Navigant Research Blog

What Would a Perma-Eclipse Do to Solar Power?

— August 15, 2017

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will captivate millions of observers across the United States. Early on its 1,800 mph path across the country, the moon’s shadow will block 5.6 GW worth of solar power plants in California, the top solar state. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the state’s grid operator, is well prepared to respond with increased flex-ramp usage and regulation service procurement—essentially a combination of demand management and flexible natural gas and hydropower units. CAISO is aided in part by lessons learned from the 2015 eclipse in Europe, which has higher renewables penetration than the United States.

The eclipse reminds us that the sun’s rays can experience volatility beyond known daily and annual cycles and begs the question: what would happen if the sun stopped shining? Though the question may sound alarmist, it is not entirely trivial. A significant impact event would have solar-blocking potential, with impacting objects above 1 km (about half a mile) in diameter potentially ejecting large masses of pulverized rock into the stratosphere. Solar-blocking geoengineering projects, while intentionally limited in scope, are specifically designed to block the sun’s rays. Movie buffs will remember that humanity scorched the sky and purposefully blocked out the sun to battle solar-dependent robots in The Matrix trilogy.

Solar PV accounted for just about 2% of global electricity production in 2016 but was also the world’s leading source of additional power generating capacity. With some grids anticipating 30%, 50%, or higher eventual PV penetrations, the potential degree of vulnerability is significant—though the probability of diminished insolation is low.

Utility-Scale Solar PV Generators and Path of August 21 Solar Eclipse

(Source: US Energy Information Administration)

A Portfolio Approach

The appeal of solar PV, especially when combined with storage, is undeniable. A clean, distributable, and increasingly inexpensive energy source, solar PV will be a crucial source of power globally. But, much like a contrarian stock market investor, it is worthwhile to look beyond the hype to see what risks loom. To use another stock market analogy, asset diversification is important on the electric grid.

Most of our energy ultimately comes from the sun, and this is especially true of today’s zero-carbon resources. Wind energy is partially driven by daily solar cycles and experienced a 10% decline during Europe’s eclipse. Hydropower, a flexible generation resource that will help ramp during California’s eclipse, is also driven by the sun’s ability to evaporate water. Biopower, another important carbon-neutral dispatchable resource, is driven by the sun, though on the longer scale of months to years. Compared to solar power, each of these should be less directly affected by potential solar-blocking phenomena. Meanwhile, nuclear, geothermal, tidal, and carbon-captured fossil fuel power are not dependent on the sun’s rays. A vague threat to the availability of solar energy does not suggest these should be adopted en masse. However, some consideration should be given to adopting a diversified, risk-mitigated portfolio of generation.

What would happen if a heavily solar-dependent Earth suddenly lost that energy source? Our collective gaze would undoubtedly turn from the sky back to the ground—to the likes of nuclear, geothermal, and for the quickest fix, fossil fuels. Being prepared ahead of time with a diversified, efficient, and clean energy mix could help mitigate that risk.

Still, this month’s eclipse will affect the US grid little since fossil fuels still account for most of the national power supply. For now at least, we can use plenty more renewables to diversify our energy portfolio.


Customers Hold Keys to Growth of Turnkey Energy as a Service Solution Providers

— August 15, 2017

A recent Navigant Research blog highlights how corporate commercial and industrial (C&I) energy and sustainability managers are choosing to apply new technology and business model innovations to meet their energy management and sustainability needs. These new customer choices are giving rise to the growth of energy as a service (EaaS) solutions. Navigant Research’s recently released report on the evolution of EaaS defines specific solutions that make up a comprehensive EaaS solution offering:

  • Energy portfolio advisory solutions: Comprehensive, enterprisewide strategic guidance to help customers navigate their unique procurement, energy management, financing, business model, and technology opportunities across all energy management and sustainability needs
  • Onsite energy supply: Distributed generation solutions like solar PV, combined heat and power, diesel and natural gas gensets, microturbines, and fuel cells that improve energy supply
  • Offsite energy supply: Including electricity procurement options from offsite sources in retail choice deregulated electricity and gas markets and from emerging large-scale, offsite renewable energy procurement business models
  • Energy efficiency and building optimization solutions: Comprehensive energy efficiency assessment, business case analysis, financing, implementation, monitoring and verification, and building commissioning services to reduce energy spend and use
  • Load management and optimization solutions: Comprehensive, end-to-end energy management solutions to optimize energy supply, demand, and load at the site and enterprisewide, including demand response (DR), distributed energy storage, microgrid controls, electric vehicle charging equipment, and building energy management and building automation systems and software controls

Turnkey Solutions to Drive Growth

C&I customers that begin to take advantage of these new solutions will increasingly look to turnkey solutions providers that can provide not only strategic advice across their property portfolios, but execution expertise as well. The key driver to enabling the growth of turnkey EaaS solutions vendors will be the ability to deliver comprehensive financing solutions to help customers avoid spending capital on energy projects. However, there are two additional drivers that vendors who are considering creating and delivering turnkey EaaS solutions will need to consider:

  • Historically, C&I customers have needed multiple regional partners to manage even a portion of their energy management needs. Turnkey EaaS vendors seeking to address C&I customers’ portfolio-wide needs for EaaS will require widely trained and deeply experienced advisory capabilities to address their customers’ complex energy procurement, financing, and technology deployment needs. For example, in the United States, a turnkey provider will need to have the depth of regional expertise under one roof necessary to address customer strategic needs in diverse energy markets and climate zones like Texas, California, New York, the Southeast, or the Midwest.
  • Experienced C&I energy and sustainability managers have endured years of disappointment from energy use and cost reduction claims that never materialized. Moreover, many of these managers have still not yet even tried to reduce energy spend. What C&I customers truly want is guaranteed lower energy costs, whether from solar PV, energy storage, energy efficiency, or DR. Vendors that blend execution expertise across all EaaS solutions with financing tools to guarantee cost savings through a single point of sale will be best positioned.

To date, with customer-sited distributed energy resources, too much emphasis has been placed on trying to figure out where to sell technology outside of a focus on solving customer problems. For turnkey EaaS vendors, market growth will not necessarily be led on a technology-first basis. For at-scale revenue generation, these vendors should start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. Navigant Research anticipates that vendors that place a keen eye on how to bring turnkey, customer-focused EaaS solutions into the market through a trusted, single point of contact with a financed savings guarantee will be at a competitive advantage.


Tesla and Storage Industry Take Up Another Challenge to Strengthen the Grid

— August 3, 2017

In September 2016, the massive blackout that hit South Australia cut electrical service to roughly half of the state’s 1.7 million residents for anywhere from 4 to 48 hours, putting grid reliability and renewable energy in the spotlight. Following that event, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed that large-scale energy storage could have prevented the disaster, promising that his company could build 100 MW of energy storage in just 100 days or it would be free. While this was seen by many as an attempt to get energy storage in the conversation about grid upgrades, it has now been announced that Tesla won a competitive solicitation to build a 100 MW storage facility.

Tesla’s new project will be located at the Hornsdale Wind Farm currently being built by French firm Neoen. The project will have a 100 MW power output with 129 MWh of storage capacity using Tesla’s lithium ion Powerpacks. The system will be used to smooth the output of the wind farm, shift energy to align with grid demand, and provide reserve capacity for the grid that could theoretically prevent future blackouts as both a source of system inertia and system restart services (in other words, a blackstart).

Major Challenges

Tesla faces some major challenges to build this project in such a short period. If successfully operational within 100 days, it would be one of the few 100 MWh-scale storage systems in the world commissioned in less than 4 months. These records were recently set last year when several large storage projects were built in response to California’s Aliso Canyon natural gas leak to provide emergency reserve capacity.

The key challenges noted by companies that developed the Aliso Canyon response projects involved supply chain and logistics and the overall orchestration/coordination of the project. However, Tesla may have advantages in logistics, as it is a vertically integrated provider of battery systems, which will reduce the time required to order both batteries and balance of system components. Given its recent expansion of manufacturing capacity, it is possible that the company already has many of the modular Powerpack systems built and ready to ship to support this project.

Once the batteries and all necessary components have arrived onsite, the coordination of such a large and complex engineering project is no small feat. Few projects of this scale and type have been built. As with many large storage projects, the experience is a first for local contractors providing engineering and construction work, which can delay the process.

Major Impact

If the project is successfully developed on time, it will represent another milestone, proving the maturity of the energy storage industry. The relatively short timeframe needed to build new large-scale storage projects gives the technology a major advantage over alternatives such as thermal power plants and transmission and distribution infrastructure. A shorter development period allows for shorter planning cycles for utilities, allowing them to quickly respond to changing grid conditions.

This project represents the first major competitive win for Tesla’s large-scale storage business in the Australian market. However, Tesla is not alone in developing massive storage plants in Australia. The Lyon Group recently announced its third solar plus storage project in the country, bringing its total pipeline of projects in development to 640 MWh. However, many stakeholders still question the economic viability of these storage projects, and regulatory rules are still evolving in Australia and other markets around the world. Despite the concerns, these projects are evidence that energy storage is starting to play a major role in the global electricity industry, with large-scale projects able to solve grid issues faster than conventional systems.


First Dedicated Vessel for the US Offshore Wind Industry

— August 1, 2017

The US offshore wind market has been caught in the classic “the chicken or the egg” conundrum for years. The lack of purpose-built offshore wind installation jack-up vessels in the United States—necessary for the deployment of wind turbines in marine environments—has added uncertainty, complexity, and financial risk to the nascent offshore wind market in the country. It is also a key factor contributing to the slower-than-expected growth of offshore wind in the United States.

Multiple Issues

I wouldn’t attribute all the blame for the United States lagging behind Europe with offshore wind to this issue. European countries and China have been willing to provide generous regulatory and financial support for offshore wind, along with policies that are set up with a long-term framework. By contrast, the US market’s primary incentive mechanisms, the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit (PTC/ITC), have been enacted in short-term on and sometimes off again schedules for more than a decade.

Onshore wind developers with projects in advanced development can go from a turbine order to commissioned project in less than 8 months. The offshore wind industry, however, takes substantially longer for project development, turbine procurement, and project construction. Large wind projects in Europe typically require 2 years for construction. Prior to construction, the development and investment phases usually take at least 3-5 years.

That reality is the main reason offshore wind has been slower to take off than expected, but following at a close second is the lack of US-based jack-up vessels. These vessels have not been built in the United States because the offshore wind market demand has not been there to justify their pricey construction. Then why not simply bring a vessel or two from Europe?

The Jones Act

An antiquated maritime law from the 1930s called the Jones Act plays a major role in this issue. The law makes it illegal for vessels that are not built in the United States and crewed by American staff (a US flagged vessel) to deliver goods and conduct work from port to port. It is largely considered a protectionist measure to protect the US shipbuilding industry. One offshore project was commissioned last year, Deepwater Wind’s 30 MW Block Island wind farm off the Rhode Island coast. The Jones Act forced additional cost and complexity because the developers had to contract a jack-up vessel from Europe due to the lack of US vessels. Yet, the vessel could not touch US shores, where normally it would pick up the wind turbines, towers, and blades. Instead, Deepwater had to use smaller US flagged barges that towed wind turbine equipment out to the site, where it was transferred to the European jack-up vessel, thus increasing the cost, complexity, and risks of the project.

A Step Forward

One small but important step has arrived to mitigate the Jones Act problem. Two Texas-based companies active in the oil & gas industry, Zentech Inc. and Renewables Resources International (RRI), recently announced they would be the first to build an offshore wind construction jack-up vessel. The vessel will be a four-legged, self-propelled dynamically-positioned level 2 (DP2) jack-up vessel based on a US-built barge. Zentech plans to install four truss legs with spud cans, a proven oil & gas design, integrated in a newly built hull. It will be able to install in each port-to-site voyage three 6 MW-9 MW range wind turbines. Commissioning is expected in 4Q 2018.

The US offshore wind industry still faces challenges, but this recent announcement is a positive step toward minimizing the Jones Act as one of the industry’s impediments.


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