Thursday, October 24, 2013

TEPCO Procurement Reform

TEPCO has indicated that it plans to dramatically reform its procurement methods.  It will expand by a factor of 4 -- from 15% to 60% -- the portion of its material and construction purchasing that is subject to competitive bidding, and open the bidding process to further participants rather than the "usual suspects" approach where relationships are favored over pricing.

According to Nikkei, TEPCO's annual outside purchasing is approximately $20 billion per year.  It expects to save $1 billion in annual costs once the new structure is in place, over the next 2 fiscal years.

This decision was forced upon TEPCO by its current financial predicament, its government ownership, negotiation with its banks and delays in its nuclear restart.  In the absence of such extraordinary factors, TEPCO would not have done it -- since the entire "mura" derives great benefits from the money that leaks out to affiliates, subcontractors, former employees/directors and other friends ...  But the system is one reason why Japanese electricity is so expensive, and why it costs 2X or 3X for TEPCO to do something as compared to the cost in Europe or the U.S.  The consumers are the victims; the system is not transparent, intentionally.  But TEPCO's current crisis is forcing change.

The big question now is will the utilities will take similar measures?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

First Nippon Paper, now Oji Paper to enter retail electricity sale business

We recently noted Nippon Paper's plans to sell electricity at the retail level.  Now Oji Holdings, a competitor, has announced similar plans.  These companies each have generation for self-consumption, and they may have excess capacity available as the paper industry has reduced production and consolidated.  Plus, they have access to feedstock for biomass, given their relationship with the wood products suppliers and the waste material from their paper businesses.

In addition to its current facilities, Oji Holdings plans a 30 billion yen ($300 million) investment in new hydro and biomass generation in 4 locations.  

It forecasts annual sales to third parties of 1.1 billion kWh, which would place it 4th among competitive electricity suppliers after NTT/Tokyo Gas-backed Enet, F-Power, and JX Nikko Nisseki Energy.

Nippon Paper, on the other hand, is building a new gas-fired plant, in addition to numerous existing power facilities.  JX Nikko Nisseki is planning a new generating facility which can utilize as fuel various waste products from a refinery.  Tokyo Gas also is planning to increase its electric generating capacity in anticipation of liberalized retail competition.

Yaskawa Electric profits to increase 2.3X -- 10kW solar inverters help out

I happened to see a note that Yaskawa Electric's forecast net profit for the year ending March 2014 is now 15.5 billion yen, up from an earlier forecast of 12 billion yen and 2.3 times the profit for the prior year.   On the same day, the company announced its actual results for the half year ended September 2013.  Profits more than doubled, to 7.1 billion yen, ... with the primary driver being increased sales of solar PV "power conditioners" as they are known in Japan (referred to as inverters in most markets, since they function to convert power from DC into AC).

Yaskawa makes a wide range of products, and has leading market share in the 10kW solar PV inverter class in Japan.  These "string inverters" are in great demand under the FiT, with few foreign competitors and not much interest from the Hitachi's and TMEIC's of the world either.  In 2012 Yaskawa had over 30% of the Japanese market in 10kW-class inverters,  while Shindengen had another approximately 25%, and Sanyo Electric (not the same "Sanyo" as was acquired by Panasonic in recent years) and GS Yuasa (famous for its batteries) each had under 10%. 

Unfortunately, these 10kW inverters are rated as much lower efficiency than their European counterparts, so the area cries out for new entrants.  Fuji, Hitachi and TMEIC 500kW and larger central inverters are competitive products with those of SMA, Power One or ABB.  So why does an SMA 10kW inverter sold in Europe show a conversion efficiency around 98%, while a Yaskawa 10kW inverter in Japan has a 94% conversion efficiency or lower?  True, the measurement standards are different, but there must be some other reason.  

Is it that the Japanese products are inferior, but foreign products have been kept out by protracted qualification requirements with utilities or for JET certification?  Will the Japanese products improve, as they have in other areas when foreign competition is presented?  Is there some other reason?  Please, if you know, offer a comment.  I find it difficult to understand.

Renewables Inbound Investment into Japan

Japan has the lowest level of inbound foreign direct investment of any major economy.  It is a very attractive market, but also a difficult one, given language and cultural barriers, high costs and long lead times to get established.  And in many industries, Japan's slow economic growth, aging (and, as of now, shrinking) population, have made domestic markets challenging even for Japanese companies, let alone foreign new entrants.

So it was heartening to read the lead story in Saturday's Nikkei Shimbun touting 700 billion yen ($7 billion) in planned foreign investment in renewable energy, triggered by the Japanese feed-in-tariff that has been in place from July of 2012.  The story highlighted a number of different plans from different origins:

1. Australia - Macquarie plan to invest 100 billion yen in solar and wind projects (primarily lease-type financing, I believe).
2. China - GCL Poly Energy targeting 100 billion yen in solar -- both equipment supply and ownership.
3. USA - Goldman Sachs plan to invest 300 billion yen in solar and wind renewables projects over 5 years (primarily third party debt, I believe, with the equity investment much lower).
4. Germany - Photovolt Development Partners (PVDP) of Berlin plan for 90 billion yen of solar projects.  (PVDP is a little known developer in Germany that has announced a number of huge projects in Japan, none of which has yet to enter construction).
5. Spain - Gestamp Solar plan for 90 billion yen of solar projects over 3 years.
6. Korea - Hanwha Q-Cells plan to invest 30 billion yen in 2013.

The articles notes that as growth slows for renewables in Europe, Japan has become seen as a very attractive market.  Indeed, the feed-in-tariff presents a rare opportunity for foreign investment into Japan, and is one of those rare opportunities for a business to establish a position in the Japanese market in an industry that should be very interesting over the coming decade or more.

The article ends on a mixed note, however, suggesting worries about a solar PV "bubble" in Japan, with comments on the high purchase price under the feed-in-tariff (FIT) for solar PV, even though it was reduced by 10% from the first to second year of the FIT; the fact that consumers will pay a surcharge on their electric bill for renewables; and noting the perceived problems with excess renewable supplies in Germany (after 10 years of a FIT that has resulted in many, many times the installation of solar PV and wind that is likely in Japan over the next few years).

Of course, without the initial generous FIT, Japan would never have "jump started" its renewables businesses in 2012, and never would have attracted such ambitious foreign investment plans.  Foreign investment in renewables is essential to modernize the Japanese project development business.

Japanese construction companies look at the FIT as a way to make a killing -- taking a fat margin when their other businesses are suffering.  Foreign developers, on the other hand, want to implement projects at as low a cost as possible.  This is a matter of self interest, of course, to maximize profit.  But it is also a process of transferring know-how, and of generating the cost data that will show, indeed, it is possible to do renewables projects in Japan at a price somewhere in between the "domestic" price level and the "international" price level.  Without foreign entrants, Japan's renewables business would have remained stranded in a world full of uncompetitive and anticompetitive practices, dominated by the incumbent utilities and the major construction companies and domestic equipment suppliers.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Chubu Electric Invades the TEPCO Region; Others to Follow

Chubu Electric recently acquired Mitsubishi Corporation's Diamond Power subsidiary and began selling power in the Kanto region -- on TEPCO's home turf -- effective October 1, 2013.  Kansai Electric plans to start selling power in the TEPCO region from Spring of 2014.  Thus, the gentlemen's understanding that the big regional utilities not compete in each other's home turf ... is broken.  Pandora's box is opened.  Or as Nikkei quoted a Hitotsubashi University Professor, Chubu Electric has "crossed the Rubicon."

On the first day of operation as a Chubu Electric affiliate, 48 wholesale customers switched from TEPCO to Diamond Power.

Chubu Electric has only a 10% reliance upon nuclear generation, and so will face less of a nuclear "ball and chain" than the other utilities.  Further, its service area is adjacent to Tokyo geographically.  And it has already announced plans for 2 large thermal generating plants in the TEPCO region, one in eastern Shizuoka with Mitsubishi Corporation and Nippon Paper, and the other in Ibaraki with TEPCO.   On the other hand, Chubu Electric's home region is just over the dividing line in 60 Hz West Japan, so it cannot readily sell power into the 50 Hz TEPCO region in large volume.

Will competition spread to other parts of Japan, or will the gentlemens' agreement survive elsewhere?

If this is really TEPCO vs the rest of the utilities, then why wouldn't a restructured TEPCO eventually attempt to sell power in other areas of Japan?

Why doesn't Chubu Electric launch a business in Kansai Electric's home territory?  Kansai Electric has the HIGHEST degree of nuclear dependence among the major utilities, its territory is also adjacent (to the west) of Chubu, and there is no 50 Hz/60 Hz problem.

Time will tell.

Beyond Lithium Ion Batteries - Multivalent Ion Batteries?

One of the key issues to a transition toward distributed generation based upon renewables is energy storage.  Battery technology needs to get better and cheaper.  Of course, battery technology improvements will also drive, or at least accelerate, the transition to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

So it was with interest this past week that I read an article in Nikkei regarding a symposium on battery R&D held in Kansai on the 8th and 9th of October.  The article discusses the announcement of what are claimed to be major advancements at Osaka University and Kyoto University in so-called multivalent ion batteries.

The battery uses oxide material (酸化物材料) at its positive electrode and magnesium and aluminium at its negative electrode.  The battery does not have the problems of lithium ion -- risk of becoming unstable and starting a fire, for example.  And it would have a MUCH higher energy density, such that the research teams speculate it would permit an electric vehicle with a greater range than current gasoline-powered vehicles.

The goal is that within five years these batteries would be commercialized to the point where they can be used for residential battery storage for solar PV generated power.

It goes without saying, but there are research programs as well on various new battery technologies,  including multivalent ion batteries in the U.S and elsewhere.  That said, Japan has shown real leadership in commercializing other battery technologies -- including lithium ion -- and may well get there first in the next major transition.


UPDATE:  In 2014, we have seen numerous announcements about vanadium and other redox flow batteries for on and off grid storage with renewable energy projects.  These are large systems, lacking the energy density to be used in vehicles, but for energy storage they offer the benefit of nearly unlimited cycles -- with expected lives of 10 years or more.  The costs are coming down and there are actually several products on the market.  See this later post for more.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Smart Meter Introduction -- Acceleration Needed

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, most of Japan's electric power utilities have agreed to push up the schedule for replacing customer meters with a new generation of "smart meters".

The power companies had collectively decided to roll out these meters over a leisurely schedule of 20 years.

The "growth strategy" released by the government of Prime Minister Abe in June had instead set a much more aggressive target to implement smart meters by the early 2020s.

The scheduling issue apparently came to a head at a METI Energy & Natural Resources Agency meeting in mid-September, where the utilities presented their plans, to great skepticism of other participants.  According to Yomiuri, six of the ten regional monopoly utilities have since indicated they will revisit their schedules, including TEPCO and KEPCO, the two largest in the group.

Both TEPCO and KEPCO also have apparently indicated a willingness to permit open bidding for suppliers of smart meters instead of relying upon their existing, uncompetitive "fat and happy" network of related company suppliers.

See our note last year about the Smart Meter Snafu.

UPDATE:  According to the October 28, 2013 Nikkei, TEPCO has further accelerated its schedule and will have "smart meters" installed in its entire service area by 2020.  According to the article at least one U.S. based "venture company" intends to offer demand management service starting in July of 2014.  TEPCO will start installing the meters from April 2014, and according to its former plan was aiming for 1.9 million in FY2014, 3.2 million in FY2015 and a total of 27 million by 2023.  This will be accelerated.  Kansai Electric has been faster in its roll out, but TEPCO will catch up and exceed Kansai quickly at this pace.

Renewable Energy Capacity in Japan -- up 15% in Year 1 of the Feed in Tariff

According to METI statistics released last week, the total newly installed capacity of renewable electricity generation in Japan during the first year of the feed-in-tariff (July 1 2012 to June 30 2013) amounts to 3.666 Gigawatts of capacity, a 15% increase in Japan's renewable energy generation capacity.

More than 95% of the newly installed capacity is solar PV -- no surprise given the comparative difficulty of siting, permitting and building other types of renewables in Japan.  Of the new capacity, 1.379GW is residential solar PV, and 2.12GW is commercial/utility scale, so-called "mega" solar installations.

The 3.5GW of new solar far exceeded METI's plan for 2.0GW installations.  Wind power,  on the other hand, barely shows up as a blip on the radar.  Siting of major wind farms takes a very long time in Japan, and NIMBY opposition makes it nearly impossible.

The 3.5GW of installed solar is only a small fraction of the 22GW that has been METI "certified" solar PV.  The bulk of the to-be-built projects are mega solar.  Even if many of those projects are never built due to issues with land rights, land use approvals, utility interconnection and/or financing, a portion of the 22GW will be build, and yet further project will be certified.  It should be easy to exceed 3.5GW of newly installed solar PV in Japan during July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014.

Many sources indicate that the new renewables capacity is equivalent to "3 nuclear power plants".  That is not quite accurate.  There is no technical reason that a nuclear plant with 1GW generating capacity should not operate 80% or more of the time.  The U.S. nuclear reactor "fleet" operates at higher than 85% load factor (capacity utilization).  In fact, prior to March 11, 2011, Japanese nuclear plants had a very low average load factor -- more like 60%.  Solar facilities, on the other hand, operate at or near their rating peak capacity for only a few hours a day, so have only 10-12% of the annual kWh generation of a 24x7 plant operating at full capacity.   When this discount is applied, 3.5GW of solar PV installation is closer to one half of a Japanese nuclear reactor.)

Japan Auto Fuel Efficiency to Soar

The Toyota Prius Plug in Hybrid version.  Rated at 61 kpl of gasoline (143 mpg)
Japan's auto fleet has always been very fuel efficient.  In contrast to the U.S., where cheap gas and free highways and parking are (or were) in many areas considered basic human rights, akin to the right to bear arms (guns), Japan has always had very expensive 100% imported fuel, crowded roads with high tolls and, in metropolitan areas at least, very limited parking.  For someone who lives in Tokyo, the question is not so much "which car will I get" but "do I need or want a car at all"?

And of course the Japanese manufacturers first made in-roads into the U.S. market by having a fuel economy advantage over Detroit and its big "gas guzzlers".

Of course, Japanese conditions are not so different from some parts of Europe -- expensive gas and tolls, limited parking.  But the Japanese "Galapagos" industry structure has seen the automobile market evolve in a very different way than Europe -- for example, Japan has almost no diesel passenger cars, much more like the U.S. than Europe.  Only in very recent years has Mazda implemented a "clean diesel" version of its CX-5 SUV, and Nissan its X-Trail SUV.  Volkswagen is present in the Japanese market, ... but does not try to market its diesel TDI engines.

And of course, Japan has been the leader in introducing hybrid gas/electric vehicles, with Toyota and Honda very much in the lead in commercializing these technologies.

And within the past few years, MANY new Japanese cars now feature the "idling stop", with engines turning off and restarting automatically at intersections.

Another feature of the Japanese market is the widespread role of "kei" cars -- light cars with less than 1000cc displacement engines and meeting other requirements.  They are recognizable by their yellow license plates.  The kei cars are assigned significantly lower automobile taxes -- an incentive that foreign manufacturers have often complained about, since their models do not meet the requirements, and the requirements do not relate directly to fuel economy.  Japanese car companies such as Daihatsu or Suzuki are known primarily for their kei cars.  The major companies also have a large number of choices of kei models.

And, of course, there are a few electric-only cars in Japan, notably the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MIEV.  To date these have only limited presence (range anxiety), despite efforts to implement networks of charging stations and despite the relatively short distances of average urban Japanese auto trips.

And just as in other markets, the government currently offers substantial incentives -- cash rebate, tax reduction, etc. -- for "eco cars" that meet fuel efficiency, emission and other requirements.

How far has Japan gone toward a post-modern, fuel efficient automobile fleet?

A few commonly available statistics should help:

In FY2012, approximately 40% of Toyota's Japanese passenger car sales were of hybrid gas/electric models.  For the first six months of the current fiscal year (April to September 2013) period, the top selling car models in Japan were:

1.  Toyota Aqua subcompact hybrid.  127,993 units.  Rated* at 35.4 km/L (83.26 mpg equivalent)

2.  Toyota Prius compact hybrid.  121,634 units.  Rated at 30.4 to 34.6 km/L (71.5 to 76.7 mpg)

3.  Honda N Box kei car.  110,155 units.  Rated at up to 24.2 km/L (56.9 mpg) with a small (less than 1000cc) advanced gasoline engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT).  List price from around 1.36 million yen (~$14,000).

4.  Daihatsu Move kei car.  107,591 units.  Rated at up to 29 km/L (68.2 mpg) with an advanced gasoline engine, CVT and list price between $10000 and $12500.

5.  Suzuki Wagon R kei car.  88,071 units.  Rated at 30km/L (70.5 mpg) with an advanced gasoline engine and, of course, idling stop (which kicks in when the car slows to under 13 kph).  Suzuki also heavily promotes its regenerative braking -- the car battery is charged largely by recapture of braking forces.  Even without a hybrid powertrain, mileage goes up when all the electronics, including A/C, get power from recaptured brake energy.

If these are the best selling cars in Japan, then imagine what the entire fleet's fuel economy will look like in 5-10 years time!

*Of course, the fuel economy ratings (using "JC08" mode--more conservative than "JC10/JC15" modes used in the past) are based on assumptions and do not necessarily prove out in real driving conditions.  I rented a Toyota Aqua hybrid this summer and drove it mostly on expressways, including some long climbs and descents and generally at speeds of 100 kph or so with A/C on for two days, and ended up with mileage of just under 25 km/L (58 mpg).

After leading the market with its near-experimental Honda Insight in the 1990s, Honda has trailed Toyota in the hybrid "race" in recent years, as it used a "weak" style hybrid in its Civic Hybrid and 2010 Insight (introduced around the same time as, and upstaged by, a new version of the Toyota Prius that had better fuel economy).
1990s Honda Insight
2010 Honda Insight
Honda has changed its approach and in June 2013 introduced a version of its mid-sized Accord Sedan that is rated at 30 km/L.  The Accord is a near-luxury car in Japan and will never reach the "top 10" sales list.  The Honda Fit, on the other hand, is Honda's main compact (by U.S. standards subcompact) model, and has often been a top seller.  Honda recently introduced a hybrid version of the Fit that is rated at 36.4 km/L (85.6 mpg), topping even the Aqua.   Look for the Honda FIT hybrid to return to the "best seller" list in short order.
Honda Accord hybrid - now with 30 km/L hybrid version

Honda Fit -- 36.4 km/L hybrid version available
Toyota's line-up of cars and small trucks sold in Japan now includes 16 different hybrid models, including the new best-selling Aqua and the plug-in hybrid version of its venerable Prius.  The Toyota Lexus brand includes another 6 hybrid models (though these are "performance" rather than "fuel economy" hybrids, with a flagship Lexus GS getting 18.2 km/L in the hybrid version versus less than 10 km/L for the GS350 non-hybrid).

The plug-in Prius will drive the initial 26 kms using only its electric engine, and so actual gas mileage can be infinite if you never drive further than that.  It is rated at 61 km/L using JC08 mode. (If that is not good enough for you, the plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander, an SUV-like model, if fully charged will go the first 60 km on its electric engine, and is rated at 67 km/L overall (not on the best seller list, but the family of one of Misako's friends has one).
Toyota hybrid models
Toyota's Lexus mark hybrid modeles
Honda's line-up includes 8 hybrid models, and another 9 models of "kei" mini cars with engines of under 1000cc displacement.

Nissan's line-up includes a dizzying mix of "eco cars", including the all electric Leaf, several hybrids, the 25 km/liter "eco supercharger" equipped Nissan Note.

Even Subaru now has a hybrid version of its SV "all wheel drive" small SUV.  Going from the regular 2.0L engine to the hybrid model boosts rated mileage from 15.8 km/L to 20 km/L (47 mpg).

Of course, there are some imported cars and foreign makes in Japan.  Mercedes Benz, BMW, and VW/Audi are doing well.  Then again, the Mercedes closest to me  (my next door neighbor) is one of these -- a Daimler/Mercedes Benz group Smart all-electric two seat car, with a 180 km range (measured in JC08 mode, more like 140 kms based on US/European measurements).

So even if Japan trails Europe in wind, solar and other renewables, its automobile companies are doing their part at the transition to a green energy future.