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The Economics of Grid Defection

Distributed electricity generation, especially solar PV, is rapidly spreading and getting much cheaper. Distributed electricity storage is doing the same, thanks largely to mass production of batteries for electric vehicles. Solar power is already starting to erode some utilities’ sales and revenues.

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But what happens when solar and batteries join forces? Together they can make the electric grid optional for many customers—without compromising reliability and increasingly at prices cheaper than utility retail electricity. Equipped with a solar-plus-battery system, customers can take or leave traditional utility service with what amounts to a “utility in a box.”

This “utility in a box” represents a fundamentally different challenge for utilities. Whereas other technologies, including solar PV and other distributed resources without storage, net metering, and energy efficiency still require some degree of grid dependence, solar-plus-batteries enable customers to cut the cord to their utility entirely.

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This first installment of two reports outlines the possible scenarios in five different U.S. regions—Hawaii, California, Kentucky, Texas and New York—and identifies when solar PV and storage combinations could disrupt existing utility business models. The continuing decline of solar PV and battery storage costs, coupled with increasing retail electricity prices, has resulted in grid parity today for commercial customers in Hawaii. The most optimistic projections, based on certain solar and efficiency targets being met, depict grid parity for millions of residential and commercial customers in New York and California within this decade.

Key Takeaways

  • A considerable number of utility customers will likely see favorable defection economics within 10 years
  • Utilities will likely experience significant revenue decay before defection
  • The likelihood of favorable long-term customer defection signals the eventual demise of traditional utility regulatory models

Though many utilities rightly see the impending arrival of solar-plus-battery grid parity as a threat, they could also see such systems as an opportunity to add value to the grid and their business models. The important next question is how utilities might adjust their existing business models or adopt new business models—either within existing regulatory frameworks or under an evolved regulatory landscape—to tap into and maximize new sources of value that build the best electricity system of the future at lowest cost to serve customers and society.

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