Navigant Research Blog

In Africa, ‘Solar-as-a-Service’ Attracts US Dollars

— August 5, 2014

Long the domain of non-profits, church groups, and government programs, off-grid solar in so-called base of the pyramid (BOP) markets has shifted from an aspirational service to big business.  SolarCity, Vulcan Capital, Omidyar Network, and others recently invested $7 million in Off-Grid:Electric, one of Tanzania’s leading residential solar providers, which plans to reach 10 million homes in 10 years.  The investment follows a wave of funding for many similar companies operating in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which are the biggest markets for pico solar (or solar lanterns) and solar home systems.

Significant reductions in solar PV technology costs have opened up several new markets for solar as a service companies that provide 1 watt to 200 watt solar systems to people who live on as little as $2 per day.  The vast majority of the market is focused on providing lighting, cell phone charging, and power for small direct current (DC) appliances.  Navigant Research’s recently report, Solar PV Consumer Products, provides a comprehensive global look at the three primary segments of the solar off-grid lighting and portable power market: pico solar, solar home systems,  and solar PV generators and kits.  While the technologies behind these innovative products are all very similar, the applications, target markets, business models, and pricing are diverse.  We forecast that the annual market for solar PV consumer products will grow from $551 million in 2014 to $2.4 billion in 2024.

Less Than Kerosene

Up to 1.4 billion people worldwide, including nearly 600 million in Sub-Saharan Africa and 800 million in Asia, are without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.  These populations previously had no choice but to pay high prices for low-quality and polluting fuel-based lighting, such as kerosene lamps.  Due to transportation challenges, kerosene costs as much as 50% more in remote areas than in cities, further contributing to the cycle of poverty.  In addition to providing inadequate illumination, kerosene lamps pose significant health risks.  New advancements in lighting technology have enabled the development of pico solar systems, which are compact, clean, and affordable off-grid lighting and energy products.  Many of these products use solar charging (<10 watt) and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting technology.  As with most renewable energy technologies, solar lighting is typically more affordable compared to conventional lighting primarily from kerosene, but upfront capital costs (even if only $10) can be a challenge to last-mile customers.

Companies such as Off-Grid:Electric are now offering a range of payment options to get around upfront costs, including microcredit, pre-payment options, and innovative pay-as-you-go technologies, which reduce barriers to ownership of solar lighting for rural customers – particularly for larger solar home systems that enable customers to do more than simply recharge mobile phones.

To date, most activity has been in Kenya, but the market in Tanzania has great potential to replicate those early successes, making the Off-Grid:Electric investment a good bet.  The system’s advantages are hard to beat and claim up to 50 times more light service for less than the current daily cost of kerosene. The company’s management team is representative of the growing breed of young, bright, highly skilled social entrepreneurs that are comfortable blurring the lines of traditional private versus non-profit ventures, launching social enterprises that seek to leverage the power of business and profits toward a goal that improves social well-being.

 

Behavioral Programs Yield Savings for Customers

— August 5, 2014

A new study of four rural cooperative utilities in Minnesota demonstrates that behavioral programs based on smart meter data can help customers become more efficient electricity users.  And while the results were encouraging, the savings were not overly dramatic, falling within the range of expected outcomes based on other similar programs.

Among the four Minnesota utilities, the average annual residential electricity savings ranged from 1.8% to 2.8% for customers who opted in to the MyMeter program, a web-based system that users can access to manage consumption.  The four cooperatives involved in the programs were Beltrami Electric Cooperative, Lake Region Electric Cooperative, Stearns Electric Association, and Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association.  The total number of households was more than 14,000.

MyMeter is a software solution provided by startup Accelerated Innovations that features four key offerings for customers who opt in: help with load management and efficiency, visualization of energy use, improved billing options, and a communications platform.

Consistent Findings

The study compared the four Minnesota cooperatives’ results with two utilities in Massachusetts that had gone through an evaluation of similar efficiency programs.  Results from Western Massachusetts Electric’s program showed average savings of 1.9%, while savings among customers taking part in Cape Light Compact’s program averaged 1.5%.  Though these results were somewhat lower than the Minnesota figures, the study authors viewed them as within the range of expected savings.

Although they weren’t part of this study, it is useful to note results from Opower, another behavioral-based vendor that helps utilities’ customers lower their energy consumption.  Opower says its behavioral programs can reduce energy consumption by 1.5% to 2.5%, on average – close to what the cooperatives achieved.

One benefit of the program for the four Minnesota cooperatives is that the state’s department of commerce has accepted the results and will allow the four to count the savings toward a state-mandated goal, which calls for energy savings of 1.5% of annual retail energy sales for each utility.

The programs used by the four Minnesota cooperatives are a clear example of what can be done when utilities leverage smart meter data by giving customers access to the information and the tools they need to reduce consumption.  Other utilities that have deployed smart meters should take note.  Behavioral programs can help achieve two goals: meeting regulatory mandates for overall energy reduction and satisfying customers who want new ways to manage their energy budgets.

 

New Book on Renewables Integration Causes a Stir

— August 5, 2014

Having authored four books on energy topics in a previous life, I know how it feels to wonder if anyone is ever going to read a book once one hands over the draft to the book publisher.

That’s why I am happy to report that a new book authored by Dr. Lawrence Jones, vice president for utility innovation and infrastructure resilience for Alstom Grid Inc., is making waves.  Jones readily admits that his book, Renewable Energy Integration: Practical Management of Variability, Uncertainty and Flexibility in Power Grids, could not have been written a decade ago.

“10 years ago, when one would discuss renewable integration, there were nightmare scenarios by many skeptics.  Stories of how the entire grid was going to collapse due to renewables.  Literally, some people were saying it was going to be doomsday for the grid as we know it,” Jones reflected during a phone interview.

While one might still hear that solar and wind power are next-to-impossible to manage, “you don’t hear that from grid operators today,” Jones said.

Technical Yet Readable

Jones actually dedicated this book to grid operators around the globe, many of which contributed chapters.  “They really are the unsung heroes and heroines,” he said.

This book evolved out of the work Jones did for the U.S. Department of Energy, which surveyed the best practices of 33 grid operators from 18 countries that managed 72% of the world’s installed wind capacity.  Navigant Research drew on this survey in a report I authored in 2012 on smart grid renewables integration.

Jones found 60 volunteers, among them friends and colleagues at utilities and in academia, as well as analysts and consultants, to contribute chapters on topics such as:

  • Multi-dimensional, multi-scale modeling and algorithms for integrating variable energy resources in power networks: challenges and opportunities
  • Intentional islanding of distribution network operation with mini hydrogenation
  • Every moment counts: synchrophasors for distribution networks with variable resources

The Further Details

The book is not for the faint of heart, but you don’t have to be an engineer to understand it, either.  In fact, virtually every section of the book ends with a case study to provide real-world examples of what otherwise might seem to be theoretical or abstract engineering concepts that could make heads spin.

It’s rare that such a technical book would receive such rave reviews from industry leaders affiliated with organizations like the United Nations, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and the Center for Strategic & International Studies.  “There is already talk about a second edition, as we had to omit some key themes,” he enthused.  “For example, we never really got into the economics of renewable integration.  In 2 years’ time, we should have much better real world data on integration costs and benefits, for both utility scale and distributed wind and solar plants, and can therefore dive into those nitty-gritty details.”

 

Wind Energy Innovation: Segmented Blades

— August 4, 2014

As wind turbine rotors get larger, the cost and complexity – including the specialized equipment needed to transport longer blades – of wind projects increase.  Wind turbine vendors and blade engineers have been interested for years in developing segmented blades that can be shipped in two or more sections.  Costs can potentially also be reduced in the blade manufacturing process if two sections require less costly blade moulds, tooling, and other production costs.  Substantial progress in this area has occurred in recent years.

Gamesa’s G128 turbine, offered in 4.5 MW and 5 MW configurations, is the first commercial turbine offered with a segmented blade, a patented technology the company calls “Innoblade.”  The turbine’s two-piece, 62.5m blade gives the company one of the largest onshore wind turbines, with 128m rotors.  The two sections of the blades are joined with nearly 30 metallic bolt channel fittings integrated into the blades.  They can be transported on two standard 27m flatbed trailers rather than costlier specialized blade trailers, and they greatly increase the cornering ability of the transport, which is a major challenge with larger blades.

Enercon has also commercialized a segmented blade for its 3 MW E-115 turbine.  In this case, the blade is not cut in two horizontally, but lengthwise near the root to reduce the costs of manufacturing the blade.  A full length 44m blade of half shells is produced through vacuum-assisted resin transfer infusion.  A separate 12m inner section that adds width toward the nacelle and load bearing for the full blade is produced using a separate automated pre-impregnated (pre-preg) fiberglass/resin wrapping process around a cylindrical core that later has its own outer shells added.

Assembly Not Included

Enercon says this hybrid of pre-preg and vacuum infusion with two separate longitudinal sections reduces labor costs and increases the precision bonding needed for the thick inner section.  Unlike the E-126 segmented blades that are bolted together during installation, the two sections of the E-115 blades are bolted together at the factory to reduce onsite labor.  Enercon’s first commercial use of two-piece longitudinal blades was with its 3.05 MW E-101 turbines, which used a smaller bolt-on section near the root that acted as a spoiler, capturing additional lift.  The E-115 blades are an evolution on the earlier E-101 design, as shown in the comparison below.

Enercon Turbine Blades: E-101 and E-115

Other companies with intellectual property (IP) patents pursuing segmented blades include Blade Dynamics, Modular Wind Inc., and GE.  Blade Dynamics is furthest along, with its 49m segmented blade that relies heavily on carbon fiber for its internal structures.  It is designed to be transported in two pieces that are assembled together on site.  It is not yet in commercial use or serial production, but full prototypes were built and certified by DNV GL.  California-based Modular Wind Inc. holds patents for a three-piece segmented 45m blade design, but progress is on hold as the company seeks financial backing.  GE holds patents on segmented blades, but it has not seriously pursued the technology, instead opting to put effort into its blade extension efforts, which are a form of segmented blade designed as an upgrade.

 

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