Why SolarCity and Tesla are going to replace your utility

POWER PLAY

Why SolarCity and Tesla are going to replace your utility

By Todd Woody @greenwombat 9 hours ago

The power plant in your garage. Tesla Motors

 

Millions of California homeowners and businesses have installed solar panels on their roofs to generate their own electricity. Now a small but growing number of them want to pull the plug on their utilities by storing that energy in batteries and tap that power when the sun isn’t shining. And that has set off a fight over who will ultimately control the state’s power grid—California’s three big monopoly utilities or their customers empowered by companies like SolarCity and Tesla Motors.

SolarCity, the Silicon Valley solar installer, has quietly begun to offer some homeowners a lithium-ion battery pack made by electric carmaker Tesla to store electricity generated by their rooftop photovoltaic arrays. Stem, another Silicon Valley company, will sell or lease a $100,000, 54-kilowatt-hour battery pack to businesses so they can arbitrage the grid by storing electricity when rates are cheap and then using that energy when they’re high.
 
The state’s utilities, however, are refusing to hook up solar-powered batteries and other home energy storage systems to the grid without charging connection fees that can run $800 or more. Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric argue that homeowners that cut the cord will saddle other customers with the cost of maintaining the transmission system.  (In a preliminary ruling issued in October, regulators ordered the utilities to connect solar battery systems for free while the issue is sorted out.)
 
But SolarCity customers like Marco Krapels pose a far more existential threat to a century-old power system. Six years ago Krapels put a 2.4-kilowatt solar panel array on the roof of his Marin County, California home. Last April, SolarCity installed a 10-kilowatt-hour Tesla battery in his garage to store electricity generated by the panels. “I should technically be able to function with solar and just the battery indefinitely as long as the sun shines,” Krapels, a renewable energy financer, told me as he stood by his Tesla Model S electric sports sedan. “I don’t want to have to buy power from PG&E at peak rates, I want to use my own power. You see this power line going from the street to my house? I look forward to the day when I cut that wire.”
 
It certainly makes economic sense for Krapels to do that, especially as a hedge against rising electricity rates. State subsidies pay 60% of the cost of the Tesla battery and Krapels leases the system for less than $40 a month. That’s even less than his lease payments to SolarCity for his solar array. So far SolarCity has signed up more than 300 customers for its solar battery system, according to Peter Rive, the company’s co-founder. As of July 1, there were 667 applications for energy storage systems in California that could store 33 megawatts of electricity, according to the state Public Utilities Commission.
 

“The long term goal for us is to basically integrate storage systems with solar power systems by default,” says Rive. “Over the next five years you’ll find an increasing percentage of our customers will be getting solar with battery storage.”

So just how much a threat do SolarCity and Tesla pose to utility hegemony? Time will tell but a look at the companies combined market cap compared to those of the parent companies of California’s Big Three utilities should give utility executives pause. So should the fact that a Tesla Model S battery pack can store six to eight times the electricity of the Tesla home unit. It’s relatively simple to engineer car batteries to store solar electricity and provide power to a home on demand, say at night, when the car is parked in the garage.

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SolarCity:Tesla:utilities

“I see the solar companies and companies like Tesla converging,” says Krapels. “Soon their market value will exceed that of utilities that are fighting them. That’s when it’s going to get interesting.”

 
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Companies Unplug From the Electric Grid, Delivering a Jolt to Utilities

BUSINESSSeptember 17, 2013, 11:05 p.m. ET

Companies Unplug From the Electric Grid, Delivering a Jolt to Utilities

By REBECCA SMITH and CASSANDRA SWEET CONNECT

Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

At Kroger’s food-distribution center in Compton, Calif., a tank system converts organic waste into biogas to produce electricity used by the facility

On a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, two big wind turbines crank out electricity for Kroger Co.’s Turkey Hill Dairy in rural Lancaster County, Pa., allowing it to save 25% on its power bill for the past two years.

Across the country, at a big food-distribution center Kroger also owns in Compton, Calif., a tank system installed this year uses bacteria to convert 150 tons a day of damaged produce, bread and other organic waste into a biogas that is burned on site to produce 20% of the electricity the facility uses.

These two projects, plus the electric output of solar panels at four Kroger grocery stores, and some energy-conservation efforts are saving the Cincinnati-based grocery chain $160 million a year on electricity, said Denis George, its energy manager. That is a lot of money that isn’t going into the pockets of utilities.

From big-box retailers to high-tech manufacturers, more companies across the country are producing their own power. Since 2006, the number of electricity-generation units at commercial and industrial sites has more than quadrupled to roughly 40,000 from about 10,000, according to federal statistics.

Experts say the trend is gaining momentum, spurred by falling prices for solar panels and natural gas, as well as a fear that power outages caused by major storms will become more common.

Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Organic waste

“The battle cry is Hurricane Sandy,” said Rick Fioravanti, vice president of energy-storage technology at DNV Kema, a Netherlands-based consulting company.

The growing number of companies that are at least partly energy self-sufficient is sending a shudder through the utility industry, threatening its revenues and growth prospects, according to a report earlier this year by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for investor-owned electric companies.

State and federal regulators say they are worried that utilities could end up with fewer customers to pay for costly transmission lines and power plants.

Utility executives, meanwhile, are asking themselves a disquieting question: “Am I going to just sit here and take it and ultimately be a caretaker of a museum, or am I going to be part of that business” that’s emerging, said Nick Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power Co., a big Ohio-based utility. AEP is considering helping its customers install their own generating facilities.

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On-site generation still accounts for less than 5% of U.S. electricity production. But it is peeling off some of the bulk sales that utilities find especially profitable. And some of the companies getting into the business think it is approaching a tipping point called “grid parity,” at which point power would be as cheap to make as to buy from a utility.

Since 2007, when the first solar arrays went up on its store roofs in California, the installed costs of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s solar systems have dropped from $6 or $8 per watt of capacity to about $3.50 per watt, said David Ozment, the company’s senior director of energy management. He said he expects the retailer to be paying as little for solar power as utility power “in less than three years,” opening the floodgates to solar expansion.

Wal-Mart produces about 4% of the electricity it uses but intends to make 20% by 2020, taking advantage of idle acreage on thousands of store rooftops.

On-site generation isn’t a new idea. It existed before the electric grid—the interconnected system of power plants, substations and transmission lines that ferry power thousands of miles—was stitched together beginning in the 1920s.

But for most of the past 50 years, the practice was associated mostly with remote locations like Alaska fish canneries or industrial facilities like oil refineries that generated lots of waste heat that could be harnessed for power production.

Almost overnight, that niche market has gone decidedly mainstream. Six years ago, Google Inc. attracted attention by installing big solar arrays atop its Silicon Valley complex in California. Other tech companies followed suit, worried about ensuring power supplies for energy-hungry server farms and achieving sustainability objectives.

Apple Inc. now gets 16% of its electricity from solar panels and fuel cells that run on biogas. Apple’s data center in Maiden, N.C., makes all the power it consumes, a company spokeswoman said.

BMW AG’s assembly plant in South Carolina, which made 300,000 vehicles last year, gets half its electricity from an on-site energy center that burns methane piped to it from a nearby garbage dump. Drugstore chain Walgreen Co., which has solar panels at 155 stores, plans to install them at 200 more.

Falling equipment prices make on-site generation increasingly attractive. From 2002 to 2012, the cost of installed solar systems fell by half, according to an August report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Companies also have the option of leasing big solar systems, rather than incurring the capital cost of buying them.

Many “clean energy” projects also qualify for federal and state subsidies. In the case of solar installations, there is a 30% federal tax credit, which is set to drop to 10% in 2017. Government officials say a shift to greener energy resources is good since it reduces the output from coal-fueled power plants, which produce about 40% of the nation’s electricity and are the most polluting.

But analysts say the importance of subsidies has been waning, overshadowed by steep declines in the cost of power-generating equipment. For example, the cost of solar modules—the biggest single component in a rooftop solar system—has dropped about 80% in the past four years, to about 65 cents a watt from about $4 a watt, said Galen Barbose, a senior researcher at the lab.

Companies also are turning to wind turbines and technologies like fuel cells, batteries, small natural-gas turbines and reciprocating engines, which are natural-gas-fueled cousins of the auto’s internal combustion engine.

Engineering and technology company SAIC Inc. is installing enough generating capacity at a data center outside New York to meet the center’s core needs, with batteries for backup power. The system uses reciprocating engines burning natural gas, an option considered reliable in storms because gas pipelines are buried.

A report released by the White House in August estimated that power outages caused by bad weather cost the U.S. economy $18 billion to $52 billion a year in lost productivity from 2003 to 2012.

Demand for fuel cells in the U.S. is coming primarily from telecom companies, hotels and universities, said David Wright, CEO of ClearEdge Power Inc., a manufacturer in Hillsboro, Ore. Many buyers want reliable on-site generation as a hedge against storm-related outages.

By next year, Verizon Communications Inc. plans to install $100 million worth of fuel cells from ClearEdge and Bloom Energy, as well as solar panels, at 19 data centers and other facilities in seven states, including New York and New Jersey.

Some traditional utility companies are edging into the on-site generation business.

Edison International, which owns big utility Southern California Edison, recently bought a Chicago-based developer of rooftop solar projects, SoCore Energy LLC, and it is an investor in solar-finance company Clean Power Finance.

As power production becomes more decentralized, “I want to make sure the company is deeply involved,” said Edison CEO Ted Craver.

Write to Rebecca Smith at rebecca.smith@wsj.com and Cassandra Sweet at cassandra.sweet@dowjones.com

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