Navigant Research Blog

Solar Subsidies Attract Financial Schemes

— October 20, 2014

Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tuscon 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.


Innovative Energy Storage Technologies Gain Ground

— October 18, 2014

According to the Navigant Research Energy Storage Tracker 3Q14, the 2007 to 2013 period has seen the commercialization of a number of key technologies in energy storage, including several advanced battery chemistries, flywheels, and power-to-gas.

The Energy Storage Tracker is a database of energy storage projects that tracks announcements and deployments of energy storage across a range of technologies in an effort to identify industry trends.  The chart below shows the deployed power capacity for six advanced storage technologies in utility-scale applications.  There was a peak in installed capacity across most of these technologies in 2011 and 2012 in response to stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The purpose of this funding was to jumpstart the energy storage market, and while 2013 was a slow year for most battery technologies, preliminary 2014 data (not shown) indicates improved numbers over 2013 levels.  In contrast to advanced batteries, flywheels and power-to-gas saw an uptick in deployed capacity from 2012 to 2013.

Utility-Scale Energy Storage Power Capacity by Technology, World Markets: 2007-2013

(Source: Navigant Research)

Playing Catch-Up

Although no single technology is a clear winner in the global stationary energy storage market, lithium ion (Li-ion) has arguably established itself as a key frontrunner going forward.  Over the past 13 years, sodium sulfur (NaS) batteries, manufactured solely by Japanese power infrastructure giant NGK, have established themselves as the clear leader in terms of installed power capacity in the stationary energy storage space, with 243.7 MW from 2007 to 2013.  However, publicly announced deployments are typically large orders in the tens of MWs, which results in peaks and troughs in NGK’s market activity.

Li-ion sits in second during the same time period, with 231.9 MW aggregated over all its subchemistries.  In 2013, Li-ion had the highest number of MW installed and managed to keep output steady with 2012.  Of this 231.9 MW, lithium iron phosphate (manufactured by A123 Systems, now NEC Energy Solutions and BYD) accounts for at least 114.8 MW, lithium titanate (manufactured by Altairnano and Toshiba) accounts for at least 10.6 MW, and lithium manganese spinel (manufactured by Samsung SDI and LG Chem) accounts for at least 16 MW.

Peaks and Valleys

Other technologies that have seen significant deployments from 2007 to 2013 include advanced lead-acid batteries (71.4 MW), the vast majority provided by Xtreme Power (now a part of Younicos).   More than 58 MW worth of advanced flow batteries were deployed, primarily by ZBB and Premium Power, during the same time period.  In addition, 50.9 MW worth of flywheels were deployed, with 45 MW of that capacity coming from Beacon Power (though 4 MW of Beacon’s installations have since been decommissioned).   Lastly, 11.1 MW of power-to-gas storage capacity was deployed between 2007 and 2013, primarily by ETOGAS and Hydrogenics.

In the early period of commercialization, it’s not unexpected to see strong years and weak years for technology deployment.  Li-ion is maturing and is showing signs of being a fully commercial technology, similar to NaS batteries.  Advanced lead-acid, flywheels, and flow batteries will continue to grow, but in some cases will be limited due to the small number of suppliers in the market.  Power-to-gas is in the very early stages of commercialization, and will likely see growth and decline in deployed capacity in the demonstration stages before commercializing, similar to Li-ion.


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.


Bioenergy Transition: The Challenge Ahead

— October 13, 2014

Despite the relative abundance of biomass as a fuel source in many places, the bioenergy industry has failed to gain the traction as a cornerstone renewable resource that many envisioned just 5 to 10 years ago.  Facing stagnant industry growth, the industry is in desperate need of a shot in the arm from policymakers.

Baseload biomass plants, for example, were especially hard hit by the restricted lending and general economic malaise of recent years.  Commercial installed capacity was historically much higher than wind and solar power combined, but it has been eclipsed by wind generation sources in recent years.  Global installed capacity currently stands at an estimated 3% of global generating capacity.

The European Union (EU), which envisioned a broad surge in bioenergy power and heat production to deliver its 20-20-20 goals, expects to achieve just 83% of its target by 2020.  A combination of market forces, weakened policy support, contentious debate over the sustainability of bioenergy, and the relative success of wind and solar has stifled investment across the industry.  Contending with similar but more severe headwinds, growth for the bioenergy industry in the United States has been mostly nonexistent.

New Openings

With the regulatory vice tightening on carbon-emitting power producers in the past year, however, the opportunities to co-fire diverse biomass feedstocks in coal-burning plants or switch these plants over to dedicated biopower production looks to be shaping up as an attractive proposition again.  As a feedstock, biomass remains a compelling option for reducing carbon emissions from centralized power plants because it eliminates the need for a significant overhaul of existing hardware.

Unfortunately, while recent policy and regulatory developments in the EU and United States look promising on paper, they are unlikely to give the industry the boost it needs in the near term.

Under its framework for climate and energy policies presented in January 2014, the European Commission called for 27% renewables by 2030.  Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed Clean Power Rule in the United States is a potentially positive development for the bioenergy industry.  Yet, biomass will need to be recognized under the Clean Air Act as a renewable source of energy, with a favorable carbon profile when compared to fossil fuels, for the industry to gain significant traction.

Cost Gains

Longer-term developments look more positive.  According to a recent McKinsey Insights article, bioenergy in Europe has the potential to lower the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) by up to 48% by 2025 through gains like boiler efficiencies and greater plant standardization.  Although the relative abundance of cheap coal and softer emissions regulations in the United States (relative to Europe) require greater LCOE gains to reach price parity with coal-based generation, these developments would be positive for bioenergy development in both regions.

For bioenergy to capitalize on these positive trends, logistical challenges related to the collection, aggregation, transportation, and handling of biomass will need to be overcome.  Higher growth will depend on breakthroughs in carbon densification processes for biomass resources, for example, and the increasing commoditization of biomass feedstocks (including the expansion of the international trade in pellets) for power production.


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