Navigant Research Blog

In Golden Age, Natural Gas Becomes Generation Workhorse

— March 9, 2015

The promised golden age of natural gas has begun to take hold globally. Fortunately, rising natural gas demand will not require a corresponding increase in infrastructure spending across the United States, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy. These findings hold even as the U.S. electric power sector—currently the largest consumer of natural gas in the country—saw generation from natural gas replace that of coal in recent months. This corresponds with a sharp increase in demand for natural gas from multiple end-use sectors.

With the Henry Hub reference price for natural gas in the United States lingering below $5 per million Btu (mmBtu) since the early part of 2014, a demand surge is expected to continue across the power generation sector.

Renewables and Gas

The United States, already the largest consumer of natural gas in the world, is expected to see a 33% increase in demand by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 reference case. Growth is expected to be 42% for the electric power sector between 2012 and 2040 under the same scenario.

Living up to its promise as a bridge fuel to a low carbon future, natural gas is helping backfill baseload generation, especially in areas where coal plant retirements are highest. The combination of wind or solar power and gas-fired generation, meanwhile, has emerged as an option for states looking for more access to lower-carbon electricity. This hybrid approach is playing out across the expansive areas of the West, where electrical grid transmission bottlenecks have made it difficult to export renewable generation from areas of high productivity (e.g., Wyoming) to population centers on the West Coast, for example.

Not Laying Pipe

The increased use of natural gas in the electric power sector, however, is not without potential challenges. Unlike competing fuels, natural gas is delivered as it is consumed, and cannot be stored onsite like coal. Furthermore, adequate infrastructure is needed to maintain electric system reliability. The investment of $65 billion in new interstate pipeline construction over the past 18 years appears to be sufficient to deliver natural gas from producing regions to end users across the country without substantial new investment.

Unlike the U.S. electrical grid, natural gas power plants and natural gas production are both broadly distributed rather than geographically concentrated, reducing constraints on interstate pipeline capacity. What’s more, lower-cost investment options, such as improving the utilization of existing infrastructure and rerouting gas flows, are far cheaper than building new pipelines.

As the U.S. power sector faces several concurrent transitions—retirement of coal-fired generation, aging electrical transmission infrastructure, and a surge in the use of intermittent renewables—these findings suggest that natural gas will continue its emergence as the workhouse on the modern electrical grid.

 

Thermostat Studies Show Benefits of Being Smart

— February 16, 2015

This month Nest announced several studies that have been conducted on its learning thermostat.  One was conducted by MyEnergy, a Nest subsidiary that analyzes residential energy information. The others were conducted by the Energy Trust of Oregon and by Vectren Corporation, an Indiana-based holding company. The results boost Nest’s claims that the thermostat can pay for itself in only a year or 2.

Across the studies, evaluators found average annual reductions in electricity use between 13.9% and 15% for cooling and 10% and 12% for heating loads.  For natural gas, the Vectren study confirmed an average annual reduction of 12.5%.  In terms of cost savings, Nest states that adopters showed an average of 9.6% savings on their gas bill and 17.5% on their electric bill.

Last year, competitors EnergyHub and EcoFactor released third-party studies that indicated reductions in electricity use of 6% to 17% after thermostats controlled by their back-end platform were installed in users’ homes.

The Limits of Studies

Smart thermostats have become increasingly numerous in recent years. According to Navigant Research’s report, Smart Thermostats, North American household penetration of these devices is expected to exceed 20% by 2023. Until recently the market was concentrated in warm weather states, but adoption across colder climates is becoming more common, and utilities are becoming interested in smart thermostats for year-round energy efficiency and demand response (DR) programs.

Regardless, the high prices—$150 to $300 for the device alone—are still a barrier. Hence, smart thermostat vendors have trumpeted third-party studies that indicate positive return on investment (ROI) through energy bill savings. Analyses of products from EcoFactor, EnergyHub, and now Nest indicates annual energy savings in the 8% to 15% range.

But such studies can be interpreted in several ways. The most obvious conclusion is that the chances of incurring similar savings are good given the variety in the studies’ methodology and sample populations. On the other hand, factors like the locations of households, weather varying, and simultaneous energy efficient behaviors all affect study results.

Your Results May Vary

For states where heating and cooling are a small part of the utility bill, the savings from a smart thermostat will look different than those in an area where the costs are high. In such cases the results could be misleading.

The MyEnergy study included households from all over the country in its sample, and Nest claims that it is fairly representative of their adoption base—but is that representative of U.S. consumers as a group? The average reported savings might not fall in the middle of the spectrum of all consumers, so someone using this information as a basis for purchase of the $250 device could be anywhere from greatly or slightly disappointed to slightly or very pleased depending on how similar they are to the majority observed that indicated decent savings.

And if the consumer doesn’t really care enough to break down this information in the first place, much less nitpick findings from a variety of disparate studies? These types of adopters might be drawn to purchase the device simply for its user delight qualities. Nest has created an iconic device that by most accounts works really well and that has a lot of informational features designed to trigger more energy efficient behavior. That would be a great outcome.

 

Utility-Scale Energy Storage: The Next Killer App

— February 10, 2015

In recent years in the power sector, companies like C3 Energy and Space-Time Insight have been introducing groundbreaking applications that can provide powerful data and insights across the utility value chain, from the customer to the independent system operator (ISO). Looking back over the Navigant Research utility transmission and distribution technology forecasts in our syndicated reports—and our 10-year forecasts for those technologies—it’s clear that utility-scale energy storage is among the technologies undergoing the most dramatic transformations, thanks to these applications.

Since 2009, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have invested millions of dollars in utility-scale storage through both smart grid demonstration project funds and Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) R&D grants.

Next-Generation Investment

In December, Eos Energy Storage announced that it had won a $2 million award from the CEC to deploy and demonstrate a 1 MW grid-scale battery system at Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E’s) Smart Grid Lab in San Ramon, California. The project, called Aurora, was the only advanced battery storage system recipient of grant funding.

According to Eos, its Aurora battery system “can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of existing energy storage solutions.” The Edison, New Jersey-based company is joining with PG&E, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), distributed energy storage technology pioneer Stem, and ETM Electromatic to carry out the project.

“This type of project deployment can meet the requirements of California’s utilities and industrial users at a price that will compete with gas peaking plants, providing both peak generation and infrastructure benefits,” said Philippe Bouchard, Eos vice president of Business Development, in a statement.

Strategy for Scale

Eos’ Aurora direct current (DC) battery, power electronics from ETM, and Stem’s real-time data analytics are being implemented at PG&E’s Smart Grid Lab in San Ramon.  EPRI is managing interconnection and systems integration requirements. LBNL will employ real-time grid simulation to assess “system benefits under dynamic load and renewable integration use cases.”

The Eos Aurora 1000/4000 battery system delivers 1 MW of electrical power for 4 hours, which is more than enough to mitigate peak power demands, thus avoiding costly investments in transmission and distribution upgrades. It also offers fast-response surge capabilities that can manage the intermittency of solar, wind, and other renewable energy grid assets.

Looking further down the road, so to speak, it’s clear that energy storage will advance thanks to major investment from car makers such as Tesla, which is placing its bets with the new Gigafactory in Nevada. Large volumes of mass-produced batteries will be essential to Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers. And this mass production strategy for battery technology also brings increased scale that may reduce deployment costs. With clever engineering, this strategy will help expand residential and utility deployments, as well.

 

2015: A Turning Point for Batteries

— January 30, 2015

One of the biggest energy stories of 2014 was the emergence of battery-based energy storage as a reasonable option for grid management.  But the battery industry is just getting started.  This year, the energy news cycle will be led by batteries on all fronts.  This year will mark the tipping point that sees batteries become not only an accepted part of our electricity grid and transportation network, but also a key underpinning to the global economy.

Beneath these developments is a single realization that the world is beginning to accept: that high-quality advanced batteries are becoming very cheap.  As Navigant Research’s Materials for Advanced Batteries report explains, a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery that was priced at more than $1,000 per kWh in 2009 can now be bought for a third of that.  And there is no visible end to the reductions in pricing.  This price decline is caused by three factors:

Manufacturing scale: The world’s battery factories are capable producing some 100 GWh worth of Li-ion cells this year.  While not that much will actually be made (Navigant Research expects that 2015 will see some 65 GWh of Li-ion batteries produced), the manufacturing scale is now in place to enable the enormous growth of the use of batteries that is to be expected as pricing comes down.  And the capacity is only growing with time.  When Tesla Motors and Panasonic build their GigaFactory in Nevada in 2017, global manufacturing capacity will be increased by 50%.

Manufacturing expertise: It’s been 24 years since Sony introduced the first mass-produced Li-ion battery.  It’s taken that long for manufacturers to make these products at high efficiencies and high speeds.  A typical production line can now crank out 4 times the batteries that the same machines were able to produce just 5 years ago in the same amount of time.

Supply chain maturity: The chemicals that go into Li-ion batteries used to be specialty, batch-processed chemicals.  Now that the industry is so large, they have been converted into continuously processed commodity chemicals.  This means cheaper input materials, which in turn translates into cheaper batteries.

Golden Age

Now that these three factors have conspired to result in an environment of cheaper Li-ion batteries, the industries that use those batteries will see dramatically increased demand.  Here are some key events expected in early 2015 that will help usher in this golden year for batteries:

New automotive launches: Three cars will be unveiled in early 2015 that have the potential to be enormous sales leaders.  The 2016 Chevy Volt might make the Volt become a reasonable alternative to other low-priced compacts, even in this age of cheap gas.  The Model X, Tesla’s version of a high-end crossover, has the potential to be even more popular than the launch of the Model S in 2013.  And the BMW 5-series electric vehicle (EV) could hit the sweet spot of a mid-size luxury EV.  Even if only two of these three models turns into a global success, it will mean dramatically higher EV sales in 2015.

The great California grid rush: Each of the major California utilities has now issued requests for proposals for grid energy storage systems.  Combined with the final announcement of the winners of the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) bid in Hawaii sometime this spring, these programs will see the most extensive purchases of grid storage systems in history.

Additionally, new products in the e-bike, e-scooter, and portable appliance markets will see dramatic growth in the thirst for batteries in those markets as well.  All told, 2015 is shaping up to be a historic year for the battery industry and for the industries that buy batteries to make their products popular.

 

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