring down those costs. Energy services companies are exploring ways to meet the growing demand for distributed energy resources (DER) , and are using new financing instruments to support  deployment of DER. Incentives and programs to promote fuel cells in states like California and New York are helping to bring down the costs of today’s fuel cells to where the cost of the power approaches grid parity.

It’s not certain, though, that the fuel cell market in the United States will grow beyond early niche markets. Fuel cell companies need to drive down costs and utilize financing schemes like power purchase agreements to reduce the risk to end users. What the fuel cell industry needs is a matchmaker who can bring together the companies working to develop a successful fuel cell market with the right energy company or financing partners in the United States so they can work together to expand the market for fuel cells in this country.


To Spread, Energy Storage Needs Hybrid Solutions

— March 4, 2015

Imagine a single energy storage system capable of serving all potential needs, from a short burst of high power to keeping the lights on for many hours. Such a system could greatly improve the overall economics of energy storage by removing limitations on the amount of revenue a single system can generate.

This is the focus of several leading companies that are looking to develop hybrid energy storage solutions, combining multiple different technologies in a single system. Energy storage technologies all have their ideal applications; some, such as flywheels, ultracapacitors, and certain lithium-ion chemistries are best at delivering high power over shorter periods of time. Others, such as compressed air and flow batteries, are ideally suited for applications that require a lower level of power to be delivered over a longer period of time. Combining technologies into a single system with the flexibility to perform multiple tasks, could greatly improve not only the economic returns on investment, but also the overall lifetime of storage systems.

Life Extension

Many hybrid energy storage systems are currently available or have already been deployed. Power grid giant ABB has been actively developing its flywheel business and is looking to hybrid systems to fully realize the benefits that flywheels can provide. The company has installed a hybrid flywheel/battery system on remote Kodiak Island, in Alaska. In this installation, two 1 MW flywheels handle the grid’s frequency regulation and high power needs, while the batteries provide the energy density required to fill in the gaps of local wind power generation. As short duration/high power needs are more frequent, this hybrid system reduces the number of times the batteries must be discharged, greatly extending the overall life of the system.

Hybrid systems involving ultracapacitors are also finding promising applications. A leading company in this space is the Spanish firm Win Inertia, which has partnered with ultracapacitor manufacturer Maxwell Technologies to offer an integrated hybrid storage system. The ultracapacitors handle the frequent, intense power requirements, allowing the batteries to be discharged less often. This allows the optimal use of high energy density storage technologies, as well as a rapid response to short term issues. Win Inertia is primarily focusing on the software, controls, and system-integration challenges to make this technology as effective as possible.

Beyond Single Applications

Integration with existing electrical grids presents a major software challenge for energy storage system integrators. When multiple types of storage technologies are integrated into a single system, these challenges become even more complex. The overarching goal of energy storage system integration is to ensure the longevity of a system and its constant availability in the market, thus maximizing the return on investment for system owners.

If these challenges can be overcome, the potential for hybrid storage systems is enormous. Standard storage systems are often designed for only one application, for example frequency regulation, which limits the potential revenue they can generate. Hybrid systems with the ability to meet multiple grid needs and capture multiple revenue streams can be much more economical. While advanced hybrid storage systems are only beginning to emerge, they could one day lead the energy storage market.


Islands Sail into Energy Storage

— March 3, 2015

Saddled with the highest electricity rates in the world (and threatened by climate change more than almost any other communities), many islands and isolated grids have opted to integrate wind and solar to replace expensive, imported diesel fuel. One challenge for these systems is that they do not have the benefit of calling upon neighboring systems to balance their wind and solar against load–leading to instability and insecurity of supply.

As a result, many remote grids are adjusting their technical requirements for connecting intermittent resources like wind or solar to the grid, requiring that these resources be firmed. In late 2013, for instance, Puerto Rico adjusted its technical requirements for connecting wind and solar assets to the Puerto Rican grid. This isn’t a direct requirement for energy storage specifically, but is a good fit for storage.

The Flywheel Option

Other island markets are betting on storage more directly. Aruba has committed to an aggressive plan to become 100% renewable by 2020 and has signed agreements with BYD and Temporal Power, as well as a power purchase agreement with Hydrostor in order to achieve its energy goals.

The typical applications in these markets are wind, solar, and diesel hybrids. In previous years, the most common technology for remote, isolated grid storage was advanced batteries. This was partly a function of availability and technology fit. Very few other storage technologies are modular–underground compressed air and traditional pumped storage require specific geologies–and few vendors were targeting the space. Moreover, the working assumption in terms of technology fit has been that a longer-duration storage system is more valuable than a short-duration storage system. Several flywheel vendors are disproving this assumption, however.

ABB’s Powercorp, for example, uses flywheel technology in remote microgrids, such as the BHP Billiton nickel mine in Western Australia and the Coral Bay community in Northwestern Australia. These are remote diesel-led systems.

Way Up North

Beacon Power has commissioned a demonstration project in St. Paul, Alaska, combining an existing plant, which includes a 225-kW wind turbine and 300 kW of diesel generators, with a 160-kW flywheel system. In this scenario, the flywheel system will enable the host utility to further improve wind utilization and deliver fuel savings of up to 30% over existing (pre-flywheel) consumption levels.

While it is still the case that some amount of long-duration storage is necessary in order to achieve very high renewables penetration on an isolated grid, flywheels are demonstrating that significant diesel savings can be achieved with as little as 30 minutes or less of storage.


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