Navigant Research Blog

Into the Wild, with Clean Technology

— February 2, 2015

Yosemite National Park remains among the largest preserved wild spaces in the world, but with over 4 million visitors annually, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find solitude there. This month, Yosemite was thrust into the media as the United States became aware of (and potentially a little obsessed with) two rock climbers trying successfully to free-climb the Dawn Wall, which is the most difficult route on one of Yosemite’s iconic rock faces, El Capitan.  Through mobile phones and hotspots, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson shared and received real-time updates (including photos and streaming videos) with friends, family, and of course the media.

The climbers spent 19 days off the ground, much longer than the typical iPhone battery could ever last. So, they hauled solar powered chargers up the wall with them to power their phones, lights, cameras, computers, and other gadgets.  Their solar gear came from Goal Zero, one of a few companies that fill the niche for mobile/recreational solar power kits for athletes and travelers.

All the Mod Cons

These devices, although they lower demand for energy infrastructure in wilderness areas, are among many new technologies that are allowing visitors to enjoy modern niceties while enhancing preservation efforts in the face of record numbers of visitors.  Over the years, the park has had to develop strategies for transportation, sanitation, power, and communications that support preservation.

Another big issue is constant, full bandwidth connectivity.  On the Dawn Wall, the climbers enjoyed a relatively strong cellular connection.  But for areas without such access, the connectivity problem can be solved with a two-way satellite phone, an old technology that can now carry enough bandwidth to upload and send photos and videos.  A couple of years ago, these climbers remotely produced and shared a short film from a peak in Nepal.  Edmund Hillary would be astounded, not to say depressed.

The Waste Issue

Aside from managing new demands for connectivity and power, one of the biggest issues for the national parks and other preservation bureaus is human waste.  As the number of visitors grows, so does the need to deal with their … leftovers.  There are basically two ways to deal with human waste in areas without sewage systems.  The first is to carry it away and put it somewhere else. Most commonly, companies are contracted to collect and transport the waste, which is expensive.  In British Columbia, Bugaboo Provincial Park uses a helicopter to transport waste out of the park.

The second method, much less common, is to deal with it on site.  A park in Colorado began constructing an evaporative system for human waste in 2001, with reported successful outcomes.  Organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have recently poured money into research for developing isolated toilet systems for rural developing communities, which could also be appropriate for public outdoor spaces (I wrote a blog about the Gates program in 2013).

Caldwell and Jorgeson stored their waste and disposed of it offsite, which is common practice for mountaineers and climbers. This system, made by a company called Metolius Gear, comes highly recommended.

In any case, the Dawn Wall ascent and the worldwide interest it generated, highlighted a keen interest in natural spaces and human activity therein.  More than ever, companies in various markets have begun to realize how their technologies can support this growing wave of outdoor enthusiasts who desire to visit these spaces in comfort and with a good connections.  That’s a good thing, because these spaces are now able to support more visitors with heightened needs while retaining the beauty that makes them so special.

 

Building Innovations Form Pivotal Spokes in the Circular Economy

— February 2, 2015

The annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has come and gone again, and the usual irony of 1,700 private jets delivering the global elite to discuss climate change and inequality was perfectly ridiculed by Jon Stewart last week. But, beyond the spectacle of outsized wealth, there are some valuable economic and policy projects that hold promise outside the weeklong schmooze-fest.

In particular, the Circular Economy, an ongoing project at the forum, aims to tackle the current paradigm of consumption in light of a future of constrained resources and exponential growth in demand.  The Ellen McArthur Foundation, which supports an ongoing dialog on the circular economy explains the concept as thus:  “A circular economy seeks to rebuild capital, whether this is financial, manufactured, human, social or natural. This ensures enhanced flows of goods and services.”  An important question is how the theory of the circular economy can become tangible, which was a hot topic for this year’s discussions in Davos.

Rethink, Remodel

In the run-up to this year’s event, a Forbes article explained that the circular economy “requires businesses to rethink more than just their resource footprints and energy efficiency. It demands a more radical remodelling of business models.”  Reflecting on the big ideas of the circular economy, it seems the intelligent building, smart city, and innovations in energy management could be an ideal proving ground for these concepts in action.

The intelligent building is characterized by automated and responsive systems that maximize efficiency in consumption and productivity.  Intelligent buildings offer a new sort of resource that extends beyond the walls of any single facility to support key goals of grid modernization and the development of smart cities.  The technology exists to enable this kind of facility optimization, and investment in intelligent buildings and smart cities can demonstrate the benefits of a circular economy.  The following examples highlight how companies are bringing solutions to the intelligent building and smart city marketplace that align with the opportunity of the circular economy.

  • Philips has committed to the circular economy and the company’s lighting as a service offering aims to engage cost-constrained customers and manage the end-of-life treatment of lighting and system components.
  • Schneider Electric and Autodesk have announced a new partnership to bring innovation to building lifecycle management and “drive a deep and long-term transformation in the construction industry, providing greater value to each user and contributing to solve the energy challenge.”
  • Cisco’s position is presented as an “engineering strategy around the Internet of Everything [supporting] the transition to a circular economy, with new connected devices enabling the tracking of products, components and materials for re-use and recovery; new business models through greater connection with customers; and more effective reverse logistics chains.”

While the circular economy might seem like a lofty ideal that will demand major shifts in our consumption mindset, advances like these demonstrate steps in the right direction.

 

2015: A Turning Point for Batteries

— January 30, 2015

One of the biggest energy stories of 2014 was the emergence of battery-based energy storage as a reasonable option for grid management.  But the battery industry is just getting started.  This year, the energy news cycle will be led by batteries on all fronts.  This year will mark the tipping point that sees batteries become not only an accepted part of our electricity grid and transportation network, but also a key underpinning to the global economy.

Beneath these developments is a single realization that the world is beginning to accept: that high-quality advanced batteries are becoming very cheap.  As Navigant Research’s Materials for Advanced Batteries report explains, a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery that was priced at more than $1,000 per kWh in 2009 can now be bought for a third of that.  And there is no visible end to the reductions in pricing.  This price decline is caused by three factors:

Manufacturing scale: The world’s battery factories are capable producing some 100 GWh worth of Li-ion cells this year.  While not that much will actually be made (Navigant Research expects that 2015 will see some 65 GWh of Li-ion batteries produced), the manufacturing scale is now in place to enable the enormous growth of the use of batteries that is to be expected as pricing comes down.  And the capacity is only growing with time.  When Tesla Motors and Panasonic build their GigaFactory in Nevada in 2017, global manufacturing capacity will be increased by 50%.

Manufacturing expertise: It’s been 24 years since Sony introduced the first mass-produced Li-ion battery.  It’s taken that long for manufacturers to make these products at high efficiencies and high speeds.  A typical production line can now crank out 4 times the batteries that the same machines were able to produce just 5 years ago in the same amount of time.

Supply chain maturity: The chemicals that go into Li-ion batteries used to be specialty, batch-processed chemicals.  Now that the industry is so large, they have been converted into continuously processed commodity chemicals.  This means cheaper input materials, which in turn translates into cheaper batteries.

Golden Age

Now that these three factors have conspired to result in an environment of cheaper Li-ion batteries, the industries that use those batteries will see dramatically increased demand.  Here are some key events expected in early 2015 that will help usher in this golden year for batteries:

New automotive launches: Three cars will be unveiled in early 2015 that have the potential to be enormous sales leaders.  The 2016 Chevy Volt might make the Volt become a reasonable alternative to other low-priced compacts, even in this age of cheap gas.  The Model X, Tesla’s version of a high-end crossover, has the potential to be even more popular than the launch of the Model S in 2013.  And the BMW 5-series electric vehicle (EV) could hit the sweet spot of a mid-size luxury EV.  Even if only two of these three models turns into a global success, it will mean dramatically higher EV sales in 2015.

The great California grid rush: Each of the major California utilities has now issued requests for proposals for grid energy storage systems.  Combined with the final announcement of the winners of the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) bid in Hawaii sometime this spring, these programs will see the most extensive purchases of grid storage systems in history.

Additionally, new products in the e-bike, e-scooter, and portable appliance markets will see dramatic growth in the thirst for batteries in those markets as well.  All told, 2015 is shaping up to be a historic year for the battery industry and for the industries that buy batteries to make their products popular.

 

Cape Wind Project Faces New Hurdles

— January 26, 2015

The prospects for near-term offshore wind take-off in the United States dimmed at the end of 2014, as the two utilities that had agreed to buy the electricity output of the 468 MW Cape Wind offshore project terminated their contracts.  The deals collapsed because the developers of Cape Wind had failed to reach key contractual milestones for project financing and construction launch by December 31, 2014.  National Grid signed a conditional power purchase agreement (PPA) in 2010 for 50% of the project output, and utility NSTAR agreed to purchase an additional 27.5% of the project’s output in 2012.

Saying they do not regard the terminations as valid, Cape Wind officials claim that force majeure provisions in the contracts stipulate that the milestones should have been extended.  Once again, the embattled project is in a legal dispute – and this one with potentially show-stopping consequences.  No offshore wind project in the United States can proceed without the price certainty of a PPA.  The outcome of these contract disputes could deal a fatal blow to a project that has been under development for 14 years.

Not in My Ocean

Planning for Cape Wind has taken so long partly because it was the first to navigate the unchartered waters of offshore wind development in a country that has little offshore wind policy and, as yet, no steel in the water.  Vociferous and well-funded opposition to the project’s location off Nantucket Island – a popular vacation destination for the affluent and influential – plagued it from the beginning.  The developers have been fighting a two-front battle against the challenges of offshore wind and the legal hurdles put up by anti-wind activists, coastal homeowners, and conservative billionaires.

The unfortunate reality is that, while the United States has excellent offshore wind potential along the Eastern seaboard and growing need for diversified and clean electricity generation, U.S.  policies are ill-suited to support offshore wind.  The production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC) for renewable energy projects subsidize around 30% of the cost of building an offshore wind farm.  European countries like Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom provide similar levels of subsidy.  The major difference is that those incentives have been consistent and long-lived enough to support projects that are years in development.

Back and Forth

Unlike most developed countries, where tax law is permanent until changed through legislation or other decrees, many U.S. tax laws and incentives are increasingly enacted on a temporary basis.  This is partly because U.S. lawmakers count on industries like wind power to help finance their election campaigns.  As a result, tax favors are largely granted on a 1- or 2-year basis, resulting in boom and bust cycles (13 GW of wind installed in 2012 in the United States, for example, followed by 1 GW installed in 2013).  This also results in severe inefficiencies in manufacturing and human resources as factories lay off workers only to rehire again when incentives resume.

The onshore wind industry grudgingly copes with this back-and-forth because onshore wind can be built in 1- and 2-year cycles.  But offshore projects require much longer to develop and build.  Eventually, U.S. lawmakers may realize the benefits of offshore wind and provide suitable long-term incentives.  Unfortunately, that will likely come decades after more progressive countries in Europe – and now China – are far ahead in offshore wind.

 

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