The year 2015 represented a major turning point for electricity generation in the United States. The country retired 14 GW of fossil-fueled generation. Meanwhile, it brought online 16.4 GW of carbon-free generation, with wind energy leading the mix at 8.5 GW of new installed capacity, according to BNEF's Sustainable Energy in America 2016 Factbook. Natural gas, despite historical low commodity prices, brought online just 6 GW. This is an exciting sign of a changing tide, but the U.S. bulk power fleet today totals ~1,100 GW of capacity, and two-thirds of generation still comes from fossil fuels. Renewables still have much ground left to cover.
The corporation moves in
The good news is that renewable capacity growth has a new ally, with the potential of mobilizing tens—at times, hundreds—of additional MWs at each step: corporate demand for renewable energy.
RMI’s Business Renewables Center (BRC) has been focusing on renewables growth in large chunks—through corporations’ appetite to contract large amounts of electricity. And its member companies have been doing exactly that, in record numbers. Though a young market, corporate deals for large-scale renewables have been growing fast, from 0.56 GW in 2013, to 1.18 in 2014, to 3.44 last year. Meanwhile, the number of market participants has blossomed from 1 to 26. That corporate demand for renewables is now becoming the nation’s leading source of demand for wind power and an increasingly important source of demand for solar, too.
Exciting year-on-year growth, but still a drop in the ocean
This paints a very promising and exciting picture, but the U.S. commercial and industrial (C&I) sector remains largely untapped. In 2015, electricity consumption in the U.S. commercial sector totaled 1,360 TWh while the industrial sector totaled 960 TWh, for 2,320 TWh together (EIA data).
Consider against that backdrop the corporate large-scale renewables market to date. Corporations have contracted for 5.33 GW of wind and solar through power purchase agreements (PPAs) and other deal structures for the period 2010–2015. Even generously assuming an average capacity factor of 50 percent, which is high for currently deployed wind and solar technologies, those 5.33 GW would produce a combined total of around 23 TWh annually, or just around 1 percent of the combined C&I load. That leaves a lot of headroom (~99 percent) between corporate renewables deals to date and total C&I annual electricity consumption.
With companies increasingly eyeing renewable PPAs for stable, long-term energy procurement, as well as the favorable national and international policy climate for renewable investment, the only way for the PPA market is up. But how much “up” should we expect?
2016 and beyond: How much growth for corporate renewables?
In its initial years thus far, this market has grown exponentially, in line with the pattern expected in a rising sector with falling technology costs and substantial public support. After this initial spur, we might see another few years of exponential growth: the momentum that has been created, as well as the PTC/ITC extension, are going to sustain this trend. But thereafter, expect to see a more-sustained period of linear growth as the market matures and more companies satisfy their renewables goals.
The BRC and its partners—including the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles—have set a target of 60 GW of additional renewable capacity in the U.S. through corporations, to be reached between 2025 and 2030. Achieving this target requires around 4–5 GW/year of additional capacity. We believe a growth rate of 10 GW/year beyond 2020 could be possible, more than doubling the 60 GW target by 2030.
Naturally, there are obstacles to overcome when it comes to corporate procurement, including price risk allocation, uncertainties over a range of compliance issues from accounting to financial regulation, and political risk given the current patchwork of state regulation. For this market to thrive, there is still a significant way to go.
But there is also a lot that can be done in the way of promoting the existence of great opportunities. Markets have a tremendously resilient feature: when demand is there, supply will find its way, leading to growth. And with corporate renewables, have no doubt: demand is there. Even so, this is not going to be achieved without effort. Corporations need to hear and understand the message that renewables in the wholesale market are now business as usual and make good business sense. And every CFO must ask for a renewable deal, not because others are doing it, but because it is simply a form of resource risk mitigation. But more than this needs to happen in order to keep growth linear for the longest possible time.
Five Ways to Sustain the Corporate Renewables Market
1. Recruit the sector next door
Every sector should participate. Energy is a resource that needs to be managed. Electricity prices simply reflect commodity volatility, and management of volatility over 10- to 30-year cycles is important for any company to understand. 2015 was the year of IT companies signing PPA deals to power their data centers, including Yahoo, Equinix, Google, Salesforce, Amazon, Facebook, and Hewlett Packard. Also very notable was the emergence of manufacturers into the PPA market, with both General Motors and Procter & Gamble signing their first renewable deals. Owens Corning was the largest industrial transaction in 2015, with Dow and Corning also adding to the mix. But other sectors are yet to join, with first-mover advantages especially in banking, defense (Lockheed Martin became the first earlier this year), paper, cement, and mining as outstanding sectors in which renewable electricity supply at stable, long-term prices should prove a long-term value chain winner.
2. First-timers need to go for seconds
The BRC tracks closely those companies that have signed deals and the unanimous consensus so far has been that a knowledge advantage of the PPA exists. Having undergone the process to negotiate the first one, nothing should prevent these companies from signing more of these type of deals—and easier and faster. In 2015, Google alone signed three renewable PPAs in a row. Salesforce followed its first-ever PPA in December with a second deal just one month later. How many will follow the same pattern?
Leaders who signed deals early enjoy a knowledge advantage that makes them capable of acting much faster on their subsequent deals. For instance, Microsoft acted on its second deal in a fraction of the time it took for the first one to go through. We are hearing from service providers that Q1 2016 continues to show promising activity, and we are hearing from corporate buyers that the expertise acquired in signing the first deal will significantly reduce negotiation times for the second one.
3. Get more first-timers
Last year, first-timers accounted for two-thirds of announced deals. That’s great progress. But there’s room for far more. According to the report Power Forward 2.0, 43 percent of the Fortune 500 (200+) have clean energy or climate targets. Repeat buyers such as Google, which has committed to sourcing 100 percent of its energy requirements from renewables, are part of the equation. But growing further beyond the 26 companies who’ve done deals to date must be an equal if not bigger focus.
4. Expand the spectrum of corporates that would benefit from a PPA
So far Fortune 500 companies have signed most PPAs (though a few others, such as BRC member Steelcase, have entered the mix too with deals). That’s because it takes some size to absorb tens of MW of energy capacity. But increasingly we see intermediaries who are willing to play the role of break-bulk in between developers and buyers. For instance, BRC sponsor Bank of America Merrill Lynch has now come to the market and performed aggregation deals, offering PPAs that are smaller in size. Beyond that, energy trading desks will be able to customize blocks of PPAs to smaller deals, smaller tenures, and other options to outsource some key risks.
This is a clear indicator of market maturation, and one of the most interesting features of 2016 is precisely how financiers want more corporate participation, and the willingness of the investor community interested in the corporate demand pull.
5. Make the market transparent
A variety of indicators demonstrate the early movement towards market maturation, but the hallmark of market maturation is transparency. BRC is focused on creating visibility to supply as well as demand for corporate renewable electricity, and the BRC Marketplace has launched to ensure market participants can see the pipeline of potential projects in front of them. For this platform, we imagine a landscape of choices that will include more than 60 GW of options for buyers to choose from. This would enable a market where a baseline understanding of projects become ubiquitous, and in which relatively new players should not fear informational asymmetry.
Corporations have decidedly moved in on the renewables market, and they’re here to stay. The questions remain: How much appetite do they have? And how long will it last? The answers appear to be: “a lot” and “quite a while.” Especially if all market actors take the right steps to sustain corporate renewables’ impressive growth to date.
Photo courtesy of David Clarke via Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).