At some point every year, you hear a word that truly captures the momentum of an industry. Or perhaps it’s a phrase that's so cliché and overused that you consider asking for your money back every time you hear it at a conference.
In the cleantech industry, there is no shortage of these buzzwords. We’ve gathered our favorites and least favorites here.
The term "resiliency" first rose to prominence after Hurricane Sandy all the way back in 2012. It was easily the most overused word going into 2013, and then it just kept going. Regulators and legislators used it as a calling card for building cities and towns that can better withstand natural disasters.
For many, that means renewable-powered microgrids and a smarter electrical grid that can isolate outages. But it is also a term for engineering shorelines and basic enforcements, such as stronger utility poles and more wetlands. Although the concept of resiliency may ultimately bolster some clean energy efforts, it has already become a catchall for any infrastructure needs in the face of changing climate and increasing storms.
Whether you work in solar or energy efficiency, the word "securitization" was inescapable in 2013. Multiple residential and commercial solar developers were working on asset-backed securities in 2013. Last month, SolarCity announced the first offering ever of securitized solar for distributed PV.
The process of securitization is a little slower on the energy efficiency side. Many in the industry are also eager to pool energy efficiency debt and sell it to investors on the secondary market. But there are problems, such as a lack of long-term data and standardization. EDF’s Investor Confidence Project is one of the groups working on the issues, and while there won’t be energy efficiency securitization in 2014, it’s definitely coming down the road.
Go ahead and ask many of the savvy older utility veterans what the biggest challenge of moving the utility into the 21st century will be. Before they mention regulatory lag or aging infrastructure, they will likely point a finger at colleagues their own age.
Utilities are staid institutions with aging workforces and many manual processes. Bringing these organizations into this century is essential in the coming years, and often that is more about cultural change management and not just cool new automated technologies. The vendors that help utilities break down silos and manage this process as they upgrade infrastructure and systems are far better equipped than those that think they can just drop software in as a solution.
Saving energy makes sense. But after a while, telling people to carpool and turn off the lights falls flat. Enter intelligent efficiency.
“With dramatic advances in web-based monitoring, real-time data analytics and utilities using peak pricing, that hidden resource is now becoming something tangible: an asset that companies can measure, manage, procure and sell,” writes Stephen Lacey. Efficiency and demand-side management are starting to merge, both in our biggest buildings and in our homes. It’s still early days, but it is here.
All that talk of resiliency in the past year really got a lot of people thinking about microgrids, especially since certain places kept the lights on during recent storms.
Microgrids are mostly still limited to college campuses and DOD projects, but as prices come down, that will change. Microgrids will be part of a larger trend for smaller grids that have their own power source and backup, but can still interface with the larger grid on a regular basis.
Over in the solar world, there is a movement toward using smaller inverters or trackers to reduce the effect of the failure of a single unit, said MJ Shiao, solar market senior analyst with GTM Research. This is driving the push for commercial 3-phase string inverters in the U.S. and string inverters in large-scale solar globally. “We’ll continue to see this theme catch on in 2014,” said Shiao, “especially in the power electronics and moving pieces in solar projects.”
Utility death spiral
There is no sugar-coating what’s happening in the utility industry. Many executives would say that we all still need warm showers and cold beer, and most of us will need the grid for those energy needs in the foreseeable future. But who is left paying for an updated grid is certainly up for debate, and there is a real possibility that some utilities -- perhaps hamstrung by sloth-like regulators -- will simply be left holding the wires.
It is too early to see a utility circle the drain in 2014, but expect to see regulatory changes that will either be Band-Aids to the utility business model in some regions, and more meaningful changes toward an energy-services future in other territories.
Securitization, one of the most important words of 2013, is just one financial innovation that has come to the clean energy market. Solar leasing has already significantly changed the market, while real estate investment trusts (REITs) and master limited partnerships (MLPs) are a few more examples of investment vehicles that could help renewable energy even more.
“The clean energy sector has traditionally been defined by technological breakthroughs,” writes Stephen Lacey. “But now that technologies have matured to a level where investors feel comfortable, financial breakthroughs may just be the most important market driver.”
Large-scale transmission projects aren’t less important than they have been in the past, but it is what is happening at the edge of the electrical grid that is changing the way we produce and use energy. Innovation at the grid edge is driving modernization back up through the distribution grid and all the way to the boardrooms of utilities, where it will transform how they do business.
Distributed generation, primarily rooftop PV, is probably the most obvious current disruptor, but energy storage, electric vehicles, microgrids and even more flavors of demand response are coming down the road. Want to get a better idea of the promise and future of the grid edge? Check out this report from GTM Research.
The most aggressive cleantech battle this year was easily that around net metering. Net metering, which requires some regulated utilities to reimburse customers at retail rates for the solar-generated electricity they send to the grid, exploded in more than one state in 2013.
The smackdown played out at industry conferences and in angry open letters and public comments between utilities and solar installers. In Arizona, charging solar owners a fee to help offset utility losses preserved net metering. After a heated battle in California, AB 327 kept net metering in place.
The decisions in Arizona and California will influence the outcome in other states in 2014 and beyond. But as utilities lose customer revenue, the larger question of what changes need to come to utility rate structures still looms.
Few words get under the skin of the GTM Research grid analysts more than "prosumer." A prosumer is a person who is both a producer and consumer of electricity -- usually in the form of having some solar PV on the rooftop.
The word may be grating, but the changing nature of how people produce and use power cannot be underestimated. The term even came up as part of RWE’s new business model in which it outlined its transition from owning and developing centralized power plants to helping manage and integrate renewables into the grid. The ranks of prosumers will only grow larger in 2014 -- and hopefully one of them can think of a better descriptive term for this new category of energy consumer.