For years, low-cost 'solar plus battery' systems were seen as a distant possibility at best, a fringe technology not likely to be a threat to mainstream electricity delivery any time soon.
By far, the limiting factor has been battery costs. But thanks to a confluence of factors playing out across the energy industry, the reality is that affordable battery storage is coming much sooner than most people realise.
That approaching day of cheaper battery storage, when combined with solar PV, has the potential to fundamentally alter the electricity landscape.
While grid-tied solar has seen dramatic recent cost declines, until recently, 'solar plus battery' systems have not been considered economically viable. However, concurrent declining costs of batteries, growing maturity of 'solar plus battery' systems, and increasing adoption rates for these technologies are changing that. Recent media coverage, market analysis, and industry discussions – including the Edison Electric Institute’s January 2013 Disruptive Challenges – have gone so far as to suggest that low-cost 'solar plus battery' systems could one day enable customers to cut the cord with their utility and go from grid connected to grid defected.
But while more and more people are discussing 'solar plus battery' systems as a potential option at some point in the distant future, there has been a scarcity of detailed analysis to quantify when and where. Until now.
The economics of grid defection
Today, Rocky Mountain Institute, HOMER Energy, and CohnReznick Think Energy released The Economics of Grid Defection: When and where distributed solar generation plus storage competes with traditional utility service. Seeking to illustrate where grid parity will happen both first and last, the report considers five representative US geographies (New York, Kentucky, Texas, California, and Hawaii). These geographies cover a range of solar resource potential, retail utility electricity prices, and solar PV penetration rates, considered across both commercial and residential regionally-specific load profiles.
The report analyses four possible scenarios: a more conservative base case plus more aggressive cases that consider technology improvements with accelerated cost declines, investments in energy efficiency coupled with load management, and the combination of technology-driven cost declines, energy efficiency, and load management. Even our base case results are compelling, but the combined improvements scenario is especially so, since efficiency and load management reduce the required size of the system while technology improvements reduce the cost of that system, compounding cost declines and greatly accelerating grid parity.
The results of the report show:
The results are profound, especially in geographies like the US southwest. In this region of the country, the conservative base case shows 'solar plus battery' systems undercutting utility retail electricity prices for the most expensive one-fifth of load served in the year 2024; under the more aggressive assumptions, off-grid systems prove cheaper than all utility-sold electricity in the region just a decade out from today (see Figure ES3 below).
A call to action
Millions of customers representing billions of dollars in utility revenues will find themselves in a position to cost-effectively defect from the grid if they so choose. The so-called utility death spiral is proving not just a hypothetical threat, but a real, near, and present one. The coming grid parity of 'solar plus battery' systems in the foreseeable future, among other factors, signals the eventual demise of legacy utility business models.
Though utilities could and should see this as a threat, they can also see 'solar plus battery' systems as an opportunity to add value to the grid and their business models. The United States’ electric grid is on the cusp of a great transformation, and the future of the grid need not be an either/or between central and distributed generation. It can and should be a network that combines the best of both.
Having determined when and where grid parity will happen, the important next question is how utilities, regulators, technology providers, and customers might work together to reshape the market – either within existing regulatory frameworks or under an evolved regulatory landscape – to tap into and maximise new sources of value that build the best electricity system of the future the delivers value and affordability to customers and society. These disruptive opportunities are the subject of ongoing work by the authors, covered in a forthcoming report to follow soon.
Originally published on the Rocky Mountain Institute blog. Reproduced with permission.