Navigant Research Blog

The Future of U.S. Solar Energy Companies – Part 4

— July 22, 2015

Note:  This blog is the fourth in a four-part series examining the evolution of U.S. solar companies.

In the final part of my series focused on the future of U.S. solar companies, I will cover yieldcos and community solar.

Yieldcos

The solar market has seen a dramatic increase in the number of yieldcos during the past 2 years. My colleague, Roberto Rodriguez Labastida, recently blogged on the topic, explaining that the idea behind yieldcos 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 similar to real estate investment trusts. They are also almost ideal for renewable energy projects, including wind farms.

In July 2014, SunEdison established a yieldco, called TerraForm Power Inc., which raised approximately $500 million through a successful initial public offering. In March 2014, First Solar and SunPower combined forces to offer a joint yieldco called 8point3, the amount of time, in minutes, it takes for light to travel from the sun to earth. The joint yieldco will include 87% utility-scale power plants and 13% rooftop, with installations in the United States, Chile, and Japan. There are also more than 15 other yieldcos from other large renewable energy providers, including NRG Yield, NextEra Energy Partners, Abengoa Yield, Pattern Energy Group, and Transalta Renewables.

Community Solar

To facilitate the rollout of community solar, U.S. states are expanding policies for virtual net metering, allowing multiple customers to participate in the same metering system and share the output from a single solar facility. Whether or not they are required to be physically connected to the system varies by policy. Here is a selection of historical and current shared solar programs:

  • California: Virtual net metering for multi-tenant buildings is required for investor-owned utilities (IOUs), and Senate Bill 43: Green Tariff Shared Renewables Program established a future clean electricity rate for all customers.
  • Colorado: Through the Community Solar Gardens Act, IOUs were required to accept 6 MW per year from community solar gardens for 2011 through 2013 (2 MW project limit, minimum of 10 participants, restricted to same municipality or county as the garden).
  • Delaware: Through community net metering, full retail credit is given for participants on the same distribution feeder as the community energy facility (subject to a net energy metering cap, minimum of two participants).
  • Minnesota: Through the solar Energy Jobs Act, Xcel Energy is required to credit community solar gardens at the retail rate (1 MW size limit, at least five participants, subscriptions for 25 years). The Minnesota Public Utility Commission recently provided further clarification that expanded the system size limit to 5 MW alternating current (AC).

Pure-play community solar companies, such as Clean Energy Collective and SunShare, are now being joined by major players, including SunRun and SolarCity. SolarCity stated that it will partner with Minnesota-based developer Sunrise Energy Ventures to develop up to 100 1 MW (AC) community solar installations. While this market is expected to require time to develop, as each public utility commission sets the rules in each state, the opportunities and pipelines of projects are growing.

Looking back, and ahead, at the trends covered in this four-part blog series, U.S. solar PV companies have done a remarkable job adapting to the changing landscape. Moving beyond the expiration of the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) at the end of 2016 is just another one of those evolutions.

 

Northern Power Opts for Elegance, Simplicity in Microgrid Controls Platform

— June 19, 2015

Founded in 1974, Northern Power Systems (NPS) of Barre, Vermont, is returning to its microgrid roots, strengthening its market-leading position as the wind turbine of choice for microgrids with recent partnership arrangements on systems controls and energy storage integration.

NPS designs, manufactures, and sells 60 kW and 100 kW wind turbines globally, a scale that appears to be ideally suited to microgrids, which often integrate other diverse generation sources ranging from traditional diesel generators to solar PV.  The company went public in April 2014 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Since NPS has deployed over 500 of its wind turbines in the field, it is the market leader today in remote microgrids such as those deployed in Alaska.

Though the company launched a PowerRouter microgrid testbed in 2002 and was involved with the pioneering concept of droop frequency that fell under the umbrella of the Consortium for Electric Reliability Technology (CERTS), it steered away from microgrids when its parent corporation Distributed Energy Systems declared bankruptcy in 2008. A newly independent NPS returned to the market that year with fresh investors and a focus on its wind turbine product line. It is now refocusing on microgrids as a business opportunity and offering its next-generation bidirectional FlexPhase power converters for a variety of microgrid and other energy storage applications.

With sophisticated controls provided via its power conversion technology (PCS), which helps relieve stress on the microgrid, NPS’s small wind turbines are ideally suited for remote microgrid applications.  In addition, the NPS 60/100’s ability to control reactive power independent of wind speed is also a plus.  Among other unique features is a simplified turbine architecture that utilizes a unique combination of a permanent magnet generator and a direct-drive design.

Partnering for Success

Two new partnerships enhance its microgrid offer. The most important was announced this month: a non-exclusive strategic partnership with MCM Energy Labs srl (MSM), a company that is part of the Italian industrial group ELVI. By integrating its FlexPhase converters with MCM’s hybrid power controls, integration and project deployment expertise, Northern Power is shining a spotlight on a fascinating debate within the microgrid community: What is the best approach to optimizing distributed energy resources (DER) within a microgrid?

Larger technology companies tend to shrink down what they do on the macrogrid down to a microgrid, with sophisticated metering and sensors and complex communication IT systems often requiring substantial customized engineering. The approach now being embraced by Northern Power— as well as other smaller market entrants—is an elegant solution that typically relies upon droop frequency, a concept that is a longstanding principle embedded in generation controls of the macrogrid, but which has profound implications for microgrids. In essence, it is a self-regulating, peer-to-peer approach revolving around simple physics: that frequency modulates (ever so slightly) when different DER are integrated into a single system (i.e., a microgrid.) There is no need for resources to talk to each other; they naturally adjust to keep the required 60 Hz (or 50 Hz) necessary for grid stabilization.

Just last month, Northern Power also announced a partnership with FIAMM Energy Storage Solutions, which manufactures a sodium nickel chloride battery. When linked to Northern’s PCS, FIAMM’s batteries are able to provide load shifting and seamless islanding services, as well as voltage and frequency controls for either direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) microgrid or utility grid applications. With the incorporation of MCM’s microgrid controller and FIAMM’s battery solutions, NPS has positioned itself as offering a lower cost controls platform for microgrids than many of its competitors.

 

Reserve Margins Undermined by Climate Change in the West

— June 10, 2015

A recent Arizona State University report has found that estimated reserve margins across the Western states will be far lower than previous estimates suggest. Reserve margins are a measure of available generation capacity over and above the capacity needed to meet normal peak demand levels. Regulatory bodies usually require producers and transmission facilities to maintain a constant reserve margin of 10% to 20% of normal capacity as insurance against breakdowns across the system or sudden increases in energy demand.

The study, which looks at power delivery over the next 50 years for the 14 Western states served by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC), found that extreme heat events and drought are occurring with greater frequency and duration, putting a significant strain on installed and planned generation capacity.  According to estimates published in the study, power providers may be overestimating planning reserve margins by as much as 20% to 25%.

For a system designed to deliver safe, affordable, and reliable power, this is a problem. Power providers do not currently account for climate change impacts in their operations, which could leave utilities and grid operators more exposed to unforeseen weather events than previously thought.

Varied Impacts

According to the study, forecasts about the impact on specific generation sources vary. Baseload nuclear and coal power plant capacity would be most impacted by reduced cooling water during the hottest days. Reduced stream flow would is also expected to reduce hydroelectric capacity in drier regions, but increased precipitation, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, could temper these losses. Although, combustion turbines – fueled by natural gas or renewable natural gas (RNG) in some cases – and solar PV lose output as air temperate rises, the impact on solar PV capacity is expected to be negligible. The researchers also concluded that potential changes in wind speed and air density would not have a major impact on wind generation capacity.

The study points to increased momentum behind the power grid becoming more distributed and dynamic. Not only are solar PV, energy efficiency, and other distributed energy resources (DER) a powerful tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the grid, with the emergence of the energy cloud, they will help utilities and grid operators deliver on their obligation to provide safe, affordable, and reliable power.

A Way Forward

Increased penetration of DER also reduces the impact of line loss, a key issue across the West. As bulk high-voltage power cable shoulders the burden of moving capacity from remote areas to population centers dispersed across the expansive Western region, aging high-voltage power cables are prone to expansion and sagging, causing more resistance across the system and requiring increasing levels of generation. Severe heat events could exacerbate the situation further, eventually posing a threat to public safety.

Although the Arizona State University study is worrisome, many of the innovations and tools necessary to mitigate the impact of climate change on the grid are available today. Efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions in the power sector through the Clean Power Plan (CPP) are expected to force utilities and regulators to shift the generation mix away from heavily polluting generation sources, which would help insulate the WECC region from the impact of severe heat and drought.

 

Into the Wild, with Clean Technology

— February 2, 2015

Yosemite National Park remains among the largest preserved wild spaces in the world, but with over 4 million visitors annually, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find solitude there. This month, Yosemite was thrust into the media as the United States became aware of (and potentially a little obsessed with) two rock climbers trying successfully to free-climb the Dawn Wall, which is the most difficult route on one of Yosemite’s iconic rock faces, El Capitan.  Through mobile phones and hotspots, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson shared and received real-time updates (including photos and streaming videos) with friends, family, and of course the media.

The climbers spent 19 days off the ground, much longer than the typical iPhone battery could ever last. So, they hauled solar powered chargers up the wall with them to power their phones, lights, cameras, computers, and other gadgets.  Their solar gear came from Goal Zero, one of a few companies that fill the niche for mobile/recreational solar power kits for athletes and travelers.

All the Mod Cons

These devices, although they lower demand for energy infrastructure in wilderness areas, are among many new technologies that are allowing visitors to enjoy modern niceties while enhancing preservation efforts in the face of record numbers of visitors.  Over the years, the park has had to develop strategies for transportation, sanitation, power, and communications that support preservation.

Another big issue is constant, full bandwidth connectivity.  On the Dawn Wall, the climbers enjoyed a relatively strong cellular connection.  But for areas without such access, the connectivity problem can be solved with a two-way satellite phone, an old technology that can now carry enough bandwidth to upload and send photos and videos.  A couple of years ago, these climbers remotely produced and shared a short film from a peak in Nepal.  Edmund Hillary would be astounded, not to say depressed.

The Waste Issue

Aside from managing new demands for connectivity and power, one of the biggest issues for the national parks and other preservation bureaus is human waste.  As the number of visitors grows, so does the need to deal with their … leftovers.  There are basically two ways to deal with human waste in areas without sewage systems.  The first is to carry it away and put it somewhere else. Most commonly, companies are contracted to collect and transport the waste, which is expensive.  In British Columbia, Bugaboo Provincial Park uses a helicopter to transport waste out of the park.

The second method, much less common, is to deal with it on site.  A park in Colorado began constructing an evaporative system for human waste in 2001, with reported successful outcomes.  Organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have recently poured money into research for developing isolated toilet systems for rural developing communities, which could also be appropriate for public outdoor spaces (I wrote a blog about the Gates program in 2013).

Caldwell and Jorgeson stored their waste and disposed of it offsite, which is common practice for mountaineers and climbers. This system, made by a company called Metolius Gear, comes highly recommended.

In any case, the Dawn Wall ascent and the worldwide interest it generated, highlighted a keen interest in natural spaces and human activity therein.  More than ever, companies in various markets have begun to realize how their technologies can support this growing wave of outdoor enthusiasts who desire to visit these spaces in comfort and with a good connections.  That’s a good thing, because these spaces are now able to support more visitors with heightened needs while retaining the beauty that makes them so special.

 

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