Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Technology Substitution Requires Forward Thinking

Several weeks ago I wrote about some of the basic considerations in evaluating technology trends. (see here and here),  In those posts I discussed some of the dynamics of technological advance and offer some initial guidance to get you started in technology trend analysis.

One of the points I emphasized in those columns is that it is imperative to assess the performance of technologies, not at their present level of performance but at where they will be in the future.  Similarly, when evaluating the substitution of an incumbent technology by an emerging one, we make the case that it is less important to compare the present performance of the two technologies than their future potential.

To illustrate this dynamic, the figure below shows two technology s-curves – one for an incumbent technology and the other for an emerging technology destined to eventually replace it.  On the y-axis we plot some relevant performance measure of the technologies in question.  Note that this is not sales or market share but rather some performance parameter of interest.  For example, in computing it could be the clock speed of a chip (as was done for the original Moore’s Law) or the storage density of disk drives.  In the energy arena, we may track the energy conversion efficiency of solar photovoltaic cells, the heat rate of thermal generators (either fossil or biomass), or the efficiency of wind turbines. 

Note that, in the figure, the new technology begins life at a lower level of performance than the incumbent technology.  This phenomenon, which is all too common, often leads one to mistakenly dismiss the emerging technology as inferior to the incumbent.  But, in fact, those who do are asking the wrong question.  Rather, it is important to look at the potential of the new technology to surpass the performance of the incumbent which occurs at the cross over point shown in the schematic.  Equally important is the difference in performance limits of the two technologies, for if the difference is sufficient, the new technology will sustain its inexorable march to overtake the incumbent. 

Even if we do not have sufficient data to plot precisely where we are on the s-curve, it is crucial to know whether the technology is just beginning its upward trajectory or is nearing its performance limit. This is well demonstrated in a recent Washington Post article describing a prototype US Navy laser weapon system which quotes one naval analyst: “’Naval guns are near the theoretical limit of their performance envelope now,’ [he] said. ‘We can only expect very minor improvements in the future, whereas with lasers we can expect significant improvements in range, lethality, and accuracy.’"

Laser weapon on the USS Ponce

Were we plotting the s-curves for naval combat systems, as the quote implies, we might employ range, lethality, and accuracy as the performance metrics of merit.  In this case, even without quantitative data on these measures, it is apparent that this new weapons technology holds great promise to overtake existing systems and substitute for conventional weapons technology.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Surprising PUC Decision in Colorado Solar Case

Back in May, I wrote in Solar Industry Magazine about Xcel Energy’s application to the Colorado PUC to implement a solar-based green pricing program called Solar*Connect.  This proposal was of great concern to both the solar industry and consumers for a number of reasons – the industry because it represented a direct competitor to net metering and community solar offerings and ratepayers because they were being asked to subsidize a program that would primarily benefit the utility.

This proceeding drew many intervenors including several from the solar industry.  Not one of them – not the industry, environmental groups, consumer groups, or the PUC staff – supported the proposal.  A few of them suggested modifications to the proposal, more I think to avoid being labeled as anti-solar than because they thought the proposal had any merit.

 Solar Industry Magazine

This proceeding was as contentious as any that I have seen recently at the PUC.  In November there was a four-day hearing presided over by the full Commission which gives some indication of the importance of the policy issues raised by this proposal.  This afternoon, the Commission deliberated on the proposal and issued its decision.  Certain that this would be a long deliberation because of the myriad policy issues at play, I settled in, notepad in hand.  Much to my surprise, it was over before I even got comfortable.

Months of testimony and competing motions followed by four days of hearings settled in a 10-minute deliberation!  As is typical, a member of the Commission’s advisory staff set the stage and then gave his simple recommendation – deny the application.  In providing their recommendation, commission advisors cited:
  1. no need by the utility for the solar RECS (which incidentally the utility planned to keep even though subscribers would be paying more for them) for compliance with the renewable standard,
  2. no need for the capacity provided by the proposed 50 MW facility,
  3. no need for the energy that would be produced from the system,
  4. no consumer demand shown for the program, and
  5. concerns with it being subsidized by general class of ratepayers.

In agreeing with the recommendation, the three commissioners each expressed somewhat different rationales for denying the application (in addition to the above) including:
  1. unspecified profit by the utility,
  2. revised testimony during the hearing which left it unclear just what the utility was proposing,
  3. such proposals should be included in the 2015 ERP filing rather than filed separately (an issue that the Chairman was most adamant about), and
  4. the application was premature given that the Commission has yet to rule on its net metering policy in a separate docket.

With the denial, the Commission never discussed any of the proposed modifications or the concerns about whether such a program was legal under Colorado statutes leaving unanswered many underlying issues.  As usual, we'll have to wait for the written decision but I'll be surprised if there is much more in it than what we heard during the deliberation.

UPDATE 17 DEC 2014: The written decision from the PUC came out today and is available for download here.  Notably, in addition to denying the utility's program, the Commission also placed 100% of the risk for the so-called "start-up energy," which the utility contracted for after its request for an early RFP was denied, solely on Xcel.