Navigant Research Blog

Non-Wires Alternatives Give NWA a New Meaning

— June 22, 2017

There is a growing trend among utilities and grid operators to forgo traditional transmission and distribution upgrades in favor of alternative methods to meet system needs. In mid-June, it was reported that Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the consideration of non-wires alternatives (NWAs) before utilities make investments in grid upgrades. In May, Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) announced that it had chosen to take “a new approach to managing congestion on our transmission grid,” according to CEO Elliot Mainzer, rather than build a new $1 billion, 80-mile transmission line along highway I-5 in Oregon. Such examples show a move from tradition toward creative innovation.

Past to Present

Traditionally, when a transmission or distribution system operator had a need to upgrade or replace infrastructure due to aging equipment or increased load demand, it would simply conduct poles and wires projects with which it could earn a regulated rate of return. No thought was given to alternatives in addressing the issue; it was simply seen as replacing a part in the electric grid machine. However, more creative solutions are being explored to address infrastructure needs at a lower cost with higher customer and environmental benefits as grid management and distributed energy resource technology has improved. Utilities now look to increase customer engagement and provide more value-added services, and policy concerns related to cost and the environment have grown.

The Massachusetts bill would require utilities to competitively seek non-wires projects for necessary grid upgrades. It would require utilities, when proposing new infrastructure, to provide a “description of the alternatives to the facility,” including other methods of transmitting or storing energy, other site locations, other sources of electrical power or gas, load management, or local energy resource alternatives.

The BPA decision “reflects a shift for BPA—from the traditional approach of primarily relying on new construction to meet changing transmission needs, to embracing a more flexible, scalable, and economically and operationally efficient approach to managing our transmission system,” according to Mainzer. The preferred solution includes resources like battery storage, flow control devices, and demand response.

No One Solution Is Yet in Play

Several utilities in different state jurisdictions have undertaken NWAs with diverse program design and procurement models. At this early stage in development, there is no standard business model and procurement process for utilities to implement NWAs. Currently, there are four models being considered and tried by utilities. The first is request for proposal, a typical utility procurement model. Auctions are another; borrowed from wholesale market models to drive the lowest cost solutions. Also being considered is procurement with current implementation contractors to keep things simple and quick. The last possibility is internal utility resource deployment if the utility has the required capabilities. There is no one right answer for all situations; each case will depend on the utility’s internal structure and capabilities along with the regulatory construct in which it operates.

NWAs are likely to become more common in US utility capital planning processes and regulatory requirements in many US state jurisdictions. It is an exciting yet anxiety inducing opportunity to change the way utilities address system and customer needs simultaneously. The sooner the industry faces this new reality, the better prepared all parties can be to ensure it succeeds. Navigant Research’s recently published report, Non-Wires Alternatives, discusses the drivers, barriers, business models, and future growth of the market.

 

For the First Time, Solar Surpasses Wind

— June 20, 2017

2016 was a record year for solar with 76.6 GW installed—50% year-over-year growth from the 51.2 GW installed the year before. This brings solar to over 300 GW installed globally, just after exceeding the 200 GW mark in 2015, according to SolarPower Europe. This is great news for the broader renewables industries and for anyone concerned about climate change. However, it may raise some concerns within the wind energy industry, which for many years has vastly exceeded the installation rates of solar.

Since wind installed 54.3 GW (cumulative wind capacity stands at 484 GW), 2016 marks a turning point: the first time solar has exceeded wind energy’s annual installation rates. Solar only recently has been considered a serious competitor to wind, as solar PV module prices have fallen and installation rates have skyrocketed. This has led some notable developers (such as US-based Pattern Energy and Tri Global) to diversify from wind into solar, and turbine manufacturers Gamesa (now Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy [SGRE]) and Suzlon to diversify into solar. SGRE landed a deal to build 130 GW of solar projects in India using inverters manufactured by Gamesa from factory capacity previously intended only for wind turbine power converters. Pattern is involved in a number of solar projects, including its first solar foray with 120 MW in Chile.

Wind continues to attack costs. It has decreased its cost of energy by 66% over the past 7 years (while solar decreased 85%), and its higher capacity factor of around 40% versus solar means wind will continue to maintain an edge in total megawatt-hours produced with the same nameplate capacity as solar. However, there are some key detractions to wind power that can’t easily be overcome. Two major impediments stand out: resource constraints and aesthetic impact.

Resource Constraints

Wind power is increasingly cost competitive in areas where there are good wind resources. In the United States, for example, the clear majority of wind capacity is installed in the vast central interior corridor spanning through Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. The consistent, low turbulence wind makes new wind plants cheaper than fossil fuel generation in those parts of the country.

While some of those states boast significant populations, the majority of the US population is located along the coasts where much less wind power is being developed because the resources are not as good (except for offshore—an entirely different topic). Solar doesn’t have the same challenge, as areas with strong solar resources are more likely to be colocated with population centers.

The Aesthetic Challenge

Wind turbines have increased their efficiency by evolving taller towers and longer blades. While this results in fewer turbines needed at a given project, it still results in a major visual change to the horizon. There are many people around the world that do not welcome such obstructions. Solar is arguably less visually obtrusive, as it takes up space on roofs in the residential setting or large fields in commercial settings.

Wind development has largely plateaued and global installations above 50 GW are expected annually for the next 10 years. Whether solar will begin to consistently eclipse those figures as it maximizes its core strengths is the big question.

Best of Both Worlds?

Regardless, one factor that will help the two technologies remain (to some degree) complementary instead of direct competitors is the different and complementary resource profiles. In most parts of the world, sunny months tend to be less windy and windy months tend to be less sunny. Analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany’s grid shows greater value and system stability with both wind and solar operating versus only one of the two technologies operating.

 

Taking VPPs to the Next Level

— June 20, 2017

The primary goal of a virtual power plant (VPP) is to achieve the greatest possible profit for asset owners—such as a resident with rooftop solar PV coupled with batteries—while maintaining the proper balance of the electricity grid at the lowest possible economic and environmental cost.

The purpose is clear, but getting to this nirvana is not easy. Nevertheless, there are clear signs that the VPP market is maturing. New partnerships are pointing the way for control software platforms that can manage distributed energy resources (DER) in creative ways.

Creating a DERMS for Utilities

Case in point: the recent collaboration between Enbala Power Networks and ABB to create a DER management system (DERMS) platform for utilities. Underpinning this foray into smarter DER controls is the following statistic: more distributed generation (DG) will be coming online in 2017 than traditional centralized generation (coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants). By 2026, 3 times as much DG will be coming online and sending power into the grid than these traditional centralized power plants. That gap will only widen more over time.

Annual Installed Centralized vs. Distributed Power Capacity, World Markets: 2017-2026

(Source: Navigant Research)

The entire ecosystem of DER, including DG, will need to be managed in new ways if value is to be shared between diverse asset owners and the incumbent utility grid. Utilities are slowly coming to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. Consider these survey results from January of this year, with over 100 utilities responding. 18% of respondents indicated that they already had a DERMS in place, while 77% said they planned to implement their own DERMS program within the next 36 months. These responses show a majority of utilities today anticipate needing to implement DER control solutions in the near future.

There are many innovators in the VPP space, including Enbala. Along with its new partnership with Swiss industrial grid powerhouse ABB, the company’s recent expansion of its controls and optimization architecture leveraging recent advances in machine learning are helping to push the VPP platform into the mainstream. In the process, Enbala is providing metrics that suggest a promising ROI for VPPs.

Cost of Traditional Power Plants versus VPPs

Here’s a quick comparison. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the cost of building a new coal power plant is approximately $3 million/MW. This capital outlay does not consider the risk of future environmental regulation that may occur over the 20- to 30-year life of the project. While the cost of a new natural gas-fired power plant is much less—approximately $900/MW—that cost still represents a potential future liability. In comparison, the cost per megawatt for a VPP that takes advantage of the diverse set of existing DER assets is approximately $80/MW. Furthermore, the investment in the software and supporting IT infrastructure that creates the VPP does not carry either environmental liability or the risk of stranded investment. The VPP value can only increase over time as new markets emerge for grid services.

In the final analysis, VPPs optimized by smart software controls and new innovative business models such as transactive energy are key to realizing a vision of the future that Navigant has deemed as the Energy Cloud. To learn more, check out the new white paper developed by Navigant Research for Enbala and look for details about the forthcoming webinar on August 15.

 

New Federal Government Support Will Accelerate Canada’s Growing Smart City Market

— June 16, 2017

Recently, the Canadian federal government announced it has pledged to launch a Smart Cities Challenge Fund, proposing $300 million over 11 years for Infrastructure Canada to implement the program. The funding will support the deployment of clean and digitally connected technology that can improve life in cities and is modeled similarly to the US Smart City Challenge (won by Columbus, Ohio).

Until recently, Canada has lacked a national smart city framework, leaving major cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to develop their own climate action plans and digital infrastructure projects without significant federal guidance or funding assistance. Over one-third of Canada’s population lives in these three cities, and over 80% of its overall population is urbanized, making the improvement of city service delivery a crucial issue in the country. Highlights of key smart city initiatives from these three cities include:

  • Vancouver: In March 2015, the City Council of Vancouver voted unanimously to develop and implement a 100% Renewable City Strategy by 2050. This aims to make the city emissions free in both the energy and transportation sectors.
  • Toronto: Canada’s largest city, Toronto (Greater Toronto Area population of 6.4 million), is targeting an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). The city has allocated nearly $100 million for energy conservation measures, renewable energy projects, and retrofits of city facilities. Toronto is also expected to be the site of Sidewalk Labs’ Digital City project, part of Google’s vision to reinvent cities from the Internet up.
  • Montreal: The Montreal Smart and Digital City Action Plan aims to position Montreal as one of the world’s smartest cities. The action plan introduces 70 projects divided into five focus areas: urban mobility, direct services to citizens, quality of life, democratic life, and economic development. This is an open data project with an ultra high speed, multiservice telecom infrastructure.

Federal Government Stepping Up with Funding

Three rounds of funding are expected to take place in Canada, with the first round set for fall 2017. Each round of Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge will include:

  • One $50 million prize in funding for a large city
  • Two $10 million prizes for midsize cities
  • One $5 million prize for a small community
  • One $5 million prize for an indigenous community

Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged to link infrastructure with an innovation agenda, and the Smart Cities Challenge will help Canada achieve that goal. Canada has evolved into one of the leading countries in the world in terms of building infrastructure through public-private partnerships (P3s), using this model to fund light rail lines, hospitals, jails, and water systems, among other infrastructure. The country’s high utilization of P3s for infrastructure development combined with the new funding available in the Smart Cities Challenge positions Canada to elevate its attractiveness to key suppliers in the smart city market. Its actions also potentially lift the country from its current follower position into a leadership role in global smart city development.

 

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