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A Transformative Storage Boom?

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Alternative Energy: A Transformative Storage Boom? Part 1. This is part one of a two-part series by Analyst Veronica Zhang that explores the growing opportunities in alternative energy and battery storage.

Alternative Energy: A Transformative Storage Boom? Part 1. This is part one of a two-part series by Analyst Veronica Zhang that explores the growing opportunities in alternative energy and battery storage.

The convergence of solar electricity (”solar”) and battery storage may approach a tipping point in widespread adoption over the next ten years, as cost curves and improving technology make implementation more economic for homeowners.

Over the past decade, residential solar demand has grown tenfold, yet still comprises less than 2% of electricity generation in the U.S. This low level of penetration is not spread evenly across the country, with certain ”pro-solar” states (both geographically and politically) commanding the vast majority of growth.
California and Hawaii Lead U.S. Solar Adoption

Congress recently renewed the solar investment tax credit (ITC) and many industry sources forecast this level of penetration to increase steadily over the next five years, growing from 7GW (gigawatts) in 2015 to 18GW in 2020. We look to states such as California and Hawaii, which led the U.S. in solar electricity adoption (51% and 7%, respectively), and of which solar comprises 7% and 15% of their respective electricity generation, as prime models for a renewables-driven future.

Total U.S. Solar Demand

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Cumulative U.S. Solar Demand by State

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At this rate of expansion, a key question remains as to whether the U.S. electrical grid will be able to handle the rapid adoption of solar, and how quickly. Utilities have built the nation’s electric grid for one-way power flow: from utility to home. The current policy of net metering, which allows consumers with solar panels to ”sell” power back to the grid, requires substantial investment from utilities into the transmission system (smart meters, intelligent switches) to help create a more reliable and robust network.

Modernizing the Electric Grid

This all comes at a sizeable cost. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that utilities will spend over $20 billion annually over the next several years on the maintenance of aging infrastructure. Spending in recent years has only been targeted on hardening the system against weather-related outages, not in preparing the grid for two-way flow.

These costs are naturally passed on to customers (half of a customer’s electricity bill is for transmission and distribution (T&D) charges, which include the cost borne by utilities for operating, maintaining, and upgrading the grid), and explains, in part, the increase in electricity prices over the past decade, despite falling power generation fuel costs, such as natural gas. Industry experts estimate the cost of modernizing the national grid will cost more than $475 billion over the next 20 years, which translates to twice the current spend on T&D.

In Part 2, we will explore the need for a more flexible and modern grid and how this is likely to spur growth and innovation in the form of battery storage.

Veronica Zhang

by Veronica Zhang, Analyst

Analyst Veronica Zhang is a member of the Hard Assets Team that manages our Natural Resources Equity strategy. Zhang focuses on the industrials and alternative energy sectors, and holds a BA in Economics and Statistics from Columbia University.

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