Navigant Research Blog

For the First Time, Solar Surpasses Wind

— June 20, 2017

2016 was a record year for solar with 76.6 GW installed—50% year-over-year growth from the 51.2 GW installed the year before. This brings solar to over 300 GW installed globally, just after exceeding the 200 GW mark in 2015, according to SolarPower Europe. This is great news for the broader renewables industries and for anyone concerned about climate change. However, it may raise some concerns within the wind energy industry, which for many years has vastly exceeded the installation rates of solar.

Since wind installed 54.3 GW (cumulative wind capacity stands at 484 GW), 2016 marks a turning point: the first time solar has exceeded wind energy’s annual installation rates. Solar only recently has been considered a serious competitor to wind, as solar PV module prices have fallen and installation rates have skyrocketed. This has led some notable developers (such as US-based Pattern Energy and Tri Global) to diversify from wind into solar, and turbine manufacturers Gamesa (now Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy [SGRE]) and Suzlon to diversify into solar. SGRE landed a deal to build 130 GW of solar projects in India using inverters manufactured by Gamesa from factory capacity previously intended only for wind turbine power converters. Pattern is involved in a number of solar projects, including its first solar foray with 120 MW in Chile.

Wind continues to attack costs. It has decreased its cost of energy by 66% over the past 7 years (while solar decreased 85%), and its higher capacity factor of around 40% versus solar means wind will continue to maintain an edge in total megawatt-hours produced with the same nameplate capacity as solar. However, there are some key detractions to wind power that can’t easily be overcome. Two major impediments stand out: resource constraints and aesthetic impact.

Resource Constraints

Wind power is increasingly cost competitive in areas where there are good wind resources. In the United States, for example, the clear majority of wind capacity is installed in the vast central interior corridor spanning through Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. The consistent, low turbulence wind makes new wind plants cheaper than fossil fuel generation in those parts of the country.

While some of those states boast significant populations, the majority of the US population is located along the coasts where much less wind power is being developed because the resources are not as good (except for offshore—an entirely different topic). Solar doesn’t have the same challenge, as areas with strong solar resources are more likely to be colocated with population centers.

The Aesthetic Challenge

Wind turbines have increased their efficiency by evolving taller towers and longer blades. While this results in fewer turbines needed at a given project, it still results in a major visual change to the horizon. There are many people around the world that do not welcome such obstructions. Solar is arguably less visually obtrusive, as it takes up space on roofs in the residential setting or large fields in commercial settings.

Wind development has largely plateaued and global installations above 50 GW are expected annually for the next 10 years. Whether solar will begin to consistently eclipse those figures as it maximizes its core strengths is the big question.

Best of Both Worlds?

Regardless, one factor that will help the two technologies remain (to some degree) complementary instead of direct competitors is the different and complementary resource profiles. In most parts of the world, sunny months tend to be less windy and windy months tend to be less sunny. Analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany’s grid shows greater value and system stability with both wind and solar operating versus only one of the two technologies operating.


Taking VPPs to the Next Level

— June 20, 2017

The primary goal of a virtual power plant (VPP) is to achieve the greatest possible profit for asset owners—such as a resident with rooftop solar PV coupled with batteries—while maintaining the proper balance of the electricity grid at the lowest possible economic and environmental cost.

The purpose is clear, but getting to this nirvana is not easy. Nevertheless, there are clear signs that the VPP market is maturing. New partnerships are pointing the way for control software platforms that can manage distributed energy resources (DER) in creative ways.

Creating a DERMS for Utilities

Case in point: the recent collaboration between Enbala Power Networks and ABB to create a DER management system (DERMS) platform for utilities. Underpinning this foray into smarter DER controls is the following statistic: more distributed generation (DG) will be coming online in 2017 than traditional centralized generation (coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants). By 2026, 3 times as much DG will be coming online and sending power into the grid than these traditional centralized power plants. That gap will only widen more over time.

Annual Installed Centralized vs. Distributed Power Capacity, World Markets: 2017-2026

(Source: Navigant Research)

The entire ecosystem of DER, including DG, will need to be managed in new ways if value is to be shared between diverse asset owners and the incumbent utility grid. Utilities are slowly coming to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. Consider these survey results from January of this year, with over 100 utilities responding. 18% of respondents indicated that they already had a DERMS in place, while 77% said they planned to implement their own DERMS program within the next 36 months. These responses show a majority of utilities today anticipate needing to implement DER control solutions in the near future.

There are many innovators in the VPP space, including Enbala. Along with its new partnership with Swiss industrial grid powerhouse ABB, the company’s recent expansion of its controls and optimization architecture leveraging recent advances in machine learning are helping to push the VPP platform into the mainstream. In the process, Enbala is providing metrics that suggest a promising ROI for VPPs.

Cost of Traditional Power Plants versus VPPs

Here’s a quick comparison. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the cost of building a new coal power plant is approximately $3 million/MW. This capital outlay does not consider the risk of future environmental regulation that may occur over the 20- to 30-year life of the project. While the cost of a new natural gas-fired power plant is much less—approximately $900/MW—that cost still represents a potential future liability. In comparison, the cost per megawatt for a VPP that takes advantage of the diverse set of existing DER assets is approximately $80/MW. Furthermore, the investment in the software and supporting IT infrastructure that creates the VPP does not carry either environmental liability or the risk of stranded investment. The VPP value can only increase over time as new markets emerge for grid services.

In the final analysis, VPPs optimized by smart software controls and new innovative business models such as transactive energy are key to realizing a vision of the future that Navigant has deemed as the Energy Cloud. To learn more, check out the new white paper developed by Navigant Research for Enbala and look for details about the forthcoming webinar on August 15.


Thermal Energy Storage Solutions Are Heating Up

— June 16, 2017

While the new generation of battery energy storage systems have captured the attention of the global electric industry and media, more traditional forms of energy storage have been quietly operating for decades. Thermal energy storage is already a well-established technology that has been utilized in large buildings to reduce energy expenses by freezing water overnight and using lower priced off-peak electricity to offset air conditioning (AC) compressor needs during daytime peak demand periods. These systems allow building owners to generate significant savings on their utility bills with no effect on comfort or daily operations.

Despite limited media attention, thermal energy storage theoretically has many advantages over battery-based storage systems, including generally lower costs (both on an upfront and total cost of ownership basis), longer system life expectancy, non-toxic designs and materials, and ease of recycling at the end of a project’s life. These advantages and the maturity of the technology have allowed thermal storage to play a critical role in district heating and cooling systems around the world. However, in recent years, new thermal storage solutions have been commercialized, targeting new markets and providing competition for lithium ion and other battery technologies.

Thermal Storage Solutions Expanding

In late 2014, utility Southern California Edison (SCE) announced awards for a landmark procurement of energy storage capacity to optimize grid reliability, support renewable energy integration, and fulfill local capacity requirements. While most contracts were awarded to battery energy storage providers, up and coming thermal energy storage provider Ice Energy won a contract to provide 25.6 MW of capacity. Although Ice Energy’s technology operates similar to many other thermal storage systems, its approach to the market—targeting utilities with peak demand reduction solutions—provided SCE with a cost-effective way to reliably reduce customer demand and strain on its distribution system. The key to Ice Energy’s offering is the ability to virtually aggregate its distributed systems and give utilities control, providing a reliable, location-specific form of peak load reduction. Ice Energy continues to land contracts with utility customers, and it has expanded its product line to target residential customers in addition to commercial and industrial buildings.

Thermal storage solutions are expanding from an early focus on managing AC loads to target other building systems that require large amounts of cooling power. One of the more successful innovators in this market to date has been Axiom Energy. The company’s refrigeration batteries are being installed by major retailers, including Walmart, and through a partnership with New York utility Con Edison. Axiom Energy’s technology works on a similar principle as AC-based storage systems and can be installed on existing refrigeration systems without major modifications or reprogramming. These systems offer both utilities and customers a reliable, non-disruptive way to reduce their peak power consumption and the associated expenses.

Best of Both

The recent advances made in thermal energy storage technologies are heating up the debate over the merits of these systems versus battery storage. Both technologies have certain advantages and disadvantages, and both should play important roles in the modernization of building energy management and power grid operations. However, battery storage continues to grow in popularity and market share in the storage industry. The ability of battery systems to provide both peak demand reduction and backup power in a more compact physical footprint is a key advantage over thermal storage. As the industry progresses, there will likely be increasing opportunities for both technologies. In fact, for many customers, the best approach may be to utilize both thermal and battery storage, taking advantage of the best of both to maximize their potential savings.


Batteries Overtake Fuel Cells as California Reopens SGIP

— June 12, 2017

California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) reopened in May after a hiatus that included an overhaul and expansion of the program. Public program data continues to shed light on the competitive distributed energy resources (DER) scene in California as vendors stake their claims. Energy storage, historically a small funding recipient, is now front and center. Stationary fuel cells, historically funded by $0.5 billion in SGIP funds, accounted for zero applications (though the industry forges ahead elsewhere).

The key changes to SGIP are as follows:

  • SGIP reopened on May 1, 2017 with double the previous annual budget—$567 million through 2019.
  • There is a new emphasis on storage, with more than 75% of the budget allocated there. Key reasons for this shift include the need for storage to support intermittent renewables and a shift from carbon-emitting generation.
  • Power generation projects, including small wind and natural gas distributed generation (DG), are allotted less than 25% of total funds—in a category that historically took more than 90% of the $1.25 billion of incentives paid since 2001. Gas DG projects must add at least 10% biogas into the gas mix in 2017, increasing in steps to 100% by 2020.
  • Incentives are awarded across the investor-owned utility territories in 5 steps, with a 20-day minimum waiting period between. If a step is fully subscribed, applicants are entered into a lottery. This lottery was needed for the initial storage steps and allowed all applicants to have a shot at program funds.

A deeper look at the 1,237 applications logged during May serves as a guide to California’s DER space:

  • No fuel cell projects applied in 2017—after nearly half of historical SGIP funds (more than half a billion dollars) were awarded to fuel cell projects. Many stationary fuel cell manufacturers are regrouping around a technology that still has potential.
  • Storage was popular, with step 1 fully subscribed on day one across most utilities: 1,198 of the 1,237 total applications were received on the first day.
  • Generation accounted for just 9 of the 1,237 projects. However, the funds requested for those large projects exceed $6 million, more than 10% of total funds in step 1.
  • Generation’s step 1 was not fully subscribed; it appears the rigid biogas rules are discouraging many potential applicants. This requirement aimed to encourage growth in the biogas industry, but it seems there is insufficient supply or the economics aren’t panning out yet. All four natural gas project applications were based around onsite digester gas rather than directed (offsite) biogas.
  • The program roughly subscribes to the 80/20 rule: 80% of the funds were requested by less than 20% of developers (17 of 117, developers requested 80% of the funds). For equipment providers, there is a favorite: Tesla equipment, presumably all lithium ion batteries, accounts for $29 million, or more than half the applicant funds.

A summary of the leading participants is available at the SGIP website. Note that new data is coming in from step 2, which opened the week of June 5. A historical statistical overview of the program is provided below.

Selected SGIP Statistics

(Source: Center for Sustainable Energy, as of May 8, 2017)

SGIP has had its share of detractors, including claims that it unfairly rewarded certain technologies or companies or overspent ratepayer money. Yet, SGIP’s $1.25 billion in payments have helped cement California’s role as a global DER leader by developing industries that that may be worth much more in the future. In addition, the program has supplied valuable data, including information on capacity factors, efficiency, cost, and other metrics. The understanding of these metrics contributes greatly to the public good and the goal of a transparent and sustainable future.


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