Navigant Research Blog

In Colorado, a New Solar Model Takes Root

— September 26, 2014

A few years ago the Yampa Valley Electric Association, the rural cooperative that serves communities across northwest Colorado, including the Steamboat Springs ski resort, signed an agreement with a company called Clean Energy Collective to build a community solar garden in the valley.

Headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) has helped pioneer the community solar model, in which individuals and businesses can buy shares in solar power generation facilities rather than owning or leasing the solar panels themselves.  Paul Spencer, the founder and CEO of the company, calls it “solar for the masses.”

CEC signs a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the incumbent utility then pre-sells solar generation capacity in the form of subscriptions and finances construction using the PPA and the subscriptions, essentially, as collateral.  Subscribers don’t necessarily get the actual power flowing from the solar array; those electrons go onto the local power grid and appear as renewable energy credits on the customers’ bills. CEC makes money by charging subscribers a slight mark-up over the cost of producing the power.

Under the Smokestacks

As a way of shifting away from the antiquated, centralized, and coal-dependent power grid, community is a powerful model.  Founded in 2010, CEC now has 45 facilities spread across 19 utilities in 9 states. Spencer expects the number of facilities to double by the end of 2015.

In the Yampa Valley, though, CEC had a problem.

Craig, about 40 miles west of Steamboat in the mesa country of far west Colorado, has always been a coal town.  Most of the solar customers would certainly be in Steamboat, at the eastern end of the valley. But land in Steamboat is not cheap, and CECs business model is based, in part, on building solar arrays without paying too much for the land. Proximity to customers was a lesser concern.

As it turned out, there was an ideal site in Craig – literally in the shadows of the Craig power station’s smokestacks. CEC quickly signed up enough people to take 30% of the solar power the garden would produce. That’s when the problem arose.

The land the solar garden was on was owned by the city of Craig, but the mineral rights were held by Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the operator of the Trapper Mine outside town.  Tri-State officials said the rights were unlikely to be exercised — but they declined to formally cede them.  What’s more, some city council members were against the idea in principle, believing that it was harmful to the interests of the coal industry.  Spooked by the mineral rights issue, the title company on the land deal washed its hands of the deal. For a time, it appeared that the solar garden was dead.

Bridging the Divide

Paul Spencer and Terry Carwile, the mayor of Craig, weren’t ready to give up. “We begged, borrowed, and stole,” Spencer told me, chuckling. “We had to find a way to work around the mineral rights issue, and the town helped us do that.”

By the fall of 2014, a new, more amenable title company had been found, the deal was back in place, and CEC had resumed signing up customers.  In coal country, a truce had set in.

“Solar is not the replacement for coal,” said Spencer. “It’s another power solution that helps build a low-carbon future. In some small way, this project is an initial way to bridge the divide between Craig and Steamboat – between the coal-producing world and the renewable energies of the future.”

 

On the High Plains, Wind Industry Comes into View

— September 25, 2014

Most of us who study the utility industry know that utility-scale wind generation has been rapidly growing in many parts of the country, but I think we have chronically underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as an electric power generation resource and a totally clean and green contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) targets.

Driving cross-country from San Francisco to our cabin in Northern Wisconsin this summer on I-80, I was amazed by the number of large-scale wind farms we saw in every state.  Through Nebraska and Iowa, I kept seeing flatbed semi-trucks with 100-plus-foot wind generator blades heading west.  Other trucks had tower tubes and generator unit housings as well.  It was clear to me that something was really happening here.  As we crossed the state line into Iowa, we passed a rest area with a huge 148’ turbine blade mounted vertically to honor the wind industry.  As tall as a 15-story building, the blade was donated by Siemens.

I was also struck on the drive by the ubiquity of high-voltage transmission power lines, large-scale substations, and huge coal-fired generation plants on the horizon.  The utility-scale wind farms were a welcome diversion and a signal that the power generation and transmission system industry is moving on.

More on the Horizon

Later in July we headed back to the Bay Area, taking the northern route, following I-90 across western Minnesota and South Dakota.  Again, the prevalence of utility-scale wind farms was striking.  However, the landscape, crisscrossed with new high-voltage transmission lines, was also remarkable and signaled to me that utilities and investment firms (through companies like Berkshire Hathaway Energy) are doubling down on their $15 billion investment in wind generation and the transmission infrastructure needed to support our country’s electric capacity requirements as coal and nuclear generation resources are retired in the next few years.  Berkshire Hathaway Energy also has another $15 billion in reserve.

The following graphic produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows the wind energy potential across the nation.

Wind Energy Intensity, United States

(Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

You can see why utility-scale wind power is happening primarily between the Texas Panhandle and the borders of North Dakota.  In fact, Southwest Power Pool says that its major congestion problem is now in the Omaha to Kansas City to Texas Panhandle region, which explains why there are now double the high-voltage transmission lines going north and south as well as east and west at the Minnesota/South Dakota border at Sioux City.  Based on what I saw through our car window, I expect more investment in both utility-scale wind generation in the region and the high-voltage transmission systems necessary to deliver that energy to diverse population centers.

 

Waste-to-Energy Needs New Regulations

— September 18, 2014

A recent study published by the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University estimates that if the total volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) produced in the United States were incinerated in waste-to-energy (WTE) power plants, 12% of the country’s total electricity demand could be met.  This is more than 5 points higher than the current share of U.S. energy demand met by renewable sources today (7%), with WTE representing just a small fraction of the total energy mix.

Just 86 WTE plants are in operation in the United States today.  No new plants have been built since 1995.  Meanwhile, Waste Management recently divested its Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary, which operates 17 plants around the country.

With so much upside, why does this market continue to stagnate?

Waste Pyramid

The United States currently produces 250 million tons of trash annually across the country.  This represents 15% to 20% of the global total.  Despite an abundance of feedstock, three primary barriers limit market growth: lack of regulatory support, lack of public support, and low electricity rates.

Among these, lack of regulatory support is often cited as the primary barrier to realizing the market’s full potential.  Across the United States, for example, landfilling continues to be the de facto solution for disposing of MSW, with relatively few exceptions.  On average, about 11% of the MSW is diverted to WTE and around 35% is recycled or composted.  The remainder (54%) is landfilled.  This reflects a waste management regulatory regime in the United States that falls well short of more aggressive policies set forth by European policymakers.

European principles articulated under a waste management hierarchy pyramid framework provide strong support for WTE and energy recovery.  A combination of land constraints, higher electricity prices, and a perilous dependence on Russian natural gas has provided European policymakers the motivation needed to enact strong support for WTE and other energy conversion technologies.  Combined with higher tipping fees – the cost of disposing of waste – these policies help reduce dependence on landfills.

Plenty of Fuel

By contrast, waste management in the United States is not coordinated at the federal level.  Instead, policy implementation is left to state discretion.  Individual states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Hampshire among the leaders – have been far more aggressive in investing in infrastructure to boost recycling and energy recovery from MSW, but these policies have not yet found broad support across the rest of the country.

Recent market developments in the United States, however, signal a likely pendulum shift in favor of WTE and other waste conversion technologies.

In anticipation of tightening restrictions around coal-based generation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), utilities and state policymakers are actively seeking alternative sources of energy that provide the coveted baseload capabilities of centralized fossil plants.  Among baseload renewables, WTE is among the few options logistically feasible across the country, with MSW generated in abundance and continuously in areas of high population density.

Meanwhile, according to findings in Navigant Research’s Smart Waste report, the traditional waste management market is facing a disruption similar to that faced by electric utilities at the hands of distributed generation.  Although these solutions seek to turn a liability (trash) into a strategic resource, WTE and other energy conversion technologies will benefit from greater emphasis placed on the value of waste as an input for renewable energy generation.

We expect energy recovery solutions to generate 70% of the revenue attributable to next-generation waste management technologies in North America.  While this represents a healthy growth opportunity, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the EEC study demonstrates.

 

Distributed Biogas Gains Footing in Revised Standard

— September 8, 2014

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized an extension of the beleaguered Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) to carve out a pathway for renewable biogas to qualify as a cellulosic fuel.  Expanding the scope of the RFS2 beyond liquid transportation markets could have promising implications for the slow-to-emerge cellulosic biofuels market.

Under the RFS2, the EPA requires domestic refiners and importers of transportation fuel to blend increasing volumes of renewable fuels into conventional gasoline and diesel.  The EPA sets the renewable volume obligations for various renewable fuels every year, and regulated entities must demonstrate their compliance by acquiring and retiring renewable identification numbers (RINs), which are publicly traded credits that fluctuate in value.

RINs provide an important financial incentive for the nascent advanced biofuels industry, helping these fuels compete with conventional fuels in the marketplace.  Cellulosic biofuels, a fuel pathway slated to deliver the greatest volume under the rule, have fallen short of expectations every year due to less capacity being built than otherwise predicted.

Expanding Universe

Under the expanded rules, biogas-derived compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and electricity used to power electric vehicles would qualify for cellulosic RINs.  The final rule is likely to lead to a substantial increase in the production of cellulosic biofuels and create new markets for materials previously regarded as waste.  Opportunities for upgrading biogas to so-called bioCNG or bioLNG – also referred to as biomethane or renewable biogas and already used in fleet applications like garbage trucks and municipal buses – currently show high promise for biogas-to-transportation fuel.

As outlined in the U.S. government’s Biogas Opportunities Roadmap report released last month, biogas has broad applications across a range of diverse industries.  Livestock farms, industrial wastewater treatment facilities, industrial food processing facilities, commercial buildings and institutions, and landfills all produce biogas – either directly or in the form of waste feedstocks that can be converted into biogas.  According to Navigant Research’s Renewable Biogas report, the biogas capture market across the United States is expected to reach more than $4 billion in annual revenue by 2020.

All in all, biogas remains a vastly underutilized resource across the United States when compared to countries like Germany that have used a range of incentives to drive investment, particularly in agricultural applications.

The Curse of Versatility

The challenge for biogas in the United States is that to some it’s a fuel source, to others a waste mitigation strategy, and to others a distributed generation resource.  That makes it difficult to tailor policies that address all potential opportunities.  Adding to the confusion, distributed biogas is often treated by utilities as a strategic resource alongside solar PV and small wind, when in fact it can be utilized in the form of a traditional generator set, a fuel cell, or sometimes concurrently, in combined heat and power configurations.

With these issues in mind, the EPA’s final rule relating to biogas introduced a relatively novel and subtle feature for renewable energy markets: incentive flexibility.  Under the rule, the EPA not only expands the scope of RFS2, but allows the same amount of renewable electricity derived from biogas to give rise to RINs for transportation applications and renewable energy credits for electricity generation, while also qualifying for incentives under state renewable portfolio standards.

This potential for multiple revenue streams unlocks the versatility of biogas as a resource and is likely to attract new investment in the U.S. biogas market.

 

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