Navigant Research Blog

Utilities Enter the Era of Distributed Generation

— March 31, 2014

From the “Internet of energy” to the “utility death spiral,” the causes and effects related to the distributed generation (DG) transformation go by many names.  Faced with what is increasingly recognized as DG’s inevitability, utilities and the companies that supply DG technologies are faced with the difficult challenge of defining viable business models in a multi-dimensional technology landscape.

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and outspoken NRG CEO David Crane have loudly pointed out the futility of business-as-usual thinking in the face of DG’s advance.  It’s a mistake to think the power sector is oblivious to the changes enveloping it, though: most utilities do not actually have their heads in the sand, as recent headlines suggest.  According to Utility Dive’s 2014 State of the Electric Utility survey, 67% of U.S. utility professionals believe their company should take a direct role in supplying DG to their customers ‑ either by owning and leasing distributed assets or by partnering with established DG companies.  At the same time, key suppliers like GE, recognizing a dawning opportunity, are positioning themselves for growth.

Tip of the Iceberg

Although solar PV has provided a blueprint of sorts, a suite of technologies – collectively called distributed energy resources (DER) – is primed to usher in a reimagining of DG’s value proposition.  Composed of renewable and fossil-based generation, diverse fuel sources like the sun and biogas, power generation and storage assets, and applications from microgrids to combined heat and power (CHP), DG’s multi-dimensionality suggests that existing business models are just scratching the surface.  An estimated 37 million homes in the United States, for example, now have natural gas lines running directly to them, which opens up the possibility of micro-combined heat and power and fuel switching.

For utilities, the challenge is fairly straightforward.  Demand-side generation is leading to death by a thousand cuts, as the cost of maintaining and operating the grid is spread over a gradually declining revenue base due to eroding customer demand.

In its widely-cited Disruptive Challenges report, published in 2013, Edison Electric Institute lists the financial risks created by DG: declining utility revenues, increasing costs, and lower profitability potential.  Simply charging higher rates – one solution offered by the most entrenched utilities – risks accelerating the revenue ”death spiral,” as rising rates make it increasingly attractive to adopt otherwise expensive DG technologies.  Recent experiences across Europe have demonstrated that utilities must adapt (see RWE) or risk obsolescence, at least in the traditional revenue sense.

Transforming is Grand

On the supplier side, companies like GE are positioning for what is an inevitable expansion of DG globally.  The company announced last month the creation of a new business unit called GE Distributed Power, targeting the global distributed power opportunity.  Merging three existing business lines – Aeroderivative Gas Turbines, Jenbacher Gas Engines, and Waukesha Gas Engines – GE will invest $1.4 billion to combine formerly niche generation products into a cohesive distributed power offering.

The move coincides with the publication of a recent white paper, “The Rise of Distributed Power,” in which GE forecasts that distributed power will grow 40% faster than overall global electricity demand between now and 2020.  The trend, according to GE, is nothing short of a “grand transformation.”  The company estimates that globally, about 142 gigawatts (GW) of distributed power capacity was ordered and installed in 2012, compared to 218 GW of central power capacity.

Four key trends are driving the distributed power transformation, according to GE: the expansion of natural gas networks; the rise of transmission infrastructure constraints; the growth of digital technologies; and the need for grid resiliency in the face of natural disasters.  While these trends are playing out in the U.S., GE’s efforts are focused primarily on the fast-growing Asia Pacific market and the expansion of natural gas.

Big in Bangladesh

The momentum behind DG is especially strong in the developing world, where electricity demand outstrips the pace at which centralized power stations and transmission infrastructure can be financed and built.  The IEA estimates that in 2009, 1.3 billion people lacked access to electricity, representing around 20% of the global population.  A significant proportion of this population lives in Asia Pacific.

While the DG era represents a degree of complexity that has yet to be fully grasped, initiatives from both utilities and their suppliers point to increasing acceptance of its inevitability.

 

How the Developed World Can Learn about Energy Solutions from the Developing World

— March 27, 2014

With utility resistance to policies that support distributed renewable energy emerging as a global phenomenon, it might be wise for vendors in the space not to push the panic button, but instead look to emerging markets in the developing world for a reality check.

As utilities and states modify their past support vehicles (i.e., net metering and feed-in tariffs) for technologies such as solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, purveyors of hardware and software that help integrate distributed renewables into power grids see increasing opportunity.  The decline in generous feed-in tariffs for solar PV, for example, creates new opportunities for energy storage.

Among those sensing opportunity is ABB.  When the company purchased Powercorp of Australia in 2011, few realized that ABB would integrate Powercorp’s distributed controls approach to remote hybrid wind/diesel microgrids (and its PowerStore flywheel technology) into its grid-tied offering.  ABB has recognized that a top-down approach to controlling distributed energy resources may not be the best fit.  Instead, innovation fostered in off-grid systems – which must provide 24/7 power under the most harsh environmental conditions – proves to be a better approach.  Peter Lilienthal of HOMER Energy agrees, arguing in Navigant Research’s Remote Microgrid Business Models webinar late last year that the smart grid is being pioneered in places like the Caribbean, Africa, and India, not in developed world markets like Europe or the United States.

Look to the Islands

While many observers are focused on the so-called utility death spiral, growing numbers of forward-looking utilities – along with diversified energy companies such as NRG Energy – see the proliferation of distributed generation as an opportunity.   In fact, NRG Energy is now developing remote microgrids, starting with the private island owned by Richard Branson.

The world of the future will not feature a one-size-fits-all business model – especially not the utility monopoly that has slowly eroded over the past century.  While long-term planning and dense regulatory proceedings won’t go away, the future of energy requires flexibility and learning from areas where the provision of electricity requires the utmost in creativity: the developing world.  Other large technology companies such as Toshiba are also moving into the remote island microgrid market.

Navigant Research’s new Nanogrids report shows that even the lowly sounding nanogrid is a huge market in the developing world, with global revenue forecast to exceed $20 billion by 2023 in three regions that have historically lagged behind the developed world in new technologies.

Residential Remote Nanogrid Vendor Revenue by Region, World Markets: 2014-2023 

 (Source: Navigant Research)

 

Filling Small Niches, Nanogrids Become Pervasive

— March 21, 2014

If you think the term microgrid is still a bit fuzzy, you’ll be even more puzzled when it comes to the term nanogrids.  While it’s safe to say that nanogrids are smaller than microgrids, there is a major disagreement as to whether nanogrids will scare the hell out of utilities or if they are actually already well-established and can flourish within the current regulatory environment.

The Navigant Research definition of a nanogrid is: A small electrical domain connected to the grid of no greater than 100 kilowatts and limited to a single building structure or primary load, or a network of off-grid loads not exceeding 5 kW, both categories representing devices capable of islanding and/or energy self-sufficiency through some level of intelligent distributed energy resource management or controls.” 

The basic concept behind the nanogrid is simple: small is beautiful.  Nanogrids are modular building blocks for energy services for current applications that range from emergency power for commercial building to the provision of basic electricity services for people living in extreme poverty.  Nanogrids typically serve a single building or a single load.  Because of their simplicity, the technology requirements for nanogrids are less complex (in most cases) than either microgrids or the utility-dominated smart grid.

Tiny Grids, Big Business

Ironically, nanogrids are big business.  While microgrids (as described in Navigant Research’s report, Microgridsexhibit exponential growth and share synergistic properties with many nanogrid segments, substantial deployments of nanogrids are already in place, as they actually face less technical and regulatory barriers than their microgrid counterparts.  For example, Navigant Research’s Nanogrids report finds that the market is already worth $37.7 billion today and it represents capacity almost 10 times larger than the projected size of the current microgrid market.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) asserts that nanogrids never encompass any forms of distributed generation and never interact with the larger utility grid ‑ two criteria that Navigant Research takes issue with.  By that definition, every laptop, every car (even if powered by an internal combustion engine), and every universal serial bus (USB) drive is a nanogrid.

The business case for nanogrids echoes many of the same arguments used on behalf of microgrids.  These small, modular, and flexible distribution networks are the antithesis of the economies of scale that have guided energy resource planning over much of the past century.

Here to Stay

Nanogrids take the notion of a bottom-up energy paradigm to extreme heights.  Yet, one could argue they are less disruptive than microgrids in one very important way.  Since nanogrids are confined to single buildings or single loads, they avoid many of the regulatory challenges that stand in the way of power-sharing microgrids, such as prohibitions regarding non-utilities sending power over public rights-of-way.  In the developing world, nanogrids are often the only pathway to universal energy access, as dispersed residences often preclude networking.  One could also take a contrarian view.  For example, nanogrids foster a more radical shift to direct current (DC) power than microgrids, since their small scale can accommodate low-voltage networking.

Either way, nanogrids are already here to stay.  New forms of distribution networking are clearly on the rise, whether one wants to call such platforms a nanogrid, a microgrid, or something else.

 

EVs at Home on the Texas Range

— March 21, 2014

Selling electric vehicles (EVs) in oil-rich Texas is comparable to Nixon going to China, and the effort thus far has had similarly unexpected but successful results.  Cars that do not use gas are proving surprisingly popular in the Lone Star State, and one of the main drivers for EVs has nothing to do with the cars themselves.

Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts report estimates that Texas has around 5,000 registered EVs currently and that this number will grow to nearly 100,000 by 2023.  While the well-to-do from Texas’ oil & gas industry can afford the higher price of an EV, the state’s utility structure is playing a major role in supporting EV sales.

As a deregulated state, Texas allows utilities to directly participate in EV charging, which provides a new revenue stream for power distribution companies that, in other states, are focused on reducing load through energy efficiency measures.  Because they can (and because it increases their profits), utilities NRG, Austin Energy, and CPS Energy have all begun installing EV charging stations across the state.  A visible, reliable network of charging stations is essential to increasing consumers’ confidence that they won’t have to worry about getting stranded with a dwindling battery while about town.

Among the Drillers

CPS Energy’s network of charging stations helps to prevent the state from running afoul of federal air quality laws.  NRG’s eVgo network has several subscription options to reduce the cost of home and public charging.  Nissan LEAF drivers in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas also have access to free charging thanks to Nissan, which is subsidizing the NRG eVgo network in an attempt to bolster vehicle sales.   Another EV charging network growing in Texas is Tesla Motors’ SuperCharger network, which encircles the Dallas, Austin, and Houston areas.

Power providers in Texas are also interested in promoting EVs because the vehicles can help offset the variability of the vast wind resources being installed across the state, which will make it one of the largest producers in the world.  Texas’ grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is working with the Southwest Research Institute to demonstrate using EVs to counterbalance wind energy production in the state.

Austin Energy has made the smart decision to use only renewable energy from wind and solar to power its charging stations.  This negates the argument that EVs merely transfer emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack of a power plant.  The city of Austin now has nearly 1,000 EVs, according to the Austin American Statesman.

Texas is also under consideration as a location for Tesla Motors’ proposed Gigafactory, which could produce batteries for hundreds of thousands of EVs.  If that happens, we’ll see even more gasless cars roaming between the oil & gas wells in Texas.

 

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