Navigant Research Blog

Cape Wind Project Faces New Hurdles

— January 26, 2015

The prospects for near-term offshore wind take-off in the United States dimmed at the end of 2014, as the two utilities that had agreed to buy the electricity output of the 468 MW Cape Wind offshore project terminated their contracts.  The deals collapsed because the developers of Cape Wind had failed to reach key contractual milestones for project financing and construction launch by December 31, 2014.  National Grid signed a conditional power purchase agreement (PPA) in 2010 for 50% of the project output, and utility NSTAR agreed to purchase an additional 27.5% of the project’s output in 2012.

Saying they do not regard the terminations as valid, Cape Wind officials claim that force majeure provisions in the contracts stipulate that the milestones should have been extended.  Once again, the embattled project is in a legal dispute – and this one with potentially show-stopping consequences.  No offshore wind project in the United States can proceed without the price certainty of a PPA.  The outcome of these contract disputes could deal a fatal blow to a project that has been under development for 14 years.

Not in My Ocean

Planning for Cape Wind has taken so long partly because it was the first to navigate the unchartered waters of offshore wind development in a country that has little offshore wind policy and, as yet, no steel in the water.  Vociferous and well-funded opposition to the project’s location off Nantucket Island – a popular vacation destination for the affluent and influential – plagued it from the beginning.  The developers have been fighting a two-front battle against the challenges of offshore wind and the legal hurdles put up by anti-wind activists, coastal homeowners, and conservative billionaires.

The unfortunate reality is that, while the United States has excellent offshore wind potential along the Eastern seaboard and growing need for diversified and clean electricity generation, U.S.  policies are ill-suited to support offshore wind.  The production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC) for renewable energy projects subsidize around 30% of the cost of building an offshore wind farm.  European countries like Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom provide similar levels of subsidy.  The major difference is that those incentives have been consistent and long-lived enough to support projects that are years in development.

Back and Forth

Unlike most developed countries, where tax law is permanent until changed through legislation or other decrees, many U.S. tax laws and incentives are increasingly enacted on a temporary basis.  This is partly because U.S. lawmakers count on industries like wind power to help finance their election campaigns.  As a result, tax favors are largely granted on a 1- or 2-year basis, resulting in boom and bust cycles (13 GW of wind installed in 2012 in the United States, for example, followed by 1 GW installed in 2013).  This also results in severe inefficiencies in manufacturing and human resources as factories lay off workers only to rehire again when incentives resume.

The onshore wind industry grudgingly copes with this back-and-forth because onshore wind can be built in 1- and 2-year cycles.  But offshore projects require much longer to develop and build.  Eventually, U.S. lawmakers may realize the benefits of offshore wind and provide suitable long-term incentives.  Unfortunately, that will likely come decades after more progressive countries in Europe – and now China – are far ahead in offshore wind.

 

With Cheap Oil Flowing, U.S. Looks to Next Energy Revolution

— January 26, 2015

With oil prices continuing to languish and Saudi Arabia moving through a royal succession upon the death of King Abdullah, the idea that the “OPEC era is over” has gained credence among government officials and industry analysts. “Did the United States kill OPEC?” asks New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter. The answer, he argues, is essentially yes: “The Nixon administration and Congress laid the foundation of an industrial policy that over the span of four decades developed the technologies needed to unleash American shale oil and natural gas onto world markets,” thus loosening OPEC’s grip.

The reality is a bit more complicated than that: OPEC still produces nearly 40% of the world’s oil; the United States produces less than 18%. And oil at $50 a barrel could actually increase OPEC’s power as producers of unconventional reserves, which are more costly to produce, are driven from the market. Like the coal industry, OPEC is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Big Opportunity

The shale revolution does, however, offer some other welcome knock-on effects, if policymakers are alert and astute enough to take advantage of them.  “Cheaper oil and gas will contribute an estimated $2,000 per American household this year, and $74 billion to state and federal governments coffers,” note Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, a San Francisco-based energy and climate think tank. The Breakthrough Institute has done extensive research on the role of public-private partnerships in the development of the seismic and drilling technology advances that underlie the shale revolution. Should the government choose to take advantage of it, this windfall could fund a multi-decade R&D program for renewable energy similar to the one that led to the shale boom.

“We can afford to spend a tiny fraction of the benefits of the bounty that cheap oil and gas have brought so that our children and grandchildren can similarly benefit from cheap and clean energy in the future,” declare Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

The Gas Tax Solution

That’s an inspiring concept. The execution is likely to be messy, though. Any such spending would probably need congressional support, or at least consent – and the U.S. Senate only last week finally reached agreement that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” That’s a long way from dedicating billions to develop alternative energy sources.

One suggestion put forth by clean energy activists is an increase in the U.S. gas tax. A few cents extra per gallon (on gas that’s about half the price it was a year ago) could help fund a massive crash program to develop inexpensive, clean energy technology (not to mention shore up the failing U.S. Highway Trust Fund).

But raising the gas tax is like the National Popular Vote – a terrific idea that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. Even though polls consistently indicate that consumers are willing to spend slightly more for the energy they consume in order to limit climate change, actually slapping extra taxes on motorists at the pump is unlikely to be a winning move in Washington – which explains why President Obama left it out of his call for a “bipartisan infrastructure plan” in his State of the Union address.

 

The Future of Energy: Open or Closed?

— January 20, 2015

Among technology giants, two predominant business models dictate the way in which consumers connect (and interact) with the broader Internet and the way in which innovation unfolds: open and closed.  This tug-of-war between open versus closed has been going on ever since the Internet first started to hit the mainstream.  As described by GigaOM, “It’s a battle that has been at the heart of the technology industry for most of its modern history.”

Open models seek to facilitate universal access and maximize creativity, but potentially breed chaos, error, and design catered to the lowest common denominator.  Closed systems limit the number of participants and exert more control over the flow of information, but can make it easier to roll out dynamic products while minimizing the potential for error.  In more specific terms, it’s a battle between the Google, Android, and Adobe business models and those of Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft.  Each carries with it specific advantages and disadvantages.

Advent of the Cloud

Although still in its infancy, in the emerging Energy Cloud, the battleground is divided similarly, with advocates of open and closed models both beginning to stake claims.

The Energy Cloud – the end result of an evolutionary shift away from a financial and engineering model that relies on large centralized power plants owned by utilities to one that is more diverse, in terms of sources of generation and ownership of assets, and enables the integration of new, distributed energy resources in addition to traditional generation – provides a rich ecosystem for breeding innovation as energy becomes increasingly democratized.  As depicted in the graphic below, the hallmark of the Energy Cloud is a shift away from one-way power flows to bidirectional flows in which consumers become both consumers and producers of power:

The Energy Cloud

(Source: Navigant Research)

Lessons from the Revolution

There are many lessons from the Internet revolution that can be applied to the Energy Cloud.  Open and closed Energy Cloud models alike must balance the need for access, reliability, safety, and ultimately, innovation.

The question comes down to this: will the Energy Cloud take the form of a walled garden, as CompuServe and America Online attempted in the early days of the Internet and Facebook is doing today, or will it remain an open landscape?  Or, perhaps of more relevance to stakeholders, which model best serves the goal of fostering a thriving, ubiquitous Energy Cloud?

Likely, both open and closed models will play key roles, as the Energy Cloud will serve multiple objectives simultaneously.  According to an essay on the topic from PricewaterhouseCoopers, innovation is almost never an either/or choice.  As most companies have discovered, their innovation goals involve a complex mix of closed and open models that is uniquely tailored to their specific innovation objectives.

Customers and Providers

For the incumbent utility, for example, objectives remain focused on preserving market share and maintaining safety and reliability while also growing profitability.  For the consumer, access to inexpensive and reliable power around the clock and choice in how and by whom their energy is produced remain key objectives.  Some stakeholders will seek to maximize either one of these positions, while others will seek to bridge the two.

In either case, the emergence of the Energy Cloud will require a rethinking of standards, protocols, and relationships among stakeholders.  With a slew of innovative technologies gaining market share – solar PV, distributed storage, home energy management systems – the integration of these assets into an efficient and resilient system remains among the greatest challenges ahead for all Energy Cloud stakeholders, and will likely be where the greatest emphasis on innovation will occur.

 

In Review: Energy Metatrends

— January 14, 2015

In Navigant Research’s 2013 white paper, Smart Energy: Five Metatrends to Watch in 2013 and Beyond, we discussed key shifts in the energy landscape.  In this post, I’ll review those trends and discuss which have come to pass and which have yet to materialize or have fizzled out.

The white paper covered the following metatrends:

  • Energy is becoming increasingly democratized
  • The role of government innovation funds is changing
  • Technologies are converging
  • The Southern African Power Pool is becoming the new BRIC
  • The role of utilities is changing

Energy Democratization

Distributed generation (DG), which lies at the heart of the energy democratization shift, has gained significant traction in recent years.  The growth of DG – spurred in part by greater consumer awareness, cost reductions for technologies like solar PV, and improved financing models, among other things – is one of the most dynamic factors driving the evolution of the traditional utility business model.  In Navigant Research’s report, Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast, we state that between 2014 and 2023, DG is expected to displace the need for at least 321 GW of new large-scale power plants, valued at more than $1 trillion in power plant construction revenue.  Annual DG capacity additions are expected to outpace centralized generation capacity additions by 2018, underscoring the importance of this metatrend going forward.

Government Innovation Funds

The white paper argued that quasi-governmental funds would step in to fill the void left by private equity and venture capital exiting the energy sector.  The role of government funds would expand to drive innovative technologies from R&D to commercialization.  While this has proven to be partly true, significant capital has exited the energy space, leaving many fledgling companies (and technologies) exposed to market realities.  Spectacular flameouts have rocked the cleantech financing landscape.  That said, governments remain key sources of funding across the innovation lifecycle, so the jury is still out with respect to this metatrend.

Technologies Converging

As discussed in our recent webinar on January 13, Energy Storage for Renewables Integration, storage reigns supreme within this metatrend, allowing for greater flexibility in managing electrons across both space and time.  Whether in an electric vehicle battery or advanced batteries deployed as peaking plants on the grid, energy storage has proven to be a linchpin technology unlocking the potential of distributed wind, solar PV, and microgrids.  For example, hybrid solar and storage deployments create exciting opportunities for energy consumers at the edge of the grid.  This is certainly a trend that has begun to emerge in a significant way.

Southern African Power Pool = the New BRIC

This metatrend is among the more difficult to measure, as specific goals remain longer term.  Economic growth appears to be gaining momentum across the region, but developments in Brazil, India, and China continue to overshadow the emergence of dynamic energy economies in Africa.  There is a general sense that investment to date in emerging energy technologies and infrastructure throughout emerging BRIC markets is just the tip of the iceberg.

Utility Role Changing

The changing role of the utility remains the most dynamic metatrend overall.  While predictions of a “utility death spiral” may prove to be overly dire, most acknowledge that utility business models will need to adapt to changing electrical grid realities.  In most cases, this will entail more complex partnerships with customers as utilities move toward more integrated service offerings.  In other cases, utilities may narrow their focus on one or two aspects of the grid, essentially becoming ”poles and wire” companies.

Summarizing, three out of five of these metatrends have materialized in significant ways.  While it is still too early to tell with the others, heading into 2015, we can expect a sustained global shift toward localized power generation and increased pressure on utilities to adopt (or at least explore) alternative business models.

For more on these dynamic changes and others, please see Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.

 

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