Navigant Research Blog

Signposts Along California’s Distributed Generation Corridor

— March 24, 2015

Driving south on the Interstate 5 corridor from the Oregon border to the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see numerous renewable energy projects off I-5. These projects stand as modern signposts to the maturity of—and transition in—the U.S. clean tech industry. Five years ago, renewable installations were mostly limited to remote, utility-scale wind farms in Tehachapi and along the Altamont Pass. While utility-scale installations continue to grow, there is now also a strong focus on distributed generation: solar, wind, fuel cells, and generator sets located directly onsite or on the distribution grid.

The United States is expected to be a leading market for distributed generation, with more than 250 GW installed cumulatively between 2015 and 2023, according to Navigant Research’s report Global Distributed Energy Deployment Forecast. The sites discussed below are some of the most visible installations along the drive down to the Bay Area. They represent the focus on distributed generation today and in the years to come.

Signposts

As you drive through the city of Red Bluff, you see a 1-MW General Electric (GE) wind turbine installed at the Wal-mart distribution center. Wal-mart is the leading consumer of solar PV among U.S. retailers, with 105 MW of installed capacity, twice as much as the second-leading company, Kohl’s, with 51 MW. Big box retailers have installed more renewable energy than tech companies have and are a coveted prize for installers looking for big customers.

If you take the shortcut from I-5 to 505 South, toward San Francisco, it connects to 80 West in Fairfield/Vacaville, where a 1.1 MW solar PV installation at the North Bay Regional Water Treatment Plant is installed. With large energy consumption, water treatment facilities are costly for cities to operate, leading to attractive payback rates.

Renewa-Beer

When you drive further, the Budweiser plant catches your eye right off the freeway, with 3 MW of wind power located onsite. The plant also uses solar and bio-energy recovery systems. These systems combined produce approximately 30% of the plant’s power onsite. Belgium’s InBev may have offended the cultural sensibilities of some Americans when it acquired Anheuser Busch in 2008, but it used American turbines–GE 1.6-MW units.

One of the other noticeable aspects of the drive through California, particularly in Davis and Sacramento, is tract housing developments, where residential solar PV is increasingly prevalent. The residential solar PV market in California has nearly doubled in each of the last 3 years thanks to growth in the solar lease model.

California is expected to continue to lead the way in distributed generation, with systems increasingly utilizing energy storage. Though these storage systems won’t all be visible along the road, they will help more renewables capacity to come online, making the drive more scenic each year.

 

Investors Driving Energy Access Markets

— March 24, 2015

One of the signs of an industry that’s coming of age is when there are enough investors actually attending a conference that you can put investors in the title. Such was the case for the second annual Energy Access Investor Conference in London. Jim Rogers, former Duke Energy CEO, was the keynote speaker this year, adding some utility industry credit to the event.

When I talk to people about the opportunity for solar lanterns and solar home systems (1 W-200 W) for people making less than $2 a day, I usually receive a combination of blank stares and befuddled looks. But 2014 was a breakout year, and this innovative industry is expected to continue expanding in 2015. According to Navigant Research’s report, Solar Photovoltaic Consumer Products, annual revenues for pico solar and solar home systems are expected to grow from $430 million in 2014 to $1.3 billion in 2024.

2014 Highlights

A couple of highlights from 2014:

  • Public and private investment in off-grid lighting surpassed $80 million.
  • Big names entered the market, including SolarCity, Vulcan, Omidyar Network, Schneider, and DFJ.
  • Platform companies emerged, including d.light, Barefoot Power, Greenlight Planet, and others.
  • Markets such as Bangladesh continued to grow even as incentives continued to wind down.

The Year Ahead

Looking ahead in 2015, I expect to see four major trends. First, consolidation will become more common as the larger players continue to gain market share. Second, existing companies will need to expand into new markets, particularly as Kenya, India, and Bangladesh become increasingly saturated. Third, mobile payment and monitoring systems, such as M-KOPA, will gain traction and increasingly become standard in products. Fourth, direct current consumer products, such as fans, radios, refrigerators, TVs, and other appliances specifically designed for less than 200W solar home systems, will grow in popularity.

With any luck, the fifth major trend will be less befuddled looks on people’s faces when I discuss the innovation and economic opportunity in some of the world’s most remote markets.

 

Fuel Cell Makers Seek an American Foothold

— March 18, 2015

In the United States, the topic of fuel cells is very often greeted with skepticism. One prominent fuel cell skeptic, Tesla founder Elon Musk, recently called fuel cell cars a silly idea.

So it’s interesting to compare that to the respect still given to fuel cell technology in Japan, where the 2015 FC Expo recently took place. The FC Expo is one of the largest fuel cell conferences in the world and attracts attendees from around the world. But the audience is predominantly from the Asia Pacific region, and the level of interest in the potential of fuel cells is dramatically different than in the United States. Japan and South Korea, in particular, are two of the biggest markets for fuel cell deployments to date.

Japan’s ENE FARM program has supported the deployment of 100,000 fuel cell combined heat and power systems in Japanese homes. At the Expo, companies like Toshiba, Panasonic, and Aisin Seiki spoke about their commitment to the Japanese residential fuel cell program, which aims to sell over 1 million fuel cell CHP units in Japan by 2020. South Korea’s POSCO Energy has developed the 59 MW Gyeonggi Green Energy fuel cell park and built a 200 MW capacity manufacturing plant for the molten carbonate fuel cell that utilizes FuelCell Energy’s technology.

New Beachheads

What’s most interesting is that these Japanese and South Korean companies are focused on expanding to new markets—in particular to the United States. Ironically, though skepticism toward fuel cells persists in the United States, the American market remains one of the most attractive in the world. That’s why South Korean companies have been buying up North American fuel cell companies, and their technology, over the past few years.

LG became a majority investor in Rolls Royce’s fuel cell business in 2012. In 2014, Doosan bought ClearEdge’s assets, and POSCO has continued to strengthen its relationship with FuelCell Energy. These companies bring significant resources and a long term outlook to the fuel cell sector, using their U.S.-based fuel cell businesses as a beachhead into the U.S. market.

Got a Match?

The U.S. market has many characteristics that make it a good market for fuel cells. The shale gas boom is driving interest in electricity generation that can take advantage of plentiful supplies of natural gas. High value markets, such as data centers, are growing in number and in energy demand, and companies like Apple and Microsoft are exploring using fuel cells to bring down those costs. Energy services companies are exploring ways to meet the growing demand for distributed energy resources (DER) , and are using new financing instruments to support  deployment of DER. Incentives and programs to promote fuel cells in states like California and New York are helping to bring down the costs of today’s fuel cells to where the cost of the power approaches grid parity.

It’s not certain, though, that the fuel cell market in the United States will grow beyond early niche markets. Fuel cell companies need to drive down costs and utilize financing schemes like power purchase agreements to reduce the risk to end users. What the fuel cell industry needs is a matchmaker who can bring together the companies working to develop a successful fuel cell market with the right energy company or financing partners in the United States so they can work together to expand the market for fuel cells in this country.

 

Yieldcos for Renewable Energy: “Now Is the Time”

— March 8, 2015

Enel Green Power is forming a yieldco with its renewable assets in the United States, joining a trend that started about 2 years ago and accelerated in 2014.

The idea behind yieldcos is not new. It involves the creation of a company to buy and retain operational infrastructure projects and pass the majority of cash flows from those assets to investors in the form of dividends. Structurally, yieldcos are very similar to real estate investment trusts (REITs). They are also almost ideal for renewable energy projects such as wind farms.

A crucial aspect of yieldcos is that they are not exposed to development or construction risk—this is borne by either the parent company or a third-party developer. Yieldcos simply acquire infrastructure projects that are or have recently become operational. They fund the acquisitions by issuing shares (normally debt is only used at the project level), which they can do at a lower cost of capital (the return on the investment that shareholders want to invest in the company) than their parent companies or developers because they’re shielded from development and construction risks.

Squeezing Out Risk

Another key aspect of yieldcos is that their assets produce fairly predictable cash flows that can be paid to shareholders as dividends. That’s why renewable energy projects such as wind farms are perfectly suited for them. Wind farms and solar power projects are not significantly exposed to changes in the market. On the upstream side, they depend on free resources—wind and light—while on the downstream, they are protected by regulations (feed-in tariffs, long-term power purchase agreements, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and so on).

For developers, yieldcos offer a quick way to sell maturing assets and redeploy capital into early-stage developments that offer higher returns. From an investor point of view, yieldcos offer an investment option with very little risk—which is a testament to how far the investment community’s understanding of wind and solar technologies has come.

New Era or Fad?

The emergence of yieldcos has been driven by a strong initial public offering (IPO) market in the United States and Europe over the last few years, as well as the impact of quantitative easing (QE) policies around the world that resulted in lower interest rates and returns from conventional financial products (i.e., bonds and equities). As a result, the 6%–7% dividend yield of listed green infrastructure funds looks attractive to investors, compared to 4% interest rates on 10-year corporate bonds and even less for government paper.

Still, yieldcos might turn out to be a short-lived fad. As the economic recovery accelerates, and talk of interest rate hikes in the United States fills the financial media, investment vehicles like yieldcos could lose some of their appeal. So if you have solar or wind assets lying around, you may want to take some fashion advice from Enel’s CEO Francesco Starace (an Italian, after all): “Now is the time to do this.”

 

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