Navigant Research Blog

Coming to the Motor City: A Smarter Grid

— July 13, 2014

The smart grid in Detroit is about to get smarter – and so are utility industry executives exploring options for real-time grid data and analytics.  Distribution grid sensor developer Tollgrade Communications recently announced a $300,000 project to deploy its LightHouse sensors and predictive grid analytics solution across DTE Energy’s Detroit network.  The companies aim to demonstrate how outages can be prevented.

The 3-year program was selected as a Commitment to Action project by the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) at the recent CGI event in Denver, where Tollgrade CEO Ed Kennedy took to the stage with former president Bill Clinton to discuss the project.  Tollgrade, Kennedy said, will make public quarterly reports on the project, beginning in 1Q 2015, identifying best practices and sharing detailed performance statistics.

Cheaper Than Building a Substation

With 2.1 million customers and 2,600 feeder circuits, DTE Energy has already begun piloting the system around Detroit, and Tollgrade says that it hopes to prevent 500,000 outage minutes over the next 3 years.  Because of the heavy concentration of auto manufacturing in the Detroit area, those saved minutes should translate into substantial economic benefits.  The system will leverage several communications protocols, including DTE’s advanced metering infrastructure communications network, reducing the startup cost and improving the return on investment.

The sensors will be placed along troublesome feeders as well as outside substations where older infrastructure increases the likelihood of outages.  Combined with the predictive analytics solution, the sensors cost just a few thousand dollars per location and could help DTE Energy avoid or defer replacing a million-dollar substation.  Both investors and regulators are sure to like those stats.

Predicting Change

Predictive grid analytics has been a hot topic in the industry for the last few years, but only recently have the prices of solutions and sensors fallen to a level where utilities can justify the cost to deploy them widely throughout the distribution network.  Navigant Research expects the market for distribution grid sensor equipment to grow from less than $400 million worldwide today to 4 times that amount by 2023.  (Detailed analysis of distribution grid sensors can be found in Navigant Research’s report, Asset Management and Condition Monitoring.)

Since its first meeting in 2011, CGI America participants have made more than 400 commitments valued at nearly $16 billion when fully funded and implemented.  The Modern Grid was one of 10 working groups this year; others include efforts in Sustainable Buildings and Infrastructure for Cities and States.

Another CGI Commitment to Action grant announced last week will fund a market-based, fixed-price funding program for solar and renewable technologies.  The Feed-Out Program from Demeter Power will support solar-powered carports with electric vehicle charging stations at a net-negative cost to the customer.  In other words, eligible businesses pay a fixed monthly fee to Demeter Power (lower than their previous monthly electricity bill) and their employees and customers enjoy free car charging while parked there.  Demeter will own and maintain the infrastructure.

The program will initially make financing available to commercial properties located in Northern California communities participating in the California FIRST property assessed clean energy (PACE) Program, which is offered through the California Statewide Community Development Authority.  Interested participants must register with Demeter Power Group to participate in the program, which is expected to launch in the first quarter of 2015.

 

Leasing EV Chargers and Profiting

— July 10, 2014

There are about as many business models for operating electric vehicle (EV) charging stations as there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, but so far, none of them have been clearly profitable.  While worldwide sales of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have grown to more than 12,000 monthly, in most locations today, there isn’t enough traffic for EV charging stations to directly pay back their cost within 3 years, which is a typical required return on investment.

Several hardware companies are trying to lower the cost of the equipment, which could reduce the payback period.  In the United Kingdom, electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) company POD Point is now leasing charging stations to lower the upfront cost.  For approximately £50 ($85) per month installed, POD Point will provide a commercial charger, which the company says requires just two charging sessions per day to be profitable.  Leasing can be a viable option for companies looking for an easy way to enter the market, and the leasing company has a vested interest in making sure that the stations remain operational.

Dig It

For companies that prefer to purchase the hardware outright, ClipperCreek recently began to offer a commercial charger for just $395 before installation costs.  A pay-by-mobile phone system from Liberty Access Technologies that manages up to 10 charging stations and enables fees to be collected can be added on.

The cost of installation, which can require trenching, running conduit curbside, and upgraded power delivery to the location, remains the Achilles’ heel of profitable EV charging, and unfortunately, there’s little leeway in reducing the contractor and cabling fees.

Automakers are getting involved to lower the cost and pain of EV charging.  Tesla bundles the costs of accessing its SuperCharger network with the vehicle purchase price, while Nissan is paying for the first 2 years of charging a LEAF with its recently announced No Charge to Charge program.  Nissan has teamed up with AeroVironment, NRG, and the Car Charging Group on the EZ-Charge program, which gives EV owners a single payment card for accessing chargers from these EVSE providers.  EV charging company ChargePoint was supposed to work with EZ-Charge too, but backed out of the agreement.

In Japan, Nissan has joined with Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi to form Nippon Charge Service, an EV charging company that will provide incentives for companies to offer commercial EV charging at retail outlets.

Lattes Not Included

As detailed in Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment report, to be profitable today, most commercial EV charging stations need to bundle the cost of charging with some other service or fee structure.  These include combining EV charging with conventional parking fees, valet service at a hotel, or offering subscription services that combine home and public charging (a la the NRG eVgo network).  Startup Volta in Hawaii and Juice Bar have taken another approach by using advertising revenue to reduce the cost of a charging station, a growing trend that is likely to increase in popularity.

There will come a day soon, however, when EV penetration will be sufficient in some regions to make pay-as-you-go EV charging services profitable.  Gas prices will likely continue to rise (gasoline in the United States  is up $0.16 from last year at this time, according to AAA) and EV charging service providers will have more flexibility in pricing, since electricity as a fuel will increasingly be a better deal ‑ making profitability easier to attain.

 

Big Savings from Replacing Diesel with Storage

— July 6, 2014

In my previous blog on diesel and energy storage, I discussed the payback period for energy storage in a remote microgrid.  What is the value of reducing diesel usage in a microgrid, practically speaking?

The table below illustrates the first-year savings of displacing 15% of the diesel generation in microgrids of different sizes using energy storage.  The average installed energy storage cost in this model is $2,112 per kW, and the assumption for the minimum cost of diesel fuel is $1.09 per liter, with the maximum cost in the model averaging $3.27 per liter.  Since the installation of storage is a one-time cost that occurs in the first year, the savings go up after that.

Size Distribution of Deployed Microgrids and First-Year Fuel Savings
at Low and High Diesel Costs: 4Q 2013

ESMG table

(Source: Navigant Research)

According to Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker 2Q14, 231 deployed microgrids have diesel generation capacity.  This means that 38% of microgrids have diesel gensets, and overall, gensets account for 11% of microgrid capacity globally.  Only 40% of the 79 microgrids above 10 MW include diesel generators, and smaller systems are less likely to have diesel generation.  Less than one-third of the microgrids below 500 kW rely at least partially on diesel.

Taking the example of a large microgrid system, because this is where the savings are the greatest, microgrids over 10 MW average 42.7 MW of capacity.

Still Too Costly

Assuming a microgrid does in fact have diesel generation, if a 42 MW microgrid replaced 15% of its total capacity (and assuming at least 15% of that capacity would be displacing diesel gensets) with storage, it could save between $10.9 million and $53.4 million per year after storage costs are recouped.  The total savings for all of the large microgrid systems in Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker would amount to $2.2 billion to $10.8 billion per year in diesel fuel using just 200 MW of energy storage.

So why is storage not more popular in remote microgrids?  Chances are it’s because $2,112 per kW installed is still not competitive in most markets where storage is displacing traditional power generation – even with the benefits of volume manufacturing.  Companies such as Samsung SDI and LG Chem are manufacturing lithium ion cells for the grid at great volume, but it’s still challenging to deliver competitive prices to the customer.  This is because a large portion of costs has nothing to do with the core technology, and instead is related to project management, system design and integration, and installation.  As more companies such as Bosch and Schneider Electric enter the market and bring power electronics and energy management expertise to the storage space, these costs will come down significantly, benefiting the entire supply chain. 

 

Business Community Wakes to Climate Change Risks

— June 27, 2014

Attempting to reframe the climate change debate in terms of profit and loss, instead of politics, a bipartisan group of business and political leaders has released a report that says the United States faces billions of dollars in economic losses due to global warming.  Titled Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, the study was produced by the Rhodium Group, an economic research firm, in association with a committee headed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund manager who has devoted his fortune to the effort to limit climate change.

Essentially, Risky Business makes the point, through an exhaustive database of the probable economic downsides of rising seas, drought, higher temperatures, and crop failures, that regardless of politics, it is irresponsible to ignore the risks of climate change – especially if you’re a businessperson, investor, or money manager.  With its high-powered lineup of Republican and Democratic financial heavyweights, Risky Business is the latest signal that the business community is awakening to the grave consequences of ignoring anthropogenic climate change, even as political leaders fail to act.

Ignored Rule

“Viewing climate change in terms of risk assessment and risk management makes clear to me that taking a cautiously conservative stance — that is, waiting for more information before acting — is actually taking a very radical risk,” wrote Paulson in a New York Times essay earlier this week.

In 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) established a rule requiring publicly traded companies to divulge their exposure to climate change risks in their reporting.  That rule has mostly been observed in the breach.  A February study by the Ceres Group, a Boston non-profit that looks at the financial implications of climate change, reported that, “A large number of companies fail to say anything about climate change in their 10-K filings. Forty-one percent of S&P 500 companies failed to address climate change in their 2013 filing.”

That is changing, as business leaders, driven by regulators and shareholders, have started to factor in likely climate-related effects on their businesses.  Large investors, meanwhile, have started to punish companies that produce or continue to rely on fossil fuels.  The announcement by Stanford University in May that it would eliminate fossil fuel investments from its $18.7 billion endowment portfolio is the most significant victory to date of the divestment movement.

Popping Sound

In an update to its 2011 report, Unburnable Carbon, the Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated that only 20% to 40% of the total listed reserves of the world’s fossil fuel companies can be burned if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Current fossil fuel company valuations represent a carbon bubble.  Eventually, the initiative stated, some form of price will be put on the carbon represented by those reserves, dramatically reducing their value.

“The scale of this carbon budget deficit poses a major risk for investors,” wrote the report’s authors, Jeremy Leggett and Mark Campanale.  “They need to understand that 60-80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable … Capital spent on finding and developing more reserves is largely wasted. To minimize the risks for investors and savers, capital needs to be redirected away from high-carbon options.”

Politicians have utterly failed to come to grips with the environmental crisis of climate change.  Now, by framing it as an economic crisis, the business community is having a go.

 

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