Navigant Research Blog

Solar Subsidies Attract Financial Schemes

— October 20, 2014

Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tucson Power have recently come under a lot of scrutiny for their proposed rate-based solar programs.   The complaint from private sector companies is that rate-basing (i.e., the utility practice of raising funds for capital investments by increasing electricity rates) would create an uneven playing field in the solar industry, because rate-basing a capital expenditure gives utilities a guaranteed rate of return.  As SolarCity’s VP Jonathan Bass put it, “If there were ever a reason for a regulatory body to exist, it would be to stop a state-sponsored monopoly from unfairly competing against the free market in an entirely new industry.”

That’s hard to argue with.  However, I would add that another reason for a regulatory body to exist is to stop the free market from abusing the subsidies that are so crucial to an entirely new industry.  In the spirit of fair-minded analysis, let’s take a closer look at the solar industry and at how level the playing field actually is.

Pump and Dump

First, let’s examine the solar developers (SolarCity, Vivint, SunRun, Clean Power Finance, etc.) whose solar lease and solar loan programs are responsible for catapulting the industry into the period of rapid growth we’re seeing today.  Critics argue that solar developers base their business models around building solar arrays on the cheap and claiming an inflated fair market value (FMV) of the systems.  The FMV is supposed to reflect the fair price of a system, and it’s ultimately used by the government to determine the monetary value of the 30% income tax credit (ITC) that goes back to the owner of the system.  Ironically, the FMV is becoming increasingly difficult to determine as more solar companies are vertically integrating, which has made the true system costs less transparent.

For systems that are being leased (which are most systems), the owners and thus recipients of the ITC are actually third parties.  These third-party owners tend to be financial institutions, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Google, and Blackstone, that are constantly looking for tax credits, and they have found a slam dunk as financiers of residential and commercial solar arrays.  Typically, the developers bundle a group of solar customers together into a tranche (essentially a bucket of leases), which is then backed by the third-party ownership groups.  The financial firms own the leased systems for 5 years and then dump them, but not before taking advantage of the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), which is a method of depreciation that allows third-party owners to recoup part of their investment in the solar equipment over a specified time period (5 years) through annual deductions.  Basically, MACRS represents an additional subsidy, with a net present value of 25% of the initial investment.

The Treasury Steps In

So between the 30% ITC and the 25% MACRS, the owners should be getting a 55% subsidized investment; but with the inflation of the FMV, it turns into a much larger subsidy, on the order of 80%.  Then consider the high rate of return (up to 15%) that investing in solar offers on top of all these subsidies, and it starts to sound pretty good to be a solar financier.  Solar developers readily admit that their business models are dependent on government subsidies, but this sounds like manipulation of those subsidies.  Indeed, this practice is currently under investigation by the Department of the Treasury.  While the developers claim they haven’t done anything wrong, if the government tightens the rules around the ITC or tries to recoup the inflated subsidies, it could be a major blow to the solar industry.

What’s more, the developers themselves don’t seem to be reaping the rewards of their innovative business models that have brought solar to the masses.  If anything, they seem to be bearing all the risk while the third-party owners reap most of the profits.  Is there some merit to rate basing solar?  In my next blog, I’ll examine this question.

 

Truck Fuel Economy on the Rise

— October 20, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just published its 2014 fuel economy trends report, and though the news is generally positive, some potential storm clouds remain on the horizon for manufacturers.  While the overall average fleet fuel economy hit a record 24.1 mpg for the 2013 model year, the monthly update from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) showed a 0.5 mpg drop in September 2014, equal to the 2012 to 2013 annual increase.

The long-term trend has definitely been upward.  Last year represented the eighth increase in the past 9 years for the American new vehicle fleet.  Automakers will have to maintain this momentum if they expect to hit the 2025 corporate average fuel economy target of 54.5 mpg.  Fortunately, attendees at a fuel economy technology showcase at the EPA emissions testing lab in Ann Arbor were all publicly confident that the targets were achievable.

As for the sudden drop in September, that can be explained by what are likely temporary market conditions that led to a significant uptick in full-size truck sales at General Motors (GM) and Chrysler.  As the 2014 model year drew to a close, combined sales of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra jumped 46%, aided by incentives of up to $4,500.  Ram sales were also helped along by retail incentives of up to $3,000, as well as the popularity of the new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel.

From Steel to Aluminum

Sales of Ford’s F-series trucks were essentially flat, as the automaker began the transition to its all-new, aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150.  It appears that GM and Chrysler are hoping to grab some market share in the financially lucrative big truck segment in hopes that Ford would stumble in the complicated transition from steel to aluminum trucks.

At this point next year, even if truck sales continue to climb, we’re unlikely to see a similar drop-off in fuel economy, thanks to new technology in the segment.  The weight savings and new power plants for the Ford trucks are projected to deliver up to 20% better fuel efficiency than the steel-bodied versions.

Chrysler and GM also have to meet the new fuel economy standards.  Ram pickups are already available with ZF 8-speed transmissions, and GM is adding its first 8-speed automatic transmission to 2015 pickups with a 6.2-liter V8.  As GM ramps up production of the new 8L90 transmission, it will probably get paired with other engines as well.  GM and Ford also have a joint development program to produce 9- and 10-speed transmissions for trucks and other vehicles in the next few years.

Diesel Debuts

Chrysler is also building on the success of the 28 mpg Ram 1500 EcoDiesel by doubling production to 20% of its total production volume of trucks in 2015.  Ford is still awaiting final EPA certification on the 2015 F-150, but the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 is also expected to get a highway rating in the upper 20s.  GM’s new midsize Colorado and Canyon pickups are already rated at up to 27 mpg with a gasoline V6, and a diesel version is coming some time in 2015.  Ford is also offering a diesel engine option in the new Transit full-size vans that replace the E-series this year.  Ford will likely be closely following the sales trajectory for diesel engines in the Chrysler and GM trucks, as well as the next-generation Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra, which will both be available with a Cummins-sourced 5.0-liter diesel V8.

With the huge sales volumes of pickup trucks in North America, lightweighting, advanced powertrains, and automatic stop-start, trucks will make a big contribution to reducing fossil fuel use in the next decade.

 

In South Korea, an Energy Storage Bonanza

— October 14, 2014

South Korea has gone from having little to no energy storage to procuring about 50 MW in the span of a few months.  This procurement makes the early projects in deregulated markets in the United States, such as PJM Interconnection, seem small in comparison.

Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) is procuring 52 MW of advanced batteries for frequency regulation in 2014 through two installations totaling 28 MW and 24 MW.  Proposals will be evaluated in the coming weeks, and four consortia, including major South Korean lithium ion (Li-ion) vendors and systems integrators, are bidding in the procurement.  Located at the West Anseong Substation and the New Yongin Substation, these installations will handle power supply to Seoul and the surrounding area.  KEPCO estimates the cost for these two projects will be ₩60 billion ($58.3 million).  The total market size for frequency regulation in South Korea is estimated by to be 1.1 GW, and in order to meet this requirement, KEPCO typically requires thermal generators hold back 5% of capacity, for which it pays them ₩600 billion ($583 million) per year.

Less Regulation = Lower Costs

Instead of using thermal generators for all its frequency regulation requirements, KEPCO estimates it can procure 500 MW of energy storage for frequency regulation for ₩625 billion ($607.8 million) between now and 2017.  By investing in these resources, KEPCO would be able to avoid a portion of the yearly payments to thermal generators.

Lessons from existing projects and market reforms in Chile and the United States suggest that these changes will have major effects on the South Korean grid.  First, wholesale energy prices should decrease once thermal generators are not obligated to hold back 5% capacity for frequency regulation.  Although KEPCO is not planning to displace its entire frequency regulation requirement with Li-ion batteries, releasing half the power plants from this obligation (or halving the obligation to 2.5%) would make a difference in energy prices.

Ratepayer Returns

Second, the overall amount of frequency regulation that KEPCO must procure should decrease with the addition of fast, accurate resources such as Li-ion batteries.  Fast and accurate resources correct the deviation in frequency more quickly, meaning that less frequency regulation is required overall.  Therefore, 5% (52 MW) of fast-response resources could deliver more than 5% of the regulation required on the South Korean grid.

Ultimately, the South Korean ratepayer will benefit because these savings should be passed on to the customer.  Keeping energy prices low is an economic and political issue in South Korea, where many key industries rely on energy-intensive exports.  Manufacturers are keen to keep their products priced competitively, and the government is under pressure to keep improving economic growth.

 

California Reaffirms EV Leadership

— October 13, 2014

California Governor Jerry Brown has doubled down on the Golden State’s commitment to electric vehicles (EVs) by enacting six laws aimed at promoting EVs.  The package of legislation includes two laws aimed at making EVs available to a broader audience of individuals – one for people who live in multi-unit dwellings and another with incentives for getting EVs into carshare programs.

Landlords in California now cannot block the installation of EV charging equipment through restrictive leases if renters agree to pay the costs.  This law will help California’s large renter population join the EV crowd and could help the state reach its goal of 1 million EVs on the road by 2023.  Most purchasers of EVs to date live in single-family homes, and this law removes one potential obstacle for broader adoption.

According to Navigant Research’s report, EV Geographic Forecasts, which was produced before these new laws were passed, California was likely to have approximately 820,000 light duty EVs on the road by 2023.

PEVs on the Road, California and the United States: 2014-2023

(Source: Navigant Research)

Smoggy and Dry

California is home to 7 of the 10 cities in the United States with the worst air quality, including smoggy Bakersfield, and has endured 3 consecutive years of drought, which is motivating Governor Brown to continue efforts to promote emissions-free driving in the state.  Some of those afflicted communities might breathe a little easier in future years, as another of the new laws targets incentives for placing EVs in carsharing programs in lower income areas with air quality problems.  EVs make sense in carshare and rental programs, as users don’t have to refuel the vehicles, and motorists who have a good experience could later become EV purchasers.  However, even after federal and state incentives, higher priced EVs are still out of reach of many consumers.

Incentives for plug-in vehicle drivers, such as HOV access, have proven critical in increasing EV adoption.  States such as California, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington that offer financial and other incentives are also the top sellers in EVs per capita.  According to HybridCars.com, sales of plug-in hybrids are up 44% over last year, while sales of battery electric vehicles are up 20%.

 

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