Infrastructure in 2020: ten predictions
1. Wind and solar keep growing.
Growth in global renewable energy investment in 2018 and 2019 has been akin to the Sherlock Holmes tale of the curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark – there hasn’t been any. After a down year in 2018, global renewable energy investment stayed essentially flat at $282B in 2019, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (though still more than double BNEF’s estimate of investment in fossil fuel-based generation). Look for numbers to head back up in 2020, on the back of renewables’ cost advantages. In the US, the EIA forecast last week that wind and solar will make up three-quarters of new capacity additions in 2020, breaking previous records of annual capacity additions. The big variable for the coming year will be the largest renewable market in the world, China. The missing global renewable growth would have been there in 2018 and 2019 were it not for declines in China, whose $83B 2019 investment level was down for a second straight year, primarily in solar which is down 2/3 since its 2017 peak. As China transitions away from its Feed-in-Tariff mechanism for domestic solar generation towards competitive auctions, Infrastructure Ideas expects prices for new capacity to tumble, as they have everywhere else that auctions have taken hold, and growth in solar installations to resume in response. For Emerging Markets other than China and India, wind and solar investment rose 22% to a record $47.5 billion. In 2020, look for $300B in investment, a record 200 GW in new wind and solar capacity, and renewables as a share of net new generating capacity added worldwide to cross 70% for this first time.
2. Offshore wind is the new big thing
It looked like a curiosity for many years, but offshore wind is now breaking into the mainstream of electricity generation. Only five years ago, offered prices for offshore tended around $0.15-0.20 a kilowatt-hour, well-above the price for competing sources. But larger and more efficient turbines, bigger projects, access to better offshore wind resources, and more developed supply chains have been driving prices down. In September 2019, the UK saw bids for offshore generation at under $0.05/KwH, and now offshore is able to compete without subsidies in many markets. Bloomberg reports offshore wind financings in 2019 came close to a whopping $30 billion. Tenders are planned in many countries, and are spreading beyond initial markets of Europe, the US and China. Vietnam is looking at what could become the world’s largest offshore wind farm with a capacity of 3,400 MW. Look for many offshore wind headlines in 2020.
3. Challenges mount for power grids and utilities
Grid operators will continue to see a ramp-up of challenges associated with the energy transition in 2020. In developed markets, these challenges include continued switching to lower-cost generation sources, transmission, integrating storage, and integrating growing numbers of electric vehicles. The average EV traveling 100 miles uses as much power as the average US home does daily. California projects that EV’s will use over 5% of the state’s generation capacity by 2030. In developing markets with technically weaker grids, dealing with intermittency will be a bigger challenge, as well as integrating distributed generation and storage. Emerging Market cities may also create new demands as they start adopting electric buses in large volumes, the way we’ve seen in China. Large EV bus fleets will put significant pressure on charging infrastructure resources, while also offering potential storage solutions for urban utilities, especially as Vehicle-to-grid technology, or V2G, becomes more available. Look in 2020 for larger transmission investments in developed markets, and increasing concern in Emerging Markets – particularly those with state-owned grids – about how to modernize grids.
4. Non-lithium batteries get serious
As recently headlined in the Economist, Generating clean power is now relatively straightforward. Storing it is far trickier. Total investment in storage in 2019 came to around $5B, 99% in lithium-ion batteries. While this has been a major success, grids will need complements to lithium-ion technology soon. Though the cost of lithium-ion batteries is falling quickly, longer-term storage is likely beyond its practical capacity. Capacity to keep growing with solar and wind is also a question: the Institute for Sustainable Futures states that a world run fully on renewables would require 280% of the world’s lithium reserves, while concerns over sustainable sourcing of cobalt remain. Companies focused on longer-duration storage alternatives saw a major influx of investment in 2019, led by Energy Vault $110 million funding round, the single largest equity investment in a stationary storage company, according to Wood Mackenzie. Highview Power signed the first liquid air storage offtake deal, for 50MW in Vermont in December 2019. While 2020 project announcements with non-lithium batteries will remain small, look for them to make big headlines. And look for them to spread faster into smaller, low-income developing countries. The economics are more favorable in remote or island grids, where imported diesel creates a much-easier benchmark for storage to beat on price. Canada’s e-Zn targets remote communities that stand to benefit by offsetting diesel generator usage. NantEnergy, using zinc-air batteries has installed some 3,000 microgrids.
5. Green House Gas emissions: alarm keeps climbing, but no global agreements yet
One of our safest predictions. New studies and projections will continue to show climate change having a larger impact sooner than their predecessors. And politics, centered but not limited to the US, will again prevent significant concerted action to reduce emissions. The 2019 Madrid Summit was a glaring display of the stand-off. The only possible change for even 2021 here is the November election in the US.
6. Emissions-free city zones multiply
Though no global climate agreements are on the horizon, there is much climate policy activity at the local and national level: one big example is emissions-free city zones. This month, Barcelona opened southern Europe’s biggest low-emissions zone, covering the entire metropolitan area. Petrol-driven cars bought before 2000 and diesels older than 2006 are banned and face fines of up to €500 each time they enter the zone, which is monitored by 150 cameras. The new Spanish government is said to be planning low emission zones for all towns with over 50,000 residents. Whether driven by national or municipal authorities, we can expect to see such initiatives multiply rapidly, driven both by concerns over global climate inaction and over local air quality. Such zones now create opportunities for carmakers, though one can also expect to see EVs increasingly favored by such mandates, tilting the new opportunities towards EVs – and providers of EV infrastructure.
7. Unilateral “100% renewables” commitments multiply
Between frustration at the lack of global progress on reducing emissions, and the prospect of increasingly cost-competitive renewables and storage resources, a growing number of US states and utilities are setting targets for reliance on 100% clean energy. Thirteen US states, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have now set 100% clean energy targets. Another four large states have announced plans to do so. Half-a-dozen large private-sector utilities have also committed to 100% clean energy targets, including famously coal-intensive Duke Energy. These mandates will continue to open new opportunities for renewable energy and storage providers, and importantly will likely offer less price-sensitive demand for longer-duration storage providers. The mandates will also start to impinge increasingly on natural gas demand for generation, and risk beginning to strand fossil-fuel generation capacity ahead of technical end-of-life timetables.
8. Financing premiums appear for climate risks
A big piece of news in the finance world last week was Blackrock’s announcement it would put in place a coal-exclusion policy. But even with Blackrock’s heft — it is the world’s largest investor in coal – this by itself is not a huge game-changer: not much new coal is going up in Blackrock’s geographies. Expect the bigger news in 2020 for infrastructure financing to instead be the appearance of the higher financial costs related to climate risks. In many ways it is shocking this has not happened yet, though a good piece of reporting from the New York Times last September pointed a finger at a big reason for the US. The Times reported that US banks are shielding themselves from climate change at taxpayers’ expense by shifting riskier mortgages — such as those in coastal areas — off their books and over to the federal government. Regulations governing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do not let them factor the added risk from natural disasters into their pricing, which means banks can offload mortgages in vulnerable areas without financial penalty. That cannot last without soon bankrupting the two biggest pieces of the US mortgage system (although it would be consistent for the Trump administration to prefer that option). The broader insurance industry is also suffering. According to Swiss Re, 2017 and 2018 were for insurers the most-expensive two-year period of natural catastrophes on record, most of them related to global warming. 2018’s most expensive insurance payout anywhere in the world was for the California Camp Fire. Fortune noted that new research shows that the wildfires of 2017 and 2018 alone wiped out a full quarter-century of the insurance industry’s profits. Unlike Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, private insurance companies can react, and they will have to charge more to stay afloat. Expect 2020 to be the year that insurance prices begin to factor in climate-related catastrophe risks in a big way, and for that to begin flowing through to financing costs.
9. Delivery vehicles become the new EV focus
Electric car and bus sales volumes continue to grow, but expect electric vans to get a lot of the attention in 2020. Already in September 2019, Amazon placed a massive order for over 100,000 electric delivery vans – worth about $6B. The continued rocketing growth of the e-commerce delivery business, and the frequent use of diesel vehicles for delivery, make for an attractive and fast-growing market for electric vans. As noted by Wired, urban deliveries don’t require all that much range. Routes are predictable and plannable, and because the vehicles return at the end of every shift to a depot, recharging them is a breeze. Add the concerns of many cities about transport emissions, as noted above, and the attraction of the new market segment is easy to see. Now 2020 has started with a $110 million investment for Arrival, a UK start-up making electric delivery vans, from the combination of Hyundai and Kia. Arrival promises that its vehicles will be cheaper than their traditional, diesel-powered competitors, even without further declines in battery prices. Interestingly Arrival’s business model will also facilitate more rapid expansion to Emerging Markets than for makers of other EVs. Rather than building a huge new production plant, Arrival will work from “microfactories” that make only 10,000 or so vehicles a year, but sit closer to where their customers are, and making geographic expansion simple. Look for major changes in the logistics business in emerging country cities to flow from this soon.
10. More alarms over hacking of infrastructure
Many new opportunities are opening for infrastructure investment. Yet risks are growing as well. The hacking of Ukrainian energy company Burisma late in 2019 by the Russian military was clearly politically motivated. Hacking capabilities continue to grow far faster than defenses. Look for more widely-publicized attacks on infrastructure assets in 2020.