Navigant Research Blog

New Trends Point to Virtues of Fuel Cells and Direct Current for Modular Microgrids

— June 12, 2018

The beauty of a microgrid is that it can come in so many sizes. It can also incorporate many different types of distributed energy resources (DER)—from different forms of generation to creative load management and even energy storage—to bridge any gaps in supply or demand.

DER Growing Ever More Popular for Microgrids

Navigant Research has projected that both solar PV and energy storage will emerge as the two most popular DER options over the next decade. Yet, that doesn’t mean other technologies—such as fuel cells—won’t play a growing role in the microgrid universe. Perhaps the company most keen on this market opportunity is Bloom Energy, which ranks in the Top 10 vendors in terms of projects deployed in the forthcoming update to the Microgrid Deployment Tracker. The company has deployed its fuel cells in more than 60 microgrid projects, representing roughly an equal amount of megawatts. But those numbers will increase dramatically in the future.

Earlier this year, Navigant Research estimated growth in all major DER technologies going into microgrids, including fuel cells. Though relatively modest in scale, the microgrid fuel cell market is anticipated to reach nearly $2 billion in annual sales over the next decade.

Annual Fuel Cell Microgrid Capacity and Implementation Spending by Region, World Markets: 2017-2026

(Source: Navigant Research)

Optimizing Fuel Cells

Historically, fuel cells were deployed by market leaders such as Bloom Energy within single resource microgrids for clients such as data centers. These are clients that are extremely conservative in nature and are comfortable with the steady stream of electricity flowing from non-variable onsite generation. Since fuel cells can be fickle when it comes to small deviations in frequency, integrating them into microgrids featuring a plethora of variable renewable energy resources has been problematic. The emergence of lower cost energy storage solutions is beginning to change this basic assumption.

What about Direct Current?

One solid step in the direction of more advanced microgrids is Bloom Energy’s integration of a direct current (DC) bus to create a more modular structure to integrate energy storage devices into its fleet of microgrids. Working with PowerSecure, which was featured in Navigant Research’s recent ranking of microgrid controls vendors, Bloom Energy is rolling out its new DC bus platform for a fleet of microgrids to be deployed at Home Depot stores. Another big win for Bloom Energy was the integration of its new DC bus offering into the new Apple campus in Silicon Valley, whereby 4 MW of fuel cells were integrated into a 5 MWh system with its new platform. The microgrid also features 16 MW of solar PV.

Among the other vendors extolling the virtues of a DC bus are EnSync and Tecogen. The latter has perhaps the first plug-and-play microgrid offering (and also ranks in the Top 10 of vendors regarding numbers of microgrids deployed). Look for a Navigant Research report, Direct Current Distribution Networks, later this year to dig much deeper into the value proposition surrounding DC and the emergence of a modular microgrid movement.


Californian and National Policies Could Shape Future Value Stacking for Distributed Natural Gas

— December 5, 2017

Distributed natural gas generation (DNGG) has significant potential for disruption in the electric sector thanks to improving generator technologies, cheap fuel, and the global trend toward decentralized systems in need of dispatchable power. Navigant Research has identified DNGG as a significant trend of the future, and various legislative and regulatory actions continue to affect this often overlooked but critical solution ecosystem. On the surface, some of these regulatory decisions appear as setbacks, and issues at the federal level remain unresolved. Yet, this key enabling technology for the Energy Cloud will continue to show growth due to underlying benefits dependent upon government subsidies. Some of the recent actions are discussed below.

California AB 36: This bill, which proposed to expand California’s fuel cell net energy metering (FC-NEM) program to include other efficient DNGG technologies, was vetoed by Governor Brown. The governor cited recent changes to the program and wanting to assess their effectiveness first. The goal of the bill was to make the FC-NEM program (with its 500 MW cap) technology agnostic and available to other technologies that meet certain emissions criteria. The decision keeps the larger cap exclusive to fuel cells. In a separate fuel cell development, new California projects have slowed in 2017 after new minimum biogas requirements were instituted in the Self-Generation Incentive Program.

California AB 1400: This bill, which prohibits recipients of microgrid funding from using those funds for diesel generators, was signed into law by Governor Brown in October. Though not exactly related to natural gas, this law continues a California lawmaking trend in aiming to limit carbon emissions—in this case as it relates to microgrids funded by the state’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program. DNGG is not currently affected by this new law. These developments take place during a time of surging microgrid activity in California, with highlights including an active $44.7 million grant funding opportunity from the California Energy Commission and an active microgrid research roadmap.

Federal Investment Tax Credit: This credit for fuel cells, microturbines, and combined heat and power was a long-standing tax credit that expired at the end of 2016. House Bill HR 1, a tax bill, includes an extension for this credit, which if passed would provide a boost to these predominantly natural gas-fueled technologies. Note that the bill does not include this provision as of this writing. According to Navigant Research estimates for fuel cells, the credit is worth about $0.02/kWh throughout the system lifetime, which can significantly affect the economics of such systems.

Such policy developments have the potential to for significant effects on this dynamic industry. As renewables and storage receive significant governmental support, the relative merits of distributed natural gas will continue to be debated and judged. Regardless of the level of direct support of technologies like fuel cells, generator sets, and microturbines, the fundamental drivers of DNGG point toward a bright future.


Stationary Fuel Cell Prices Falling Faster Than Wind, Close to PV

— August 1, 2016

CodeMany fuel cell manufacturers are stealthy about their costs and prices, protecting the data like it is intellectual property. But new data from Japan’s ENE-FARM program confirms what other analyses have shown: fuel cells are showing consistently steep cost declines as production increases.

Most technologies exhibit a similar cost decline pattern. For every doubling of cumulative installed capacity, a commensurate decline in cost is realized due to improvements in manufacturing, supply chain efficiencies, and economies of scale. Plotted on a log-log chart, this curve forms a straight line called the learning or experience curve, and the slope is correlated with the rate of cost decline. For these 0.7 kW proton exchange membrane (PEM) micro-combined heat and power fuel cells, the learning rate is 17.2%, a number in agreement with the 20% found for larger-scale fuel cells. These rates beat the 12% of wind power and approach the 23% of PV (based on global values from this meta-study). Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry also released price goals for ENE-FARM in 2019. If met, these goals will continue the trend and bring the unsubsidized payback period down to around 7 years, which could mean broad adoption in the target residential market. Europe has its own similar program ramping up as well, while the United States and South Korea are more focused on larger-scale fuel cells.

Unsubsidized Price and Capacity of ENE FARM PEM Fuel Cells, Japan: 2006-2019


(Sources: Navigant Research; Imperial College London; Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)

Note that the ENE-FARM data is based on prices, not costs, and that the underlying marginal profitability of these units (produced mainly by Panasonic and Toshiba) is unknown. In addition, fuel cell systems have some components that are already mature and which may limit opportunities to squeeze out costs. Regardless, relative to PV and wind, fuel cells are far less commercially mature and are likely to fall faster in the near term. Each doubling in capacity becomes increasingly difficult for mature technologies. For example, at the end of 2015, wind had an installed base of 434 GW and solar PV had an installed base of 230 GW. This accounts for around 12% of global generating capacity, and even with the current fast growth rates, it is clear that future doublings will take even longer. Meanwhile, fuel cells (which have around 1 GW installed capacity) have the potential for greater price declines as adoption grows. As prices fall, these continuous output sources will become more attractive to a growing host of markets in the coming years.


Roller Coaster Summer Continues for Fuel Cell Incentives

— June 21, 2016

HydrogenRobust incentives in places like Germany, Japan, and the United States have expanded the market for stationary fuel cells over the past decade. Within the United States, recent changes to major incentive programs hint at the future of the industry.

The California Public Utilities Commission recently proposed changes to the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP). If approved at the Commission’s June 23 business meeting, the wide-ranging changes would substantially restructure the program. Two key changes would specifically affect natural gas generation technologies such as fuel cells, microturbines, and generator sets. First, energy storage projects would be allotted 75% of program funds, with the remaining 25% going to generation projects, including natural gas projects, wind turbines, and others. This would be a strong pivot toward storage over generation since these categories account for 4% and 96%, respectively, of $1.1 billion in historical incentives paid. Second, beginning in 2017, natural gas projects would need to use a minimum of 10% biogas, increasing in steps to 100% in 2020. The changes are intended to strike “the right balance of the program’s goals of reducing [greenhouse gases] GHGs, providing grid support and enabling market transformation.”

The federal Business Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC) has been another important incentive, offering as much as a 30% rebate on fuel cells and other energy technologies. Wind and solar won big with the December 2015 extension, though fuel cells and other natural gas technologies were passed over and currently expire at the end of 2016. However, recent comments from congressional leadership indicate that an extension for the overlooked technologies is likely this year and may even be approved as part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization bill, which has a deadline of July 15.

So the news for fuel cells is mixed, with California likely offering smaller incentives than in the past but the ITC likely extending beyond 2016. The goals of such programs are ever changing, though in most cases, increasing focus is placed on GHG reductions. California’s biogas requirement cuts emissions and could thus be good for the industry, provided biogas can be viably sourced in the quantities required.

Successful incentives should ultimately render themselves unnecessary by driving down costs. Fuel cell costs have been falling, though not at the rate of some other technologies like PV. The winners will be those that can creatively cut the costs of manufacturing, installation, and financing to make the systems cost-competitive with other electricity sources. Despite the GHG emissions associated with natural gas fuel cells, current developments play a role in a zero-emissions future. Today’s natural gas fuel cell research can be directly applied to the hydrogen fuel cell, a key emissions-free and dispatchable energy resource that can complement the mix of renewables that will power our future.


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