So, what exactly is involved in calculating solar panels cost in Normal Heights? When thinking about solar power very few people know the way the cost of solar panel systems is actually measured. Or even, for that matter, do we automatically grasp the connection relating to the cost of solar power and the value of solar power. We all know that gasoline prices are in dollars per gallon. We likewise are all aware of approximately how far we’ll be able to drive after spending 40 bucks for a tank of gas. In contrast to a tank of gas, the value of which can be consumed pretty much instantly, solar panels deliver their value across a period of time.
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Caption: Kokam 24-megawatt Energy Storage System (NYSE:ESS), used by South Korea's largest utility, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO): world's largest Lithium NMC ESS for frequency regulation
Sometimes technology creeps up on you before you realize what is happening. Then something happens to get your attention and you realize that things are changing fast. And so it is with batteries, the missing link in replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
Here I cover two areas of battery technology that are transforming power management at scale. The first comes out of left field as a solution to frequency regulation in power plants. The second relates to management of excess energy generated by solar and wind, followed by dispatch of that energy when needed. At its most extreme this role may involve near complete charge and discharge once, or even twice, in a single day, every day.
Grid reliability, increased efficiency and frequency regulation
Late last month Kokam (XKRX:040480) a veteran Lithium ion South Korean battery manufacturer, announced the deployment of 3 high performance Lithium ion battery systems to provide 56MW of specialized batteries for frequency regulation in large power plants in South Korea. The batteries are: two Kokam Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) battery systems with capacities of 24 MW/9 MWh and 16MW/6MWh, and a 16MW/5MWh Lithium Titanate Oxide (LTO) battery system. The LTO system was implemented first. While LTO technology is robust, with less dependence on temperature control, it is more expensive than NMC batteries and the specifications from the utilities often require temperature control (hence housing in containers which are cooled or heated). I suspect that NMC will become the preferred technology for frequency regulation.
The 24MW NMC battery system is the largest used in the world for frequency regulation. These batteries provide the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) (NYSE:KEP) with ~10% of the frequency regulation needed to allow its entire system to run largely with batteries. KEPCO plans to install ~500MW of rapid response batteries by 2017 to effectively wean South Korea off the need for fossil fuel to provide this reserve power need for frequency regulation. Several battery manufacturers are involved in this project (Kokam, LG Chem (OTC:LGCLF), Samsung (OTC:SSNLF). It isn't clear how much KEPCO has already installed but it may be as much as 230MW of batteries for frequency regulation.
South Korea is special in that it has a single power authority, KEPCO, which is largely responsible for managing the nation's power capacity. So it is possible for one organization to setup a national program to manage 65 GW of power capacity. This capacity is mostly coal powered (~47GW) but with substantial nuclear and hydro capacity (~18GW). There is a very small contribution of wind and solar renewable energy in South Korea.
Currently ~5% of the coal needed to run a coal fired plant is dedicated to frequency regulation, so having batteries take over this role is a substantial saving in coal used. More importantly the South Korean plans (within 2 years!) indicate one of the first examples of batteries assuming a central role in an aspect of power generation that has been seen as a fossil fuel role.
Clearly Kokam doesn't see South Korea as the only market for this role and they have pilot facilities (2-5MW) being reviewed in both Germany and the US. Kokam has the capacity to deliver 100's of MW of the NMC frequency regulation batteries at short notice.
There is a lot of interest in fast response Lithium batteries and a substantial system (2MW) was recently announced in the UK using Toshiba (OTCPK:TOSYY) Lithium Titanate batteries in association with energy company E.ON (OTCPK:E.ON) and it's wholly owned subsidiary Uniper at the Willenhall substation. E.ON also has a 10MW/2.5MWh battery system under development with Tucson Electric Power in Arizona. E.ON is shortlisted for a 250MW tender for frequency response storage in the UK and Kokam is involved in tendering, so Korea's implementation is being watched in Europe too.
Interestingly lithium technology is being used to replace lead acid batteries by Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) in a 35MW facility. There are also major frequency regulation projects in Canada (e.g. 12MW system in Ontario's Independent Electrical System Operator).
These Lithium NMC and LTO batteries are also useful for peak load management improving power quality and reliability in solar and wind applications, and also for spinning reserve applications.
Energy management for renewable energy
This is a big one, as you need a way to store and then access the intermittent power from solar PV and wind. Unlike the frequency regulation application described above, which needs fast, but short term response and high power delivery, energy arbitrage for solar and wind smoothing requires slower and longer term charge/discharge (up to over a number of hours).
A frequency regulation application has a high life cycle (10,000, compared with 4000-8000 with arbitrage), high power (i.e higher than arbitrage), but lower energy density than arbitrage. Because frequency regulation is a special rapid application it is more costly than an arbitrage battery.
The actual needs for energy management at scale are more varied than frequency regulation and so the actual configurations for batteries for this purpose are still evolving. It might be that the critical requirement is ramp rate control, or charge/discharge over hours may be more critical. Battery manufacturers are focusing in on their preferred configurations. For example Kokam has a High Energy NMC battery for energy management at scale.
For the technically minded here are a couple of links to give a sense of the kinds of lithium battery technology and how the different formulations behave. A good summary is here, and for those who want a deeper dive into lithium battery chemistry, here is a pretty up to date article.
Energy management applications for renewable power generation
Pumped hydro has a significant role in energy storage and this is well established with 140GW of pumped hydro already implemented. This large scale storage allows long term (even seasonal) energy storage.
There are surely many old mines, with tailing dams at the top and down below an open cut mine, that can be flooded. GW levels of power can be addressed in such schemes, but the capital costs are not small and they attract controversy because of their size. Two pumped hydro projects in California, Eagle Mountain and Iowa Hill, have been on this path for a long time, but capital and approvals are elusive.
This is happening at several levels. The easy one involves home solar PV systems linking with a home battery. Because it is a small cost (relatively) and the market is big (1.5 million homes in Australia have solar PV), just about all of the battery providers are interested. Here numbers matter as many small systems add up to a lot of power managed and it is managed locally (at the individual house level).
The harder thing is larger scale energy management, and detractors of Lithium batteries point to frequency regulation to indicate why Lithium batteries are inappropriate for energy arbitrage. However, Lithium battery chemistry configured for frequency regulation is not the only chemistry or configuration for lithium batteries, as Tesla is doing fine with its electric cars that have a range of several hundred miles and hence can discharge over many hours.
It seems that a 40ft container housing a 2-2.5MWh system is the scale for a number of utility energy management systems, but systems as large as 100MWh give a sense of the scale being implemented. Obviously a 100MWh plant would involve 40 x 2.5MWh 40ft containers.
Utilities adopting lithium battery energy management applications
There are now many multiple MW systems being installed for this kind of application. Kokam gives details of 12 of its systems installed in the US, South Korea and Australia that have more than 1MW power capacity. In 2015 Kokam alone installed 85MW of battery storage systems and 75MW of that capacity was larger than 1MW.
Substantial lithium batteries are also being adopted (along with solar PV) in remote and mining communities to partially substitute for diesel-powered systems. For example a remote indigenous community in Northern Australia is installing a 2MWh lithium battery storage system to store solar PV and take over grid forming functions from a diesel system. This will allow switchoff of the diesel system during the day as well as storing solar PV produced power.
Lithium batteries as part of a renewable energy project
Clearly renewable energy projects are considering including arbitrage, as there are various management functions that batteries do well, and holding the power generated to be delivered at a time when the value of the energy is greater may make sense. An early example of this kind of arbitrage involves Statoil (NYSE:STO) which recently announced a pilot 1MWh Lithium battery (technology not given) storage system to complement its Hywind Scottish floating 30MW wind farm.
Image : Statoil Hywind turbine
However, there are other battery technologies for deep charge/discharge on a daily basis. While at an earlier stage of development, flow batteries seem well suited to this task. It is a race to see if flow batteries will get a place at the table or whether lithium batteries now have sufficient momentum to dominate the battery arbitrage space.
Update on flow batteries
Six months ago I wrote an article on three flow battery companies (Redflow (ASX:RFX), Imergy Power Systems and ViZn Energy which had partnered with substantial manufacturing companies (Flextronics (NASDAQ:FLEX), Foxconn (OTC:FXCOF) (TWSE:2354) and JBL Circuit (NYSE:JBL) respectively for manufacture of their flow batteries.
While it is too soon to see a lot of progress, there have been developments in each of the partnerships.
Redflow/Flextronics ZnBr flow batteries :
The last 6 months have seen substantial progress with Flextronics now assuming 100% of manufacturing from Redflow. Flextronics now controls all aspects of manufacturing of the RedFlow batteries, with production ramp up in April 2016.
In 2015 in partnership with FLEX, manufacturing costs have been decreased by 15%, the lifecycle/longevity has been improved and cycle cost/kWh over battery lifetime decreased by 50%. Redflow will soon deliver an on-grid demonstration 0.1MW/0.48MWh flow battery system to Ergon Energy.
In addition to exploring remote markets around the world, Redflow is entering the Australian home battery market with a smaller offering. The Redflow share price has doubled since the start of 2016.
Imergy Power Systems/Foxconn :
It is too early to know how the Imergy projects in India, China and Africa are proceeding, although the status of the Sun Edison (NYSE:SUNE) purchase of up to 1000 of Imergy's vanadium flow batteries for implementing in India could be problematic given the disaster that has recently befallen SUNE and news that it is not supporting its activities in India. The rumor is that Adani (IN:ADANIT) may be interested in SUNE's Indian projects.
Recently (end of February 2016) SUNE announced agreement with Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator (Ontario IESO) to supply an Imergy 5MW/20MWh system in 2017; this was to be SUNE's first large scale grid-connected energy storage project and it will need to be restructured with SUNE in difficulty. Imergy and Foxconn will need to think creatively about diversifying the route to market for their flow batteries.
ViZn Energy/JBL Circuit : ViZn reported 20% improved capacity and reduced life cycle degradation, which is important for frequency regulation applications.
At the end of the day there will be winners and losers and here sits the dilemma for investors. Is it still too soon to know which technology to back and which companies to invest in? Given the intense interest in frequency regulation I suspect that this market, will be satisfied soon by companies like Kokam and LG Chem who have done the hard yards on understanding Lithium battery chemistry. I suspect that for management of renewable energy it will end up a combination of pumped hydro, Lithium and flow battery technologies, with the latter becoming increasingly important.
What is abundantly clear is that all investors need to look carefully at their fossil fuel portfolios, as the complacency that the switch to renewable energy (with storage) is going to take a long time seems misguided in 2016.
This story about battery storage starting to do heavy lifting has implications in two areas of large scale energy supply: frequency regulation and management of renewable energy. It will help resolve issues of intermittency of renewable energy. The impact will be felt not only on adoption of renewable energy (and hence solar and wind companies) but also on fossil fuel power generation. Investors in fossil fuels should think carefully about where this is heading.
Disclosure: I am/we are long ASX:RFX.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Editor's Note: This article covers one or more stocks trading at less than $1 per share and/or with less than a $100 million market cap. Please be aware of the risks associated with these stocks.
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SolarCity Stock Should Continue to Rise As Solar Becomes More Affordable
Energy is one of the world's largest sectors in the market; therefore energy stocks comprise a large amount of the portfolios of institutional and individual investors. Oil, of course, is the largest in the energy sector at roughly 36%, followed by natural gas at 24%. Interestingly one of the most talked about sources of energy, solar energy, still only comprises one quarter of one percent of today's energy supply. However those numbers should shift upward over the next decade as witnessed by last year's 86% growth in the solar industry. In the U.S, solar energy consumption grew by nearly 34% reaching 0.212 quadrillion Btu. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that solar will gain 24%, second largest share of new power capacity behind wind power, added in terms of GW by 2030.
Though the "green" movement does play a role to some extent, what may actually be driving the shift toward solar energy in residential and commercial buildings may be simple economics. People want to use cleaner energy to run their houses or businesses, but most are not willing to spend the extra money, or simply do not have the financial means to pay the extra costs to convert to solar. In 2005, solar panels typically cost $3.50 per watt of power, however, by 2012 prices had tumbled to 75 cents a watt, and some experts predict the prices will continue to fall, making it more cost effective for the consumer to have installed on their home or business.
But buying and installing solar panels is still costly, and could take upwards of twenty, for solar to pay for it. That's why the biggest shift in solar has come from companies leasing the panels to the customer and selling them the electricity at a reduced price compared to what the utility companies charge. It appears to be a win - win situation; as the industry has appeared to overcome a major obstacle eliminating the large upfront costs, and the solar company that leased and installed the panels makes money selling back the energy to the customer. For that reason, I believe the money to be made by the investors might be better placed in companies that buy the panels and install them, then have the customers lease them, thus making it affordable to the consumer.
That is what SolarCity (SCTY), a San Mateo CA company does. SolarCity designs, installs and sells or leases solar energy systems to residential and commercial customers, then sells the electricity generated by the solar energy systems back to customer at 10% to 20% less than the utility companies. And its business model appears to have attracted plenty of investors, as witnessed by the stocks run-up of over 250% since its December 2012 public offering.
In June, SolarCity announced the launch of a Zero-Down solar financing program for the home building industry, giving builders the opportunity to offer solar in new residential communities without the builder or the new homeowner incurring any upfront costs. In the first five months of 2013, the total kilowatts [KW] of SolarCity's installations for new home builder construction grew by more than 300% compared to the same period the previous year. Through its Homebuilder Partner Program, SolarCity has formed partnerships with over 30 national and regional home builders in 125 communities across the U.S.
According to Walter Cuculic, SolarCity's national manager of Builder Programs:
Home builders today are investing heavily in adopting green construction practices and solar is a linchpin in the success of a modern, energy efficient home. SolarCity's full-service offering and our new Zero-Down financing option helps home builders meet their aggressive construction timelines and stay within their budgets, and solar will save money for the homebuyer on their energy bills for years to come.
The company's initiative, where it plans to build more than $1 billion in solar projects to provide power to up to 120,000 military homes in the United States, continues to show success. On July 23rd SolarCity announced plans to add 12.8 megawatts of new solar generation capacity for up to 7,500 military homes at Lend Lease-managed Island Palm Communities throughout the island of Oahu. SolarStrong projects are already underway at nine other military bases throughout the U.S.
SolarCity was chosen by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) to install solar panels in 60 stores in California. SolarCity will own and maintain the solar power systems, and has added more than 500 new full-time employees since it initiated its first Wal-Mart solar project, and expects to hire hundreds more employees before year's end. Wal-Mart's solar power initiative will total more than 130 stores by the close of 2013.
Mack Wyckoff, senior manager of renewable energy at Wal-Mart, commented on the solar project:
Our solar efforts in California have proven to be a great way for Wal-Mart to build our renewable energy program. We are confident that we will continue to grow our solar energy program in the U.S. and around the world because of the initial success we have had in California.
While the business model and growth all sound positive, and SolarCity, which has a $3.12 billion market capitalization, has seen its customer base rise 106% year-over-year to over 57,400 and though the company increased its long-term contracted cash flow to $1.22 billion, it has yet to turn a profit. The reason is that though leasing the solar panels has shown to be the most successful method to attract clients, the long term leasing model requires upfront costs for the panels and the instillation, thus the company does not see any profits until the customer base expands enough to produce offsetting lease income. However, with panel prices continuing to drop, the company's upfront costs will drop as well. According to Kevin Landis, manager of the Firsthand Alternative Energy fund, in reference to SolarCity's business model:
When the price of panels goes down, their business gets better. The sweet spot is buying the panels and owning the output.
SolarCity stock closed on Wed. July 31 at $41.35 per share. For the first quarter of 2013, core operating lease revenue rose 85% to $15.1 million compared to $8.1 million in the first quarter of 2012. Total revenue grew 21% year-over-year to $30.0 million. Gross Profit rose 25% to $12.7 million, up from $10.1 million in the first quarter of 2012. Total operating expenses, however, rose $34.5 million in the first quarter compared to $24.7 million in the first quarter of 2012, due in part to the continued investments in development capabilities. For the second quarter 2013, SolarCity expects operating lease revenue to come in be between $16 million - $18 million, with solar energy systems sale revenue between $5 million - $10 million, and an operating expenses to be between $38 million - $42 million.
SolarCity does have its competitors like the larger SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR), a high quality solar panel producer based in San Jose, CA, that designs, manufactures and delivers solar panels and systems to residential, business, government and utility customers. SunPower has also built its leasing business to be the largest U.S. both residential and commercial, and globally the company has installed over 100,000 residential systems. Shares of SunPower have had an amazing run year to date, up 391%. After hours on July 31st, the company reported net income for the second quarter of $19.6 million or $0.15 per share, compared to a net loss of $84.2 million or $$0.71 per share for the same quarter last year. SunPower forecasts for the third quarter adjusted revenue of $550 million to $600 million and adjusted earnings of $0.15 to $0.35 per share. For fiscal 2013 the company expects adjusted revenue of $2.5 billion to $2.6 billion and raised its adjusted earnings from $0.60 to $0.80 per share to $1.00 to $1.30 per share. On August 1st, shares of SunPower dropped 10% on high volume to $25.20 in mid-day trading.
Solar power in residential and commercial is clearly on the rise with plenty of room to grow. Interestingly, what might accelerate the growth is that instructional investors have not gobbled up solar company shares; roughly 20% of SunPower shares are held by institutional investors, and only 17% of SolarCity is owned by institutional investors.
While I think both SolarCity and SunPower have the potential to continue to see their stocks rise significantly in the next few years, what I like about SolarCity is that it does not manufacture the solar panels, so it does not have to compete with the Chinese manufacturers. SolarCity focuses primarily on the design, installation, the finance and the management of the system. Though with the high run up on both companies, I would like to see the stocks dip on some profit taking for a better entry price.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.