Once in a Lifetime: Enabling Technology Risk in the Power Industry
Newcomers to the power industry are often staggered by the sums of money involved.
For example, US$500,000,000 – half a billion dollars – buys a medium-sized combined-cycle gas plant. Not big, just medium. And it gets worse: that same half billion would buy a relatively small solid fuel plant, especially if you use the latest higher temperature, lower pollution combustion technologies. And carbon capture? Nuclear? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.
And renewable energy plants at that same utility-scale? Start multiplying.
The recent global enthusiasm for renewable energy has led to countless government programs around the world, aimed primarily at subsidizing the gap between fossil and renewable power. But despite the resulting proliferation of renewable plants, the two keys to truly widespread adoption, capital cost and baseload capability, remain stubbornly high and stubbornly low, respectively.
And even for all those dollars, it’s old technology. For example, modern concentrated solar thermal (a.k.a. CSP) technology goes back at least to the SEGS plants in California, the oldest of which celebrates its 26th birthday this year. Wind technology, for its part, has improved quite a bit over the years but would still look pretty familiar to Danish pioneer Poul la Cour, who invented the power producing windmill in the 1890s. Not the 1990s, the 1890s: when the automobile first hit the roads in large numbers, self-propelled human aviation was still a dream, and spats were still an essential part of a man’s wardrobe.
That’s the second surprise to newcomers to the power industry: a general apprehension of technology risk that appears extreme – even irrational – to venture capitalists and other technology investors weaned on internet start-ups, mobile telephony, and the like.
Unfortunately it is neither extreme nor irrational, but a logical by-product of the nature of electricity as a product and its role in society. The lights and the machines that drive our economies simply must stay on: the availability of power supply and the reliability of that supply, from the generator through the transmission lines and substations to the distribution systems have been and will continue to be paramount. This is compounded by the long economic lives of these very costly assets – any mistakes will be around for decades.
So the industry (and the independent power producers and utilities which are its focal point, the lenders which finance them, the regulators which closely oversee the utilities and the politicians who appoint the regulators) is mandated to take as much risk out of the system as possible. There is no upside to the utility, either as a generator itself or as a customer of the IPPs, only downside for the careers of the utility decision-makers and the returns for the utility shareholders if it doesn’t perform as expected. So out goes technology risk.
That’s rational but, in the current environment, inadequate. The industry has a historic opportunity to deploy renewable energy on a multi-gigawatt, global basis. This opportunity will not last forever – no opportunity does – and it is incumbent on the industry to deploy the most advanced, most efficient renewable energy generation technologies possible, even if that means taking some technology risk. Not cold fusion or perpetual motion, but bringing well-engineered new technologies – the latest solar thermal mirrors and receiver tubes; wind turbines and platforms; new storage technologies – into proven systems.
Remember: these are long-lived assets and will be around for decades to come. We have the opportunity of a lifetime: let’s not make the mistake of deploying less than our best.
How can we make this happen?
At the macro (and therefore simplified) level, it starts with the “food chain” identified above: political leaders need to provide a clear, technology-driven mandate to the regulators, which in turn can drive utility (and with it, IPP) decision-making on incorporating well-engineered new technologies into new renewable energy generation capacity. As this new mandate drives technology-friendly terms in power purchase agreements (and the corresponding regulatory prudency reviews), the financial community should find new comfort in lending to these projects. And so on.
That said, we’d like to hear from the industry at-large on this question: what needs to happen from a venture capital / project finance / cultural / environmental / public relations / commercial / regulatory / siting / insurance / engineering / technology innovation / (you-name-it) perspective to deploy the most advanced, most efficient renewable energy generation technologies possible while the opportunity is at-hand?
We look forward to hearing from you.
Lincoln E. Bleveans is the Chief Executive Officer of Hullspeed Energy Development & Finance, a global developer of energy projects.
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