Posts by: Dave Elliott

The end of power utilities? Maybe not just yet…

By Dave Elliott

Local generation is challenging the power utilities in the US and elsewhere. Some of the implications of that trend are reviewed in a useful series of studies by the US Lawrence Berkeley National Labs on Future Electric Utility Regulation which look at Regulation in a High Distributed Energy Resources Future i.e. in the context of a potential future with a high reliance on energy efficiency, peak load management, distributed generation and storage.

One of  Berkeley Lab’s  studies (No.1 in the series) focuses on regulation of Distributed Energy Resources in terms of  advantages and disadvantages from the perspectives of utilities and customers and the potential role (if any) of the big power utilities in the future. The report says that the emergence of distributed energy resources (DERs) that can generate, manage and store energy on the customer side of the electric meter is widely recognized as a transformative force in the power sector’. It suggests that, as DERs become competitive in price and performance for many customers, ‘utilities will face reduced sales volume, more elastic customer demand, and greater opportunities to substitute DER optimization for traditional utility assets and services. It expects that ‘dramatic reductions in the cost of regulated distribution networks will be sought by all stakeholders’, and, although that could be good for all concerned, it raises the question of whether utilities will or should bother trying to enter DER markets, given what might be diminishing returns.

Certainly it says that it is not a straightforward decision, quoting Gregory Aliff, Beyond the math: Preparing for disruption and innovation in the US electric power industry, (Deloitte 2013): ‘A decision to transition to a higher overall risk profile will likely involve significant internal debate and high probability of negative reactions from the financial markets and shareholders. This barrier may ultimately be deemed insurmountable – and as a consequence, new business alternatives may be severely constrained.’

That has evidently already been judged to be the case in Germany, where companies like RWE and E.ON have in effect lost monopoly control of the consumer electricity market as prosumer self-generation  and local energy co-ops have spread, with PV solar especially challenging the utilities’ gas-fired plants in the lucrative peak demand market. The big utilities have had to retreat to servicing this new decentralised market (which accounts for around 40% of Germany’s renewable capacity) and managing the grid. The Berkeley report seems to suggest something similar may happen in the US – but with the added issue of trying to ensure that consumers stay on the grid. There’s evidently concern about ‘grid defection’. That would make managing the system (e.g. balancing variable renewables and variable demand) much harder, potentially undermining the role of DERs and making life hard for the utilities.

Instead, the Berkeley Lab report says that ‘by facilitating DERs, utilities can both lower their costs and increase the benefits they can offer customers who deploy DERs, providing an incentive to remain connected to the distribution system rather than defect from it’.  It adds ‘the fundamental role of the utility will evolve to support this lower cost, higher value service that can be provided when customer-facing DERs are coordinated to not only provide customer services, but to create value for the distribution utility and grid as well. However, that evolution may occur in different directions. One points towards a major utility presence in sourcing, financing and optimizing DERs for customers. The other points towards a major role for competitive firms in not only providing DERs through competitive channels, but also in competing to tailor DERs’ performance and optimize the total value they can create in this emerging, three-sided market comprised of customers, distribution utilities and the grid itself.’

The report also suggests that, in the US context, regulators may in any case not let utilities enter DER markets, quoting a comment in a recent New York Public Service Commission Order: ‘Markets will thrive best where there is both the perception and the reality of a level  playing field, and that is best accomplished by restricting the ability of utilities to participate’. Before the New York Public Service Commission, Order Adopting Regulatory Policy Framework and Implementation Plan, Case 14-M-101, Proceeding on Motion of the Commission in Regard to Reforming the Energy Vision, Feb. 26, 2015, p. 67.

The Berkeley Lab report seeks to steer in between rival views. One says that, having lost their market monopoly, the utilities will fade away, the other that their supply system will always be cheaper than DERs, or if not, that utilities would be best suited to deploying DERs. Instead, the report says that the utilities will not disappear, but they will have to change their role, from monopoly suppliers to energy service companies and new decentral market enablers, with only limited involvement in generation themselves, as opposed to supporting local distributed generation by others.

Maybe so. They do after all have the expertise, even if they may have lost the trust of consumers. And their traditional markets. Though the exact balance between the various possible elements of the new role that utilities might play is unclear, with the report suggesting that in one, utilities successfully evolve to play the major role in using DERs to provide services to customers, while in the other, ‘these functions are increasingly performed by competitive firms using advanced and largely decentralized digital technologies, and the utility “sticks to its knitting” in terms of providing and maintaining infrastructure needed to deliver basic energy and capacity services, while depending on DERs to entice its customers to remain connected to the system and help the utility maintain sustainable cost levels’.

 Either way, though, their role will be very different from now – and that’s a conclusion that has emerged after just an initial wave of successfully grass-roots decentralized power initiatives. Who knows what may come next, with, for example, pressure for municipal-level energy projects beginning to emerge and some US prosumers banding together in local shared ‘community solar’ micro-grid schemes and peer-to-pear trading: www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2016/05/municipal-solar-and-microgrids-a-pv-market-outlook.html  and www.smartgridtoday.com/public/Solar-CEO-sees-clout-growing-for-energy-prosumers.cfm. It does seem that we are moving away from centralised monopoly power. Though against some opposition, as this report from the US indicates: https://ecowatch.com/2016/01/29/rooftop-solar-wars/

Battles over net metering, with utilities trying to limit their losses, may lead more consumers to consider going off-grid. A recent Wired article claimed that, with domestic self-generation, smart meters and local storage  ‘the national grid itself may become less important’, in that ‘we could be living in a world where consumers have super-efficient homes and are mainly generating on site’. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2016-01/25/smart-grids-empower-users  Certainly some say off-grid systems can be viable in some locations: www.academia.edu/25363058/Emerging_Economic_Viability_of_Grid_Defection_in_a_Northern_Climate_Using_Solar_Hybrid_Systems.

That may happen to some degree in some countries and locations but, overall, the reality seems to be that grids, linking to larger geographically-spread generation projects, will remain vital for balancing local variations in supply and demand, although utilities will have to adapt to a new pattern of energy generation and use.

*The Berkeley Lab reports: Report No 1: Corneli/Kihm, Electric Industry Structure and Regulatory Responses in a High Distributed Energy Resources Future.’ Report No 2 in this ongoing series looks at market design and distribution issues, including local peer-to-peer exchanges between projects and consumers.

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Capacity market mess

By Dave Elliott

The UK’s new Capacity Market auction process aims to ensure that there is enough capacity to meet demand by contracting with suppliers to be available when needed. However, it has failed to deliver any new gas projects, as well as failing to back much in the way of demand-side balancing – just 456MW. As with the first round, which gave contracts for 2018-19, it’s ended up mainly just backing old gas, coal and nuclear plants – with £1bn in contracts for 46GW overall for 2019-20. Most only get 1 year contracts, but the 650MW of new small diesel sets have 15 year contracts, and in all £155m. The 220MW of existing diesel get £93m. So much for clean energy!

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Renewable growth continues

By Dave Elliott

While most future projections show global renewable energy expanding rapidly, some are more cautious and also present optimistic views on oil futures. For example, BP’s Energy Outlook 2016 sees oil still booming up to 2035, although it does see the use of coal falling and renewables expanding: ‘Renewables are expected to account for more than a third of EU power generation by 2035’. However, welcome though that view is, Carbon Brief said, ‘this sits awkwardly against the fact that renewables already supplied a third of EU power in 2014 and continue to expand rapidly’.  

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China accelerates renewables

By Dave Elliott

The Chinese National Renewable Energy Centre (CNREC) says China could get 85% of its electricity and 60% of all its primary energy from renewables by 2050, with wind and solar PV both exceeding 2TW of installed capacity by 2040.

The nation certainly seems to be trying to head that way. Under its new 5 year plan it aims to more than double its wind energy capacity (to 250GW), and nearly treble solar capacity (to 160GW), accelerating well ahead of the EU.

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Balancing green power

By Dave Elliott

If the use of renewables is to expand further, ways have to be found of compensating for their variability. Fortunately there are many, as I have outlined in a new book ‘Balancing green power’, produced for the Institute of Physics. It sets out to show how, taken together, they can help balance grid systems as increasing amounts of renewable capacity is added, helping to avoid wasteful curtailment of excess output and minimising the cost of grid balancing. The options include flexible generation plants, energy storage systems, smart grid demand management and supergrid imports and exports.

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Renewable Integration – a view from Germany

By Dave Elliott

High shares of wind and solar power transform the entire power system and can lead to additional system integration and back-up costs aside from building the power plants themselves. A new background paper from Agora Energiewende examines these dynamics and concludes that, not only are the direct integration/balancing costs low, but so are the controversial indirect costs associated with the variable utilization, in balancing mode, of conventional plant – as long as the power system becomes considerably more flexible.

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After Hinkley

By Dave Elliott

Battles continue over the economic viability of the proposed £18bn Hinkley nuclear project, with EDF still saying it can go ahead, despite the resignation of two key senior executives, opposition from the French trade unions and even doubts now emerging from the French Government. Energy minister Ségolène Royal said: ‘This project must offer further proof that it is well-founded and offer a guarantee that the investment in this project will not dry up investments that must be made in renewable energies.’  It is interesting then that EDF’s recent R&D Paper ‘Technical and Economic Analysis of the European Electricity System with 60% RES’, by Alain Burtin and Vera Silva, looks at an EU future dominated by renewables, with nuclear only playing a moderate role, 90GW total.

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ETI on energy saving in buildings

By Dave Elliott

The UK Energy Technologies Institute’s report by Jeff Douglas on Decarbonising Heat for UK Homes notes that ~20% of CO2 emissions are from domestic heating, but says insulation/upgrades won’t cut that enough: ‘the scope for cost effectively reducing the energy demand of existing buildings to the great extent required to meet emissions targets is limited as comprehensive insulation and improvement measures are expensive and intrusive. A several hundred billion pound investment in demand reduction for the entire building stock might deliver less than half of the emissions abatement needed. The most cost effective solutions therefore involve the decarbonisation of the energy supply combined with efficiency improvements that are selectively rather than universally applied, as part of a composite package’.

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The RHI to be ‘reformed and refocused’

By Dave Elliott

The UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was introduced to support households, businesses, public bodies and charities in moving from conventional forms of heating to renewable, low carbon sources of heat. It has escaped cuts so far, indeed it is set to expand, but the government wants to restructure it to keep energy costs down for consumers and get better value for money. It expects spending on the RHI to rise from £430m in 2015/16 to £1.15bn in 2020/21, but says it wants to promote wider access and make project more affordable, ‘by firmly controlling costs’.

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UK Energy and the EU: integration or isolation

By Dave Elliott

The UK may be island based but, as renewables expand, it will need more grid links to the continent for balancing and trade. It may have a net surplus and so could do very well selling it over supergrid interconnector links to EU countries less well endowed with renewables. The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which seems to be taking a leading role in energy system planning, said in its recent report ‘Smart Power’, that interconnection, along with storage and demand flexibility ‘could save consumers up to £8 billion a year by 2030, help the UK meet its 2050 carbon targets, and secure the UK’s energy supply for generations’.         

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