Navigant Research Blog

Corporate Renewable Energy Goals Stimulate Solar, Wind Demand, and Business Models

— May 4, 2017

Large retailers, data centers, manufacturers, and even government facilities are among the growing number of entities shifting away from the standard electricity model where utilities decide the generation source and technology for consumers. As the costs of wind and solar energy continue to decline, owners of these energy-intensive buildings are taking advantage to meet their renewable energy goals. The combination of these two factors has led to the manifestation of corporate procurement as a major driver in the deployment of renewable energy, forcing utilities to continuously adapt to meet a wide range of consumer needs.

Leading companies such as Microsoft and Google paved the way early on for renewable energy procurement, but more and more companies are joining in. Notably, the online retail giant Amazon is building (and has built) wind and solar farms in North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana as part of its goal to achieve 100% renewable energy usage. Worldwide, nearly 20 GW of corporate renewable energy procurement contracts have been signed to date, with 240 Fortune 500 companies now having set renewable energy goals.

Achieving Renewable Energy Goals

Making things more interesting are the growing number of methods companies use to meet their formidable renewable energy targets:

  • Physical power purchase agreements (PPAs) were the preferred method for many years; a third-party developer would install, own, and operate a solar PV system (often onsite) and sell that energy to a company at a fixed price.
  • Financial or virtual PPAs are becoming more common. A utility or independent renewable developer sells power from wind or solar into the wholesale energy market at an agreed upon price via a third party (in this case, the companies looking to fulfill renewable energy targets). The company gets credit for bringing renewable energy to the grid and can count this toward its goals without directly sourcing its energy from renewables. Amazon’s 80 MW solar farm in Virginia operates under this structure through a deal with Dominion Energy.
  • Utility tariffs or green tariffs are agreements between a company and utility to purchase renewable energy from a specific facility in the utility’s service territory instead of negotiating a PPA directly with the developer. Google and Duke Energy announced a partnership under this arrangement.
  • Exiting the utility entirely is another method, though it is uncommon. Companies that are able to exit can separate from the utility entirely and purchase energy from private providers. MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts recently announced their plans to part ways with the local utility, NV Energy.

Favorable Future for Aggressive Movers

Looking ahead, it’s still to be determined if any one procurement method will emerge as the preferred path to meeting renewable energy goals, and it is unclear how utilities will respond. The demand doesn’t seem to be waning: Google, a leader in procured renewable energy, announced a plan to be 100% renewable powered on a real-time basis. To meet these bold targets, companies will need to continue to be creative in coming up with arrangements that work for both sides. Competitors are becoming more aggressive in this expanding space, and the evolution of this nuanced renewable energy application will be one to watch for the foreseeable future.

 

Renewed Interest in Older Forms of Energy Storage

— November 17, 2015

After recently receiving support from Governor Steve Bullock, a planned pumped hydro storage (PHS) project in Montana has moved one step closer to reality. While the Gordon Butte project still faces many hurdles on the road to development, it is being embraced by many in Montana as a way to help take advantage of the state’s abundant renewable energy resources. Located in remote Meagher County, the facility would add a 400 MW resource capable of storing excess wind energy to be released at times of high demand. Montana-based Absaroka Energy is developing the project, working to secure financing and permits, as well as an interconnection and partnership agreement with a regional utility.

This project is part of a trend of renewed interest in PHS and other forms of electro-mechanical energy storage. According to Navigant Research’s Energy Storage Tracker 1Q15 report, there are 42 PHS projects in various stages of development around the world, including 13 located in the United States. As the penetration of renewable energy increases globally, energy storage solutions of all types are emerging as efficient ways to manage fluctuating supply and demand. While advanced batteries are an ideal choice for managing the grid’s stability over short time periods, the economics of very long duration (6+ hour) energy storage often do not line up given the high upfront cost and limited lifetime of battery technologies. Thus, many grid operators are looking at alternative storage technologies to help align the output of renewable energy with times of peak demand.

Generation and Demand

A common issue with renewable energy is the mismatch between when energy is generated and when demand is highest; this is a particularly acute problem in remote areas or physical islands that are unable to import or export energy whenever it is needed. In Montana and other areas, wind power is generally most productive at night (when there is minimal demand for energy) and is generally unavailable during peak demand hours when energy is needed most. The aim of Gordon Butte and other planned PHS projects is to allow this abundant wind energy to be shifted from when it is produced to times of peak demand, often in the evening, helping to ease utility concerns around balancing wind’s variable output. An economical means of storing large amounts of wind energy could allow Montana to fully capitalize on its immense natural resources, potentially allowing the state to export power to surrounding areas and greatly reducing the amount it spends on importing fossil fuels.

Despite the attractive economics and potential positive impacts PHS facilities can have, development of such large and complex infrastructure projects can be challenging, costly, and time-consuming. In addition to concerns regarding impacts on water resources and local wildlife, issues surround land-use and permitting have derailed past projects. These projects will face increasing competition from rapidly advancing battery technologies that are improving the economics of long-duration storage with more flexibility and less complex development processes.

 

High Focus on Low Wind Turbines

— October 5, 2015

Wind turbines with taller towers and larger rotors designed for efficient power generation in areas of low-speed wind have taken over the industry over the past few years with no sign of slowing. At this year’s HUSUM Wind 2015 wind conference and exhibition in Germany, four new low wind speed models were unveiled to the market by four top wind turbine OEMs. These turbines are targeted toward the Northern European wind market, where low wind speeds and space constraints favor these designs, but they are growing more popular. The system specs show the industry is continuing to innovate and push the boundaries for onshore wind turbines.

Denmark’s Vestas unveiled the largest rotor variant of its 3 MW platform—its new V136-3.45 designed for low wind International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) class IIIA sites. Following now typical naming conventions in the industry, the 136 denotes rotor diameter in meters, and the 3.45 represents the turbine’s rated megawatt capacity. The 66.7 m blades are Vestas’ largest yet for onshore turbines, and they are the latest in a series of blades released in recent years that follow the company’s switch to structural shell designs after decades of using a central spar design. As with long blades from other vendors, preimpregnated carbon fiber plays a key role in achieving strength and length with manageable weight. The blades also have a slim design that is augmented with aerofoils, vortex generators, and serrated trailing edges (which appears to be a newly revoked patent previously owned by Siemens).

Also notable is the use of the Vestas’ large diameter steel tower (LDST), a tower design that is detailed in Navigant Research’s Supply Chain Assessment 2014 – Wind Energy report. Put simply, the tower design vertically splits the largest bottom tower section into three shell sections that are bolted together at the wind plant site. This allows for a wide enough base (6.5 m) to support hub heights of 132 m and 149 m.

Germany’s Senvion also unveiled a new IEC IIIA low wind turbine, the 3.4M140, which features a 140 m rotor using 68 m carbon-infused blades and hub heights of 110 m and 130 m. This is an uprated design from the company’s current 3.2 MW, 122 m rotor offering. Notably, the doubly fed induction generation drivetrain moves to full power conversion on the new model from partial conversion on the existing 3.2 MW units. Senvion achieves its tall hub heights using a hybrid approach that combines lower sections of prestressed concrete with standard tubular upper sections. Navigant Research has detailed recent hybrid tower designs, which are the most common approach used to reach high hub heights.

Uprating the drivetrain is German company Nordex’s approach to its new low wind turbine, the N131-3.3MW. This turbine retains the existing 131 m rotor and carbon-infused 65.5 m blades used on the company’s current N131-3.0 offering, but uprates the power output with changes in gearbox torque, generator, and power converter (retaining DFIG with partial conversion). The N131-3.3MW is also designed for remarkably tall hub heights of 134 m and 164 m by use of hybrid concrete and steel towers.

European OEMs weren’t the only players showcasing new low wind offerings at HUSUM. U.S.-based General Electric (GE)—which has grown minor market share in Germany—unveiled a 3.2 MW turbine with a 130 m rotor turbine designed for IEC IIIA wind speeds. GE’s largest offering presently in the low wind category is its 2.75-120 model, so this is a notable uptick that brings the company closer in line with its European competitors. Hub heights for the 3.2 MW turbine will range from 85 m to 155 m, with the higher-end options employing GE’s unique space frame design, which features a bolted lattice tower covered in fabric.

 

Wind Industry Poised to Benefit from Intellectual Property Court Ruling

— August 5, 2015

Intellectual property (IP) is a double-edged sword in every industry. The marketplace rewards companies with the best innovations. In aggregate, these technology advances accelerate competitiveness and improve the offerings to the marketplace. However, companies pay princely sums and engage small armies of attorneys and experts to vigorously pursue and defend IP advantages over their peers. These battles churn out winners and losers on a regular basis and can often stifle the broader progress of an industry.

The wind power industry has had its fair share of IP battles. One of the latest fights is over so-called de-rated operation. Late July saw a U.K. court rule in favor of Siemens over ENERCON. ENERCON has been defending its IP over its Storm Control solution, which is its name for de-rated operation.

De-rated operation is the ability of a wind turbine to operate below its maximum capacity during times of high wind speed.  Traditionally, when a wind turbine reaches its threshold for maximum wind speed (around 25 meters per second), it will enter a cut-out shutdown mode to protect the turbine from damaging high winds.

The traditional process takes the electricity production offline, which can destabilize the broader power grid.  As the commercial-scale deployment of wind turbines increases, this becomes a larger concern.   To address this concern, de-rating allows a turbine to remain online, using a range of control methods from pitch control of blades to generator torque control to operate a wind turbine at below its maximum capacity.

For example, instead of a 2 MW wind turbine shutting off once it encounters its threshold cut-off wind speed parameters, it can reduce its output to 50% capacity, or 1 MW.  This ensures that the wind plant remains operational, balancing the electrical grid, and that kilowatt-hours continue to be produced instead of lost due to a full shutdown.  There are also economic inefficiencies associated with stopping and restarting wind turbines that can be avoided by running at reduced load.  This approach can also be used to continue the operation and revenue generation of a wind turbine that is experiencing high operating temperatures within the turbine drivetrain. De-rating can allow power production to continue while temperatures are reduced to acceptable levels without entirely shutting the turbine down.

ENERCON said that Siemens’ High Wind Ride Through (HWRT) infringed on ENERCON’s Storm Control system. Judge Justice Biress of the London High Court ruled the challenge invalid in favor of Siemens. Some of the technical aspects of prior art, or known technology, that bolstered Siemens’ case are well-cited at Windpower Monthly. In short, the judge accepted submitted evidence that previous technology existed–and was even obvious for de-rated operation, ramping generation down as wind speeds went up.

Making an Appeal

ENERCON says it is considering its options for appeal. In the meantime, the U.K. decision may sway how the issue is interpreted by the European Patent Office (EPO), which would have reverberations across the European market. Should the U.K. ruling stand, and the EPO meet a similar conclusion, this ruling will produce a broader benefit to the wind industry, allowing de-rated approaches from Siemens and other vendors.

ENERCON is among the most highly respected wind turbine companies, with solid performance and reputation, and it has always been on the leading edge of innovation and should be lauded for it. But if this case means more efficient and cost-effective wind technology is available for most or all wind turbine vendors, then wind plant owners, electricity consumers, and anyone with a vested interest in more clean generation are winners.

 

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