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Global Investment In Wind And Solar Energy Is Outshining Fossil Fuels

In 2016, about $297 billion was spent on renewables—compared with $143 billion on new nuclear, coal, gas and fuel-oil power plants. Global Investment In Wind And Solar Energy Is Outshining Fossil Fuels

Global spending on renewable energy is outpacing investment in electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, driven by falling costs of producing wind and solar power.

More than half of the power-generating capacity added around the world in recent years has been in renewable sources such as wind and solar, according to the International Energy Agency.

In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, about $297 billion was spent on renewables—more than twice the $143 billion spent on new nuclear, coal, gas and fuel oil power plants, according to the IEA. The Paris-based organization projects renewables will make up 56% of net generating capacity added through 2025.

Once supported overwhelmingly by cash-back incentives, tax credits and other government incentives, wind- and solar-generation costs have fallen consistently for a decade, making renewable-power investment more competitive.

Renewable costs have fallen so far in the past few years that “wind and solar now represent the lowest-cost option for generating electricity,” said Francis O’Sullivan, research director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative.

This is beginning to disrupt the business of making electricity and manufacturing generating equipment.

Both General Electric Co. and Siemens AG are grappling with diminished demand for large gas-burning turbines and have announced layoffs. Meanwhile, mostly Asian-based manufacturers of solar panels are flourishing.

In many places, opting for renewables “is a purely economic choice,” said Danielle Merfeld, the chief technology officer of GE’s renewable energy unit.

“In most places, it is cheaper and other technologies have become more expensive.”

Sustained government support in Europe and other developed economies spurred the development of renewable energy. But costs have fallen for other reasons. China invested heavily in a domestic solar-manufacturing industry, creating a glut of inexpensive solar panels. Innovation helped manufacturers build longer wind-turbine blades, creating machines able to generate substantially more power at a lower cost.

Renewable-energy plants also face fewer challenges than traditional power plants. Nuclear-power plants have been troubled by mostly technical delays, while plants burning fossil fuels face regulatory uncertainties due to concerns about climate change. And pension funds, seeking long-term stable returns, have invested heavily in wind farms and solar parks, allowing developers to get cheaper financing.

“It is just easier to get renewables built,” said Tony Clark, a former member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “There is that much less opposition to it.”

The sustained investment is reshaping how the world’s homes and industries are powered. Last year, the percentage of electricity from renewable sources reached 12.1%, more than double that of a decade earlier, according to a joint report by the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and the United Nations Environmental Program. These figures don’t include electricity from large hydroelectric dams.

The rise of renewable power generation is raising concerns and sparking a political backlash in the U.S.

The Trump administration is weighing actions to subsidize the operation of coal and nuclear plants, arguing that these units are needed for the reliable operation of the power grid.

The proposal, which follows a request for relief by First Energy Corp., an Ohio-based owner of coal and nuclear plants, would hurt renewables and natural gas-fired plants, which have boomed in recent years as the fuel has become cheaper and more plentiful thanks to fracking. An unusual alliance, including renewable-energy groups and the oil-and-gas-industry’s American Petroleum Institute, have challenged whether any government aid is really needed.

In the U.S., more than two decades of government tax credits, some of which will soon go away, have propelled renewables. About 17% of the country’s electricity last year came from renewable sources, including wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, according to federal data. The government said that just under half of large-scale power generation added was renewable last year.

Last week, Xcel Energy Inc. announced a $2.5 billion plan to add 1,800 megawatts of new wind and solar generation, plus a substantial amount of batteries to store the power. The plan, which needs to be approved by state regulators, would retire 660 megawatts of coal-burning generation and result in savings for consumers, the Minneapolis-based utility said.

“I think, across the nation, you could get to 40% renewable energy,” said Xcel Chief Executive Ben Fowke. “Ten years ago, I would have told you 20% was the max.”

Renewable-energy prices are now competitive with fossil-fuel generation in many places. In 2017, the global average cost of electricity from onshore wind was $60 per megawatt hour and $100 for solar, toward the lower end of the $50 to $170 range for new fossil-fuel facilities in developed nations, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The combination of falling costs and large pools of available capital is also spurring renewables growth in developing countries.

In November, Italy’s Enel SpA, a global energy company, won a bid to build power plants in Chile in an auction open to both renewable and fossil-fuel generators. Enel will build wind, solar and geothermal facilities and sell power from the facilities at about $32.50 per megawatt hour, an unsubsidized rate that is lower than the cost of natural gas or coal to burn in existing plants.

Recent power auctions have suggested that renewable energy prices have further to fall. Earlier this year, an auction in Saudi Arabia awarded a contract to build a 300-megawatt solar facility for $17.90 a megawatt hour. Very low labor costs in the Middle East and India are resulting in record-breaking low bids for solar.

A Mexican auction last year drew international bids for power at an unsubsidized price of below $21 per megawatt hour. That was substantially below the spot market price for electricity, which averaged around $70 per megawatt hour last year, said Veronica Irastorza, an associate director of economic consulting firm NERA and a former Mexican undersecretary of energy planning.

“Renewables are going to be able to compete with thermal plants. They will be incorporated into the system faster than I thought five years ago,” she said.

In Canada, an auction in Alberta in December awarded four wind contracts for an average of $37 a megawatt hour, subsidy-free. The Albertan government planned to award contracts for only 400 megawatts, but bumped it up to 600 megawatts when it saw the prices offered, which were slightly below the average price for electricity on the province’s grid in 2018.

In India, the push into solar has been driven partly by a desire for cleaner energy sources, but also because there is more financing available for solar than for coal, said Rahul Tongia, a fellow at Fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi.

Renewable output varies, based on when the sun is shining and wind is blowing, and cannot always be dispatched when needed like a coal or gas plant. That can pose a challenge to grid operators.

But industry observers say that is now a concern only in certain markets, such as California, where renewable penetration is at its highest.

“We could see aggressive build rates for several years to come before we see issues in many markets,” said Tom Heggarty, an analyst with energy consultant Wood Mackenzie. “Ten, 20 years down the line, it might be a different story.”

Updated: 11-2-2019

The Next Frontier for Electric Vehicles: Deep Underground

To improve air quality and reduce emissions, mining companies aim to shift away from diesel equipment.

The next boom in electric vehicles could be the world’s mining fleet.

From rural Canada to Australia’s dusty Outback, companies are swapping out diesel-fueled drills, loaders and utility vehicles for equipment powered by lithium-ion batteries. They are looking to reduce emissions and eliminate the exhaust fumes that foul the underground air and risk miners’ health.

Around 35 electric vehicles are at work at Newmont Goldcorp Corp. ’s Borden mine near Chapleau, Ontario, unearthing ore or ferrying workers around the site, which began producing commercial volumes in October. Newmont wants the mine to go all-electric. An electric production drill will arrive early next year, a spokesman said, and diesel haul trucks are likely to be phased out.

“The Holy Grail is a haul truck,” said Kirsten Rose, who oversees low-emission technologies at BHP Group Ltd. , the world’s largest mining company by market value. These heavy-duty trucks carry tons of ore out of the bottom of pits, and with current technology, matching the power of their diesel engines would require an enormous battery pack.

BHP has been testing a light electric vehicle over the past year at Olympic Dam, Australia’s largest underground mine, and this month it will add another. The company intends to expand the trial to other Australian mines. In Canada, workers planning BHP’s Jansen potash project are assessing how many electric vehicles could be deployed if it goes ahead.

The aim is one day to eliminate all diesel-powered machines from mine sites, Ms. Rose said.

Smaller rivals are also stepping up efforts to go green. Among them, Nouveau Monde Graphite Inc. is planning an all-electric open-pit graphite mine in Quebec.

At Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. , one of the world’s top suppliers of iron ore, CEO Elizabeth Gaines said, “We’re always looking at opportunities to replace diesel.” But “the technology—the battery life—isn’t quite there yet for our operations,” she said.

The technology is advancing rapidly, but that can present another challenge: “It’s like laptops,” said Drew O’Sullivan, who is leading BHP’s trial at Olympic Dam. “By the time you get it home, it’s outdated.”

The purchase price is a further hurdle. Electric vehicles for use in mines cost from 40% more than to three times as much as diesel-powered ones, experts say.

Proponents counter that running costs are lower. Borden’s annual energy expenses should be lower by roughly US$9 million—possibly more—than a traditional mine’s, the Newmont spokesman said. One factor in that: As much as 40% of an underground mine’s energy costs are tied to powering giant ventilation systems to extract pollutants from tunnels.

Customers and investors are pushing for global resources companies to clean up their act. With a growing focus on the social impact of investments, many big pension funds and asset managers, as well as project financiers, are pressing miners to disclose and reduce their carbon footprints. Diesel is a ripe target: It accounts for more than one-third of BHP’s direct operational emissions, Ms. Rose said.

Regulators may soon join in the push. In July, the mines department of Western Australia state raised fresh concerns about the health of workers who spend up to 12 hours a day guiding heavy machinery around subterranean labyrinths.

“Diesel-engine exhaust is a known hazard for mining operations, especially in underground mines,” said Andrew Chaplyn, the department’s director of mines safety. A government committee is drawing up recommendations for the state’s mines minister.

Within a few years, diesel machinery will likely no longer be used at new underground mines in Australia, while being phased out at others, said Sherif Andrawes, global head of natural resources at accounting and advisory firm BDO.

“I think what we are seeing now is the start of something quite big,” he said.

Rio Tinto PLC, the world’s second-biggest miner by market value, is even studying the potential for hybrid engines on its heavy-haul railway trains. Ian Vella, who oversees rail services for Rio Tinto, is excited about the regenerative-braking aspect.

“Imagine a giant battery on one of those locomotives that is taking energy from the train as it is braking, storing it, and then it can use it when it needs power on the network,” he said.

Still, electrifying mine fleets won’t do much to cut the industry’s overall emissions without a shift away from fossil fuels to renewable power for generating electricity.

Some miners are moving in that direction. Last month, Fortescue struck an agreement with electricity generator Alinta Energy to help power its Chichester iron-ore production hub with solar energy, displacing roughly 100 million liters of diesel annually.

Updated: 1-4-2020

Warren Buffett Is Making A Big Bet On Solar Power

Warren Buffett is betting on solar power, with one of Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRK.B) companies behind a project to build the largest solar power plant in the U.S.

Berkshire subsidiary NV Energy will be using the electricity generated by a 690-megawatt solar-energy plant to be built on federal land in Nevada. The current record for a solar plant is 579 megawatts.

On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management released an environmental-impact statement about the project, indicating that it would approve the project after a 90-day period for public comment, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times. While the Trump administration hasn’t been friendly to solar power, opposing a plan last year to extend tax incentives, a federal official praised the Berkshire project as being part of an “America First Energy Plan,” echoing nationalist rhetoric the president has used to describe other parts of his agenda.

The so-called Gemini project, which will generate power for NV Energy companies but will be developed by third parties, will be 25 miles from Las Vegas. That project and two others will create 1.19 gigawatts of new power for NV, enough to provide electricity to 230,000 homes. The projects also come with 590 megawatts of battery-storage capacity, meaning the power generated by solar panels can be stored for times when the sun isn’t shining.

Buffett said in a 2016 investor letter that he was convinced renewable sources would grow in importance, which is why the company’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary was investing in them. “Last year, BHE made major commitments to the future development of renewables in support of the Paris Climate Change Conference,” he wrote. “Our fulfilling those promises will make great sense, both for the environment and for Berkshire’s economics.”

Buffett’s commitment to environmental goals has been challenged in the past. Berkshire Hathaway Energy was previously criticized for opposing “net metering” rules that pay rooftop solar generators for the power they send back into the grid. Without net metering, rooftop-generated solar energy is less cost-competitive in many states. Some environmentalists have also criticized the Gemini project because of its impact on wildlife, including tortoises in the area.

Regardless of the environmental debates, Berkshire’s embrace of solar energy makes it clear that the technology is becoming progressively more cost-competitive with fossil-fuel-driven power. The Gemini project will cost $38.44 per megawatt hour under a 25-year contract, the L.A. Times reported, while Lazard has calculated that the average national cost of a new natural-gas plant ranges from $44 to $68.

State mandates are helping drive wider adoption of renewable energy. Nevada has mandated that utilities get at least half their power from renewables by 2030. Companies that have embraced renewables have seen their stock prices rise. NextEra Energy (NEE), a utility company that has taken a lead role in developing renewable projects, trades at 27 times 2020 earnings expectations, while competitors trade at less than 20 times. Utilities that aren’t investing as heavily in renewables are likely to continue to be left behind.

Updated: 2-17-2020

Can Solar Power Compete With Coal? In India, It’s Gaining Ground

Electricity from sunlight costs less, a hopeful sign for developing nations building out their power grids.

In a dusty northwest India desert dotted with cows and the occasional camel, a solar-power plant is producing some of the world’s cheapest energy.

Built in 2018 by India’s Acme Solar Holdings Ltd., it can generate 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power all the homes in a middle-size U.S. town. Acme sells the electricity to distributors for 2.44 rupees (3.4 cents) a kilowatt-hour, a record low for solar power in India, a country that data trackers say has the world’s cheapest solar energy.

More remarkable, the power costs less to generate in India than the cheapest competing fossil fuel—coal—even with subsidies removed and the cost of construction and financing figured in, according to the Indian government and industry trackers.

Price-conscious Indian utilities are eager to snap up that power. “We are infamous for low cost,” says Sandeep Kashyap, Acme’s president.

Solar power has entered a new global era. The industry was long dependent on subsidies and regulatory promotions. Now, technological innovation and falling solar-panel prices have made solar power inexpensive enough to compete on its own with other fuel sources in some regions, when it comes to newly built plants.

That could turbocharge growth of renewables in the global energy industry, especially in fast-growing Asian markets where much of the world’s energy infrastructure expansion will take place.

Governments in many solar markets—including China, the biggest—are phasing out or reducing supports. Solar-plant development is going mainstream, with finance provided by global investors like Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Singaporean sovereign-wealth fund GIC and huge Western pension and private-equity funds.

So far, the renewable-energy push hasn’t halted the growth of global energy emissions. But the success of countries like India in feeding their rising power demands with clean energy will still be key to blunting the growth of global challenges like pollution and climate change.

The price declines in solar panels and the power they produce are jolting the industry. In the past decade, solar has grown from less than 1% of the world’s electric-power capacity to an estimated 9% by the end of this year, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization focused on energy policy.

By 2040, the IEA expects that to grow to 24%, which would make solar the largest single energy source.

India is at the forefront of the trend, with a cost of building solar capacity that has dropped 84% in eight years, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization focused on renewable energy. Other countries are close behind, with costs falling fast in Australia and China.

India has increased the amount of solar power it has installed 10-fold in the past five years, to 32 gigawatts, and the government is hoping to triple that in the next few years—one of the fastest paces of growth anywhere. India’s prime minister last year said he wants 450 gigawatts of renewable energy including solar installed by 2030.

If India manages that, which many analysts say is a real stretch, it would account for nearly all the additional electric capacity the country’s Central Electricity Authority has projected it would add by then, and more than the country’s total from all power sources now.

India has pledged as a climate goal that 40% of its electric capacity will come from non-fossil fuels by 2030; the latest renewable targets would likely put that percentage at over half.

Cheaper Than Coal

In 2018, India’s “levelized” cost of solar-power generation—an analysis removing the impact of direct subsidies and figuring in the costs of construction and financing for a new plant—fell to 14% below that of coal, the first time anywhere in the world that generating solar was cheaper than coal on that basis, according to international energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

India’s national energy plan doesn’t anticipate construction of new coal power plants for at least several years. Even state-controlled Coal India, one of the world’s largest coal-producing companies, in November said it planned a pilot solar project as it navigated a future with less coal.

Across Asia, a region expected to account for two-thirds of the world’s new power demand during the next two decades, price declines will make wind and solar combined 17% cheaper than coal by 2030 on a levelized basis, says Wood Mackenzie. In India, solar generation will be almost 50% cheaper, it projects.

“This is a revolution in power generation costs,” says Wood Mackenzie analyst Alex Whitmore. “What it means is there will be a lot more solar investment in India, and in countries like India.”

Solar’s big problem: It generates power only when the sun shines. Wind power, similarly, works only with wind. So displacing fossil fuels could require cheaper ways to store energy. And the more renewables in the power-transmission grid, the more the grid will need to be rebuilt to accommodate those special characteristics.

That inefficiency is why the IEA forecasts the amount of power solar generates to rise to only 11% of the world’s total by 2040, around half that of coal or natural gas.

In India, which has some of the world’s best conditions for generating solar power, the mismatch is pronounced because demand for electricity swells after people go home and switch on air conditioners in the evening, when solar plants aren’t working.

Meanwhile, countries like India have made massive investments in coal-fired plants they can’t afford to simply scrap. Coal still provides two-thirds of India’s power. Coal shipments also underpin profits at the nation’s biggest employer, the railways.

As Indian solar developers push prices down, the thin margins for many are being pummeled by challenges ranging from an economic slowdown and tighter domestic financing conditions to power distributors that aren’t paying bills and squatters refusing to move off land slated for development.

During the past two years, the pace of solar development in India slowed. Although installations are expected to pick back up this year, many analysts and industry leaders now expect India won’t hit its aggressive solar goals.

‘Low-Hanging Fruit’

Challenges will likely multiply when solar power in India’s grid rises from the current 9% to around 20% or 30%—a level at which it may start replacing conventional power plants, say experts like Rahul Tongia, a fellow at the India arm of think tank Brookings Institution.

“What happens after that point when the low-hanging fruit is done?” says Mr. Tongia.

India’s solar push started in 2010, when its government outlined plans for a modest boost in capacity during the next decade. Solar was a good fit for India’s growing energy needs.

Plants are easy to build—essentially solar panels lined up in racks—and labor is inexpensive. India has big stretches of sparsely populated land and intense sun, good for vast spreads cranking out power.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quintupled the country’s solar target, aiming to install 100 gigawatts of capacity by 2022—roughly half of the world’s 2015 total. At the time, India had less than 3 gigawatts of solar power installed and the plan seemed crazy.

“It was a leap of faith,” says Anand Kumar, a top official in India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. “We got very lucky that the price of solar panels fell.”

China had been cranking out solar panels in massive numbers in a government-subsidized effort to dominate the industry globally. Panel prices, which can account for around half the cost of a solar plant in India, plummeted.

Globally, solar-panel prices fell more than 90% during the past decade, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The Indian government’s system of auctioning out solar projects to developers that offered the cheapest electricity reduced prices there further. Aggressive entrepreneurs elbowed in, figuring the government’s eagerness to boost solar capacity coupled with ever-cheaper panels offered a profit opportunity.

Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp., whose chief executive, Masayoshi Son, is a solar proponent, set up an energy unit in Delhi around the same time Mr. Modi announced his ambitious goals. SoftBank snagged its first solar project in half a year.

Acme switched its focus to solar from telecom equipment, figuring the industry was poised to repeat telecom’s rapid growth. ReNew Power Ltd., founded in 2011, enlisted a roster of blue-chip investors including Goldman, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

As the government tendered hundreds of megawatts of solar capacity, the price at which solar developers were offering to sell their electricity roughly halved between 2015 and this year, according to Bridge to India, a data tracker.

Developers pushed to squeeze all the profit they could from projects. In the Bhadla solar park, where the Acme plant producing the cheap electricity is located, one problem is dust.

The plant has 927,180 panels stretched over desert where sandstorms are common and temperatures can swing from over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to nearly freezing in winter. If panels aren’t cleaned regularly, dust collects and electricity production declines.

Acme had used sprinklers on tractors driven by contractors to wash down the panels, a method letting them clean all panels three times a month. Last year, it rolled out robots that brush the panels down, doubling the monthly cleaning and boosting the maximum amount of energy the plant could produce.

Bottlenecks

As solar prices sank, some projects were delayed by a lack of transmission lines to ship the electricity. Others fell behind because of tussles between villagers, developers and local governments over land—issues dogging development in other countries as well.

Acme and other developers have been hamstrung by a delay in tax and tariff refunds they had counted on. “A lot of equity got stuck, which was planned for new projects,” says Mr. Kashyap, Acme’s president.

ReNew and other companies have been hit by payment delays from India’s struggling power distributors, mainly state-owned companies that buy electricity from producers and sell it to households. India’s Central Electricity Authority estimated that as of Nov. 30, renewable-energy companies were owed some $1.3 billion in overdue bills.

At any one time, distributors in roughly a quarter of the eight or nine states that ReNew Power operates in are behind on payments, says CEO Sumant Sinha. Although ReNew and other developers factor such payment delays into electricity prices they offer when bidding for projects, a miscalculation could hit profits. “Everyone sees delays in payments,” he says.

Some Indian state agencies, hoping solar prices fall lower, have canceled solar auctions when they thought developers were offering to sell power at too high a price.

Last year, the southern state of Andra Pradesh —which has one of the highest levels of renewable-energy consumption as well as one of the largest unpaid bills—threatened to cancel old solar contracts and renegotiate them at lower prices, sending the industry into an uproar.

The Andra Pradesh government says paying those higher prices has left its electricity distributors in financial distress, and that it is trying to “persuade” renewable-energy generators to supply power “at a mutually beneficial rate.”

By early 2019, many developers were starting to pass on solar auctions, threatening the country’s aggressive development timetable. Many developers and analysts now say India is likely to fall behind in achieving its renewable-energy goals.

India is working to remove roadblocks, building more transmission lines and tweaking rules governing auction, development deadlines and solar parks to make it easier to build plants. It is holding auctions for projects bundling solar with wind power and electricity-storage capacity to help even out solar generation’s peaks and troughs. ReNew recently won one such contract.

And India is considering projects that bundle existing coal plants with renewable-energy sources, to help smooth the transition from fossil fuels, says Mr. Kumar, the renewable-energy official.

Experts like ReNew’s Mr. Sinha say it will likely be several years before India builds so much solar capacity that the technology’s daytime power surges and nighttime plunges could affect the country’s overall electricity supply. By that time, says Mr. Sinha, other new technologies such as batteries and systems for shipping electricity may be available to smooth out irregularities.

India has already shown it can expand its solar capacity far faster than anyone would have expected, he says: “That is not an achievement to be scoffed at.”

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