Navigant Research Blog

Could New Trade Deals Create a Cloudy Forecast for the US Solar Market?

— November 1, 2017

After a lengthy investigation, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) unanimously voted in favor of pursuing protectionist policies on imported solar equipment. The panel found that imports of crystalline silicon PV cells and modules have caused serious injury to the US solar industry, rendering some firms incapable of competing in the global market. To insulate US solar companies from the practices of foreign producers, the ITC agreed to grant President Trump the authority to implement trade protection policies.

Renewable Energy Often Needs Government Support

As cost structures do not always reflect the environmental benefits of green technology, the integration of renewable energy (RE) often requires some form of government aid such as tax incentives, customs duties, or import tariffs to support nascent industries. For instance, Germany’s feed-in tariff scheme under the German Renewable Energy Act created financial security for investors, allowing for healthy market competition within the region to thrive.

Subsidies and tax breaks can also assist solar producers and manufacturers in their efforts to vertically integrate themselves along the value chain, especially when market prices become volatile. For example, a company producing solar cells may want to vertically integrate upstream by manufacturing polysilicon, or integrate downstream by installing PV equipment.

Government support can help alleviate cost impediments associated with integration along the value chain. The spillover effects from German policies, along with other market forces, have created an economic environment suitable for solar technology innovation and deployment. This has allowed Europe to represent 80% of global demand for solar panels for much of the 2000s.

A Global Trade

However, the efficacy of protectionism for the US solar market is up for debate, as the preferential treatment of domestic manufacturers may end up doing more harm than good. Comparative advantages and market imbalances within the RE industry have led to an increasingly globalized supply chain and a growing reliance on international trade. In fact, 87% of all US solar installations use foreign-assembled panels, which means that restrictions on solar imports would increase costs for US consumers. This could severely limit the integration of solar energy and US adoption of clean energy practices as a whole.

US Solar Market

The size of the US solar market at stake within the broader RE industry is grounds for concern. A substantial tariff could lead to the loss of 88,000 US solar energy jobs out of an estimated 250,000. US-based manufacturers have even spoken out against the use of trade sanctions due to the detrimental impact it would have on the entire solar industry.

In fact, researchers at the University of Chicago found that the primary driver of solar industry growth in the United States has not been manufacturing, but rather the increase of installations caused by decreasing costs of solar products. This study highlights the fact that solar employment in the United States is not dependent on manufacturing but on several other subsectors within the market such as installation, sales and distribution, and project development. The US decision to invoke protectionist policies may end up protecting cell and module manufacturing at a great expense to these subsectors.

Policy Ripple Effects

The ripple effects from these new tariffs would be far reaching. Many US businesses depend on competitive pricing along the entire value chain, not just in manufacturing. The solar industry represents one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Consequently, the decision to implement such policies could darken what was once a bright future for a critical industry.

 

Innovative Business Models Required to Drive Microgrids for Resilience

— October 17, 2017

The devastation caused by recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern United States has focused attention on the potential benefits of microgrids and local power generation. With widespread power outages and major damage to grid infrastructure, the opportunity to rebuild electrical systems with a more distributed and resilient architecture has never been clearer. Navigant Research’s new report Energy Storage for Microgrids highlights some the developments taking place in this emerging market along with the challenges that must be overcome to capitalize on the full potential of these technologies. The report explores innovations in business models that will be key to the growth of microgrids and distributed energy over the coming years, particularly in markets with significant financial constraints.

Protecting and Improving

Microgrids equipped with distributed energy storage, solar PV, and other forms of distributed generation can greatly enhance the resilience of the electrical system by preventing damage to a single portion of the grid from causing massive outages. This capability would be especially beneficial for islands such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which face frequent hurricanes capable of destroying transmission and distribution lines. In a centralized grid system, although power plants may still be operational after a storm, the energy they generate will be unable to reach customers. Microgrids with localized energy storage and generation are less susceptible to storm damage and can be brought back online more quickly, without damage in one area preventing service from being restored elsewhere. Furthermore, under normal conditions, microgrids provide numerous benefits to the grid by operating both independently and in a coordinated fashion to maximize the use of renewable energy without affecting grid stability.

Leveraging Financial Innovation to Drive Growth

Since microgrids are a relatively new technology platform, two major challenges that hold back new projects are the limited number of standardized solutions (despite some early plug-and-play offerings) and the limited financing options that reduce upfront investments and risks for customers. In the case of Puerto Rico and other islands with significant financial constraints, innovative business models will be critical for microgrids to spread.

Business model and financing innovations have been key drivers of growth in the solar PV industry over the past decade. Many of these same concepts are being applied to microgrid and distributed energy storage projects with the goal of negating the perceived risk of investing in new technologies. Some of the new models shifting risk and upfront investment away from customers include: power purchase agreements and leases with owner financing, software, energy as a service, and design, build, operate, and own models. New business models are being driven by the growing number of companies that leverage their backgrounds to provide microgrid solutions, including utility subsidiaries, energy service and technology providers, solar PV developers, and building energy management and controls providers.

Creating Opportunities

While the distributed energy industry races to help communities recover from recent disasters, it is critical that new technologies capable of reducing the effect of future storms be implemented. However, overcoming the lack of familiarity with these new systems and relatively high upfront costs will be a major challenge. The most successful companies in this industry will be those that can unlock the potential of new business and financing models to reduce the risk and upfront costs to customers. This ability to leverage private investment in infrastructure will be particularly important as countries with limited resources look to recover from massive damage while preventing similar issues in the future. In a webinar later this month, Navigant Research will explore the role of microgrids for improving resilience in another high profile area: data centers.

 

Microsoft Deploys Fuel Cells into the Core of World’s First Gas Data Center

— October 12, 2017

Fuel cells have been used to power data centers for years, with players including Apple, eBay, and Equinix all making big investments in the technology. But while most fuel cells power data center facilities from the outside, Microsoft just built a pilot data center with the fuel cells installed right on the racks. This is a shift that could radically simplify future data center infrastructure and improve energy efficiency in these energy-hungry facilities. The big investments noted above notwithstanding, fuel cells have only captured a small fraction of data center market share. New types of deployments like Microsoft’s data center could help drive fuel cells toward the segment’s mainstream.

A Unique Fuel Cell Application

The unique design routes natural gas piping directly to the server racks, which could help eliminate a significant amount of electrical wiring, gear, and controls typical to data centers. A photo from Microsoft’s blog post depicts at least five devices that appear to be fuel cells positioned atop the rack. At an assumed 5 kW-10 kW per rack, the 20 racks likely represent a load of 100 kW-200 kW. The deployment is a good fit for fuel cells since they can be readily scaled in size to match load. That is, a given system can add or remove individual cells or stacks to precisely match demand, a feat not possible with more monolithic alternatives like generator sets (gensets) or microturbines.

There are some potential challenges with this configuration. Installing that much fuel cell support infrastructure (exhaust flue, gas piping, and controls, etc.) could impose significant cost on installations, and maintenance on all those systems could be more taxing than on a single multi-megawatt system installed outdoors. And gas-powered systems generally face the challenge of gas grid outages. Though these are rarer than electric grid outages, they represent a concern—especially in seismic zones like those on the US West Coast. When an outage occurs, many data centers still rely on diesel backup generators since the fuel can be stored onsite. Despite these challenges, this type of deployment shows promise, thanks to ongoing fuel cell technology improvements and the low cost of natural gas.

New Players Enter the Arena

Microsoft mentions project partners McKinstry, a design-build construction firm, and Cummins, an engine and genset manufacturer. Though the fuel cell provider is not noted, Cummins teamed up with UK-based Ceres Power Holdings PLC to develop solid oxide fuel cells for data centers under a Department of Energy (DOE) award in 2016. The award specifies a minimum efficiency of 60% and a capacity of 5 kW scalable to 100 kW. That efficiency is slightly below the 65% (lower heating value) efficiency listed by Bloom Energy, which has largely dominated data center fuel cell deployments to date—though its systems are larger. Regardless of the approach, the high efficiency and consistent energy output of fuel cells is a good match for data centers at large.

While the current design operates on natural gas, a modified future system using pure hydrogen storage could help zero-carbon data centers incorporate intermittent renewable power. That is, the intermittency of renewables like solar PV has historically limited adoption on data center sites, which form a consistent load. If, however, that PV or wind system could generate hydrogen using an electrolyzer in a power-to-gas configuration, the energy could be stored to consistently power the data center via fuel cells. These types of innovations could represent a massive opportunity. According to Yole Développement, data centers used 1.6% of global power production in 2015 and are anticipated to grow to 1.9% in 2020. By any measure, the opportunities in this space loom large.

 

Innovators Wanted for DER Solutions: Part 2

— September 21, 2017

Coauthored by Brett Feldman

Earlier this year, Navigant Research blogged about innovations required to overcome challenges to widespread distributed energy resources (DER) adoption and integration. This blog highlights examples of companies and products looking to address those gaps from different perspectives, with varying levels of success so far.

Hardware

 Tesla’s recent innovation in solar PV is the Solar Roof system, a glass solar tile product for homes that has a warranty of the lifetime of the house. The Solar Roof can also integrate with the Tesla Powerwall home battery. The out-of-pocket cost for a typical home in Maryland is estimated at $52,000 (pre-tax credit), but Tesla estimates that the system could earn a modest return of $8,000 over 30 years after, accounting for the tax credit and the value of the energy generated. Customers can choose to finance their Solar Roof through their home mortgage. The Solar Roof is a hardware solution that has the potential to increase the life of residential solar PV installations, improve the value of a home, and be more attractive to customers. However, the Solar Roof rollout appears to be moving slowly, with customer installations about to start and then ramp up through 2017. And as with many hardware innovations, price can be a barrier. Various analysts, including those at GTM, calculated a cost of $6.30/W, which is approximately double traditional solar PV prices today. Additionally, there may be complications for building-integrated PV receiving the federal Investment Tax Credit.

Software

In 2016, Tendril launched a new cloud software product called Orchestrated Energy, a residential continuous demand management solution for utilities that calculates a home’s heating and cooling needs, predicts customer behavior, and integrates connected devices to optimize system operation under a unique dispatch schedule. In pilot programs, the software solution reduced HVAC peak load by up to 50% and energy consumption from cooling by up to 20%. The solution is scalable and device-agnostic, and customers can interact with it via Tendril’s MyHome mobile app. The Orchestrated Energy software solution innovates by providing a seamless, optimized customer home energy management experience. Interestingly, there remains some doubt in the industry as to whether utilities are ready for this advanced software.

Platforms

Current, powered by GE is a startup within GE that offers advanced energy technologies—primarily combining LEDs and solar with networked sensors and software—for commercial and industrial facilities. It offers a single-source platform for energy management across multiple client sites, leveraging GE’s Predix, the cloud platform for all of the company’s Industrial Internet applications. Notably, Current has 125 plus partners providing apps for a variety of enterprise and municipal services (e.g., workspace/productivity management, asset management, and urban mobility/traffic planning) as add-ons to its Intelligent LEDs and the Predix Platform. In August 2017, Current announced a deal to install solar on 50 Home Depots in the United States in partnership with Tesla. Current has also partnered with AT&T to sell Internet-connected sensors to cities as a smart city infrastructure solution. San Diego was the first major city to sign on. The ability to leverage GE’s hardware and software is a strong starting point for the business, but the company has struggled to clearly define a strategy. In December 2016, GTM reported that Current is undergoing restructuring.

In the next installment, we will lay out other solutions related to business models, strategic relationships, market structures, and regulatory models.

 

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