Utilities Face ‘Perfect Storm’ From Falling Renewables Costs

by Giles Parkinson.

Originally published on RenewEconomy

A new report from leading utilities analysts at investment bank UBS suggests that energy utilities in Europe, North America and Australia are facing a “perfect storm” from the falling costs of renewables, energy efficiency and falling demand, and may not be able to sustain their business models.

The report – entitled; Can utilities survive in their current form? – is the latest in a series of assessments, reviews and analysis that point to the severe disruption to the centralized generation model, and the demand and supply dynamics that have governed the industry for the past few decades. To briefly summarise the UBS response to its own question, the answer is No.

UBS says the biggest impact on the current utility model will occur in developed markets, where renewables in general and distributed solar in particular will take more of an already depleted “demand pie.”

This, says UBS, will cause profits to fall and could force utilities, particularly generators, to look at greater exposure to renewables and distributed generation, and to other downstream services. It comes to a similar conclusion on this as the CSIRO Future Grid forum, and echoes some of the strategic decisions currently being mooted German energy giants RWE and E.ON.

“We expect the renewables onslaught to continue and that the going will only get tougher for conventional generators,” the UBS analysts write. “We believe they will need to examine and change their traditional business model to survive the renewables era.”

These new business models could include a greater focus on rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and consumer offerings that combined solar, storage, and electric vehicle infrastructure, as well as energy efficient appliances.

UBS says the economic for solar panels looks set to work best in Australia, the southwest US, Germany, Italy and, with a time lag, in Spain.

It notes that the combination of decreasing costs of solar and rising electricity bills means that “end-user” grid parity has been achieved in several key European market, and in Australia and the south-west of US.

This means that consumers can reduce the cost of their bills by more than the cost of the solar system – and rooftop solar systems are having the added impact of pushing thermal generation down the merit order, as Stanwell has testified in Queensland.

“As unsubsidised solar replaces conventional generation … in Europe, the US and Australia by shaving off the peak demand, it has started to reduce pool electricity prices,” UBS notes. And utilisation rates will also fall. This would lead to a 50 percent fall in profits from conventional utilities in Europe by 2020, based on current deployment forecasts.

UBS says the prices will fall so low that capacity will have to be removed to allow prices to recover. However, that capacity may be superseded anyway by the emergence of storage, potentially another blow to conventional generation.

Interestingly, UBS conducted a survey of 65 utility companies in Europe, Asia, America, Australia and Brazil – and the biggest number of utilities who viewed renewables as a threat where conventional generators in developed markets.

More than 50% of generators thought this way, compared to less than 5% in emerging markets. The percentages were virtually reversed when asked about the opportunity for renewables.

Must be something about sunk investments. Indeed, most developed market generators said renewables would lower their profits, while in emerging markets they thought renewables would increase their profits. UBS noted that the problems for conventional generators in developed markets would likely increase, given that penetration rates are still relatively low.

In Germany, however, households are expected to generate 29 percent of their needs from rooftop solar by 2020, and commercial businesses up to 18 percent. In Italy and Spain, commercial businesses are expected to generate more than one quarter of their own electricity requirements.

This article, Energy Utilities Facing ‘Perfect Storm’ From Falling Cost Of Renewables — Report, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

When And Who Will Reach Solar PV At 2c/kWh?

by Giles Parkinson.

Solar panel close-up view
Solar Panel close-up view.

Originally published on RenewEconomy

(Editor’s note: This is part of a series of interviews and stories that will run over the next few weeks looking at Germany’s Energiewende, and the transition of Germany’s energy grid to one dominated by renewable energy. You can find them all in our Insight section).

Solar PV at 2c/kW by 2050? It’s simply a matter of when, not if, the solar industry says. But the head of one of the world’s leading research organisations is warning that the biggest problem may be creating enough capacity to meet demand.

That’s not the big issue right now for the solar PV industry. For the last two years, solar manufacturing capacity has far exceeded demand, leading to cut-throat pricing that undercut manufacturing costs, causing huge losses and many to be forced out of business.

That balance is now being redressed, as rationalisation takes hold and demand soars in Japan, US, China and some emerging economies. The good news for consumers is that manufacturing costs are still coming down.

Eicke Weber, the head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany, the biggest solar research facility in Europe, and the second biggest in the world, says the greatest concern is that cheap solar may be available to just 10 per cent of the population.

That is why Weber is now advocating what he describes at PV 2.0 – an ambitious plan to build a pan-European manufacturing capacity along the same lines as the Airbus consortium.

Part of this plan is motivated by the desire to ensure that Europe retains the manufacturing capacity of an industry it kick-started through the feed-in tariffs launched in Germany and then adopted around the rest of the continent – and more recently in Australia, Japan and China.

German equipment manufacturers have done well out of the Chinese manufacturing boom, even if German module manufacturers didn’t prosper quite so well in the long term. The equipment suppliers sold some €60 billion worth of equipment to the Chinese manufacturing industry, but the Chinese government is now mandating that 80 per cent of that equipment be supplied locally.

Hence the need for a European manufacturing capability that can match others on scale and cost, for the sake of businesses all along the value chain.

Weber says the challenge is more about financing manufacturing facilities at that scale, rather than the emergence of any particular technology. He says the industry is destined for higher efficiencies and lower production costs, and higher degrees of automation as a matter of course.

“Europe has a great opportunity to lose if we do not succeed in financing production plants for our innovative new PV technologies,” Weber told RenewEconomy in an interview in his office in Freiburg earlier this month.

The challenge, he says, is to install modern equipment at the scale needed to ensure that solar manufacturing companies are profitable at module prices below 50c/Watt.

“I like to call this savings at scale, the X gigawatt factory,” Weber said. “That X could be any number, from 1GW to 5GW, or more, but let’s start at 1GW.

“You need to have a certain vision right now, because the industry is not making a lot of money. The 40GW market will soon become a 100GW market, and then a 300GW market.

“If, in 2050, when solar electricity might cost us 2c-3c/kWh, when it is the least expensive way of electricity, it would need total installed capacity of 10,000GW of solar PV to meet just 10 per cent of the world’s demand. Today we have just 100GW.

“We need to get to annual production of 300GW very soon. Even with that we would take 30 years to get to that target.”

Weber says he has no doubt that the capacity will be built, the only question is by whom – which is why he is arguing for a pan-European response. He says the window of opportunity to grab this market is in the next three to four years.

He says Europe has all it needs in terms of research institutes, equipment and materials suppliers, banks and financing, trader, systems integrators and contractors, and construction companies.

The missing link is in the gigawatt-scale manufacturers for silicon, wafers and cells and modules. To match the Chinese, or other countries such as Saudi Arabia with its petrol dollars, a European venture would need credit guarantees and low-interest financing.

“This capacity will be built, because as soon as there is an economic opportunity, they will come. The question is only by whom.”

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This article, When And Who Will Reach Solar PV At 2c/kWh?, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Giles ParkinsonGiles Parkinson is the founding editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia’s energy grid with great interest.