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.


Floating Offshore Wind Showing Potential

— November 1, 2017

Offshore wind is notching up impressive cost reduction success, evidenced by record low power purchase agreement prices in recent UK and other European competitive bidding auctions. This is great news, but the game changer is if floating offshore wind foundations could achieve commercial success.

This could reduce offshore wind foundation costs and open cost-effective wind power in locations coincident with large coastal population centers, energy demand, and deep ocean sea beds that currently aren’t cost-effective with today’s variety of fixed bottom foundations. Potential markets are the entire west coast of the Americas, Hawaii, Japan, South Korea, parts of China, South Africa, New Zealand, and many European markets, including much of the Mediterranean.

Floating Offshore Wind Becoming a Reality

With that context in mind, it’s great news to see that floating offshore wind is moving from the conceptual and design phase to actual projects. In 4Q 2017, Norway’s Statoil installed a 30 MW wind farm on the northeast coast of Scotland. It is made up of five 6 MW Siemens turbines installed on floating structures at Buchan Deep, 25 km off Peterhead, Scotland.

The Hywind Scotland wind farm is expected to power around 20,000 households. Statoil believes the project will demonstrate the feasibility of future commercial floating wind farms “that could be more than four times the size.” From the first pilot floating turbine outside Karmøy, Norway in 2009 to the launch of this new wind farm, capital costs have fallen by around 60%-70%. Statoil says cost reductions of a further 40%-50% are realistic for future projects.

Hywind Scotland Wind Farm

(Source: Statoil)

Hywind Scotland

The Hywind project will cover around 4 square kilometers at a sea depth of 95-120 meters. The floating turbines have a total height of 253 meters, with 175 meters of the structures floating above the surface of the sea (to the wingtip) and 78 meters submerged underwater. The rotor diameter is 154 meters. This is only the first step of the project, with the end goal being to develop a large-scale floating offshore wind project of 500 MW-1,000 MW. Statoil is a serious company with serious money backing its efforts, including the company agreeing in a competitive auction round in December 2016 to pay $42.4 million for lease rights to develop an offshore wind project off the New York coast.

Following France’s Example

The Hywind launch comes on the back of the inauguration of France’s first floating offshore wind turbine—Floatgen—in October and represents an important breakthrough for floating offshore wind. It shows it is ready to be integrated into the energy market. Floatgen’s 2 MW turbine features a number of innovative solutions, from the concrete composition and its construction to the nylon mooring lines.

The consortium developer Ideol has optimized some areas of the design and the construction method. It is building its supply chain in preparation for mass production, all with an eye to driving costs down. Ideol says its solution is ideal because it is compact and does not need to increase in size and mass at the same ratio as the turbine nameplate rating. Ideol says it can potentially be adapted to turbines up to 15 MW, the size range the leading turbine OEMs are planning for next-generation 2025-2030 offshore installations.

Offshore Wind Soon to Be a Legitimate Power Option

Floating offshore wind is not yet commercially viable against fixed bottom foundations. Plenty of fixed bottom locations are available, but these two projects show that commercial viability just around the corner. If the past decade has been any guide, with the costs of onshore wind falling 77% in the past 7 years, the wind market has been attacking challenges, costs, and other impediments and disproving doubters. Floating offshore wind is increasingly likely to prove its legitimacy as a cost-effective offshore wind option.


Navigant’s 2017 Mid-Year Energy Market Outlook: Ongoing Drivers and Cutting-Edge Trends in North American Energy Market

— August 31, 2017

Industry trends and uncertainties continue to transform the North American energy market. Examples include increased renewables in the power sector, technological innovation in energy storage, shifting supply and demand patterns in the natural gas market, and environmental policy uncertainty due to the administration change. Navigant’s 2017 Mid-Year Energy Outlook (NEMO) analyzes how these trends and others are expected to affect the energy and capacity mix as well as market prices over the next 24 years.

Energy Demand

The rate of growth in energy consumption and peak demand has decreased in recent years despite an increase in economic growth. The United States and Canada appear to be transitioning from the long-term trend where growth in energy consumption closely tracked economic growth. While NEMO forecasts overall growth in both consumption and peak demand, the levels of growth (as well as energy efficiency and other demand-side resources) vary between regions. For example, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and parts of Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) are among the faster growing regions in the forecast. However, New York, New England, and PJM are expected to see lower levels of growth, leading to a slowdown in generation additions. This marks a shift in PJM, where coal retirements, the capacity market, and low natural gas prices have driven the construction of many new merchant natural gas combined cycle power plants in recent years.

Renewable Energy Growth

Despite the absence of a carbon policy, Navigant expects that solar installations will continue to grow in North America as costs decline—though not as steeply as in recent history—and as the technology continues to be pushed by state policies and consumers. In 2016, the United States installed 14.8 GW of solar PV projects, second only to China for annual installations that year. The wind forecast is more dependent on the federal Production Tax Credit that is already declining and set to expire by 2020. This has led to a boom in construction that is expected to peak in 2020 (the last year projects can go online and still get 100% of the tax credit) before declining steeply.

The convergence of increasing renewables penetration and declining battery costs indicates that battery storage is likely on the precipice of increased deployment across the electric grid for renewables integration and the provision of ancillary services. For the first time, Navigant’s NEMO includes an energy storage addition outlook. Energy storage is being implemented in areas such as California to meet policy targets without adding significant new natural gas generation. The revenue that storage projects would expect to receive from avoiding curtailment of renewables is not yet enough to cover the overnight cost of storage, though this could change in the future as the costs of storage decline and renewables penetration increases.

Natural Gas Market Transformation

While the power market grapples with the evolving energy generation mix and the associated effects on the grid, the natural gas market in North America continues its own evolution characterized by threshold events. Exports of natural gas have overtaken imports into the country for the first time in 60 years. US natural gas pipeline exports to Mexico have more than quadrupled since 2010. Exports by ship occurred for the first time from the lower 48 states, with the Cheniere Sabine Pass liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility delivering LNG to the world market in February 2016. From this point forward, at least to the end of the NEMO term in 2040, Navigant expects exports by pipeline and by ship to continue increasing. Exports are anticipated to grow to represent over 18% of the US natural gas market by 2040.

Navigant’s NEMO covers the changing supply and demand dynamics in the natural gas market, continued renewables generation buildout, slowing load growth, the introduction of emerging technologies like storage, and the continued absence of a federal carbon policy. David Walls and Rob Patrylak will present further details on Navigant’s forecast via a webinar on September 13.


What Would a Perma-Eclipse Do to Solar Power?

— August 15, 2017

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will captivate millions of observers across the United States. Early on its 1,800 mph path across the country, the moon’s shadow will block 5.6 GW worth of solar power plants in California, the top solar state. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the state’s grid operator, is well prepared to respond with increased flex-ramp usage and regulation service procurement—essentially a combination of demand management and flexible natural gas and hydropower units. CAISO is aided in part by lessons learned from the 2015 eclipse in Europe, which has higher renewables penetration than the United States.

The eclipse reminds us that the sun’s rays can experience volatility beyond known daily and annual cycles and begs the question: what would happen if the sun stopped shining? Though the question may sound alarmist, it is not entirely trivial. A significant impact event would have solar-blocking potential, with impacting objects above 1 km (about half a mile) in diameter potentially ejecting large masses of pulverized rock into the stratosphere. Solar-blocking geoengineering projects, while intentionally limited in scope, are specifically designed to block the sun’s rays. Movie buffs will remember that humanity scorched the sky and purposefully blocked out the sun to battle solar-dependent robots in The Matrix trilogy.

Solar PV accounted for just about 2% of global electricity production in 2016 but was also the world’s leading source of additional power generating capacity. With some grids anticipating 30%, 50%, or higher eventual PV penetrations, the potential degree of vulnerability is significant—though the probability of diminished insolation is low.

Utility-Scale Solar PV Generators and Path of August 21 Solar Eclipse

(Source: US Energy Information Administration)

A Portfolio Approach

The appeal of solar PV, especially when combined with storage, is undeniable. A clean, distributable, and increasingly inexpensive energy source, solar PV will be a crucial source of power globally. But, much like a contrarian stock market investor, it is worthwhile to look beyond the hype to see what risks loom. To use another stock market analogy, asset diversification is important on the electric grid.

Most of our energy ultimately comes from the sun, and this is especially true of today’s zero-carbon resources. Wind energy is partially driven by daily solar cycles and experienced a 10% decline during Europe’s eclipse. Hydropower, a flexible generation resource that will help ramp during California’s eclipse, is also driven by the sun’s ability to evaporate water. Biopower, another important carbon-neutral dispatchable resource, is driven by the sun, though on the longer scale of months to years. Compared to solar power, each of these should be less directly affected by potential solar-blocking phenomena. Meanwhile, nuclear, geothermal, tidal, and carbon-captured fossil fuel power are not dependent on the sun’s rays. A vague threat to the availability of solar energy does not suggest these should be adopted en masse. However, some consideration should be given to adopting a diversified, risk-mitigated portfolio of generation.

What would happen if a heavily solar-dependent Earth suddenly lost that energy source? Our collective gaze would undoubtedly turn from the sky back to the ground—to the likes of nuclear, geothermal, and for the quickest fix, fossil fuels. Being prepared ahead of time with a diversified, efficient, and clean energy mix could help mitigate that risk.

Still, this month’s eclipse will affect the US grid little since fossil fuels still account for most of the national power supply. For now at least, we can use plenty more renewables to diversify our energy portfolio.


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