AWEA 2015: Utilities no longer rule roost


May 25, 2015

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Remember those days when utilities used to rule the roost? Especially so when supplying power to energy-intensive corporations, technology plants and data centre operators?

Such days are long gone and, if anything, the power balance has shifted the other way. As the percentage of power purchase deals controlled by major corporations increases, one can’t help but think it is energy-hungry corporations, not utilities, that are in charge.

Take Google. The business is at the front of our thoughts following the participation of the firm’s head of renewable energy investment, Nicolas Coons, at our invitation-only Global Networking Reception as AWEA 2015 last week, sponsored by Vaisala.

When it comes to renewable energy investment, Google’s strategy is pretty unique. Unlike its peers, the tech giant has chosen to take a more active role in its investments. It has built a portfolio by taking strategic sites at a relatively early stage in the development cycle, typically pre-construction.

By then focusing on how it can use its own technological expertise to boost the project’s future performance — and setting a minimum project investment threshold of around $75m-$80m — the internet giant has pursued a strategy that enables it to trade the energy produced by its projects, while consolidating the financial risk.

This has enabled the firm to move fast, when combined with its wider interest in bringing new technological innovation to the market within the wider renewable energy space.

The net result of this is that Google has pulled off the neat trick of producing power to help balance out that used by its data centres, while at the same time introducing new and relatively unproven technology to the market. The Makani wind kite project is a case in point. Google bought Makani in 2013, and last month started test flights for the kites.

But that’s not all. It gets even more interesting when you consider the diverse patchwork of strategies now being pursued by the many corporations that are active in this space. We are not seeing other online giants pursuing new wind tech investments to the same extent as Google, for example, but we are seeing a general focus on improving performance.

This can only be to the industry’s benefit.

As more corporate investors put their faith and money into renewables then that is likely to drive improvements in the operational performance at established sites, and some highly optimised fleets. Such improvements are vital as the wind sector looks to make a strong commercial case, particularly as established markets are reducing subsidies. In fact, such improvements can be the difference between whether some new schemes happen or not.

How different corporates improve their portfolios is, of course, up to them. Google has a focus on new technology, while others are looking at forecasting and modelling, financial hedging, and so no.

Make no mistake, though. While there are individual strategies, and early investment drivers may vary, one thing will remain constant. Namely, an incessant drive towards greater optimisation and utilisation as their focus on the bottom line only grows.

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