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Going Off Grid Nears Tipping Point, Morgan Stanley Reports

Originally published on RenewEconomy.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley says it has been overwhelmed by the response to its recent analysis which suggested that the falling costs of both solar modules and battery storage presented a potential tipping point that would encourage huge numbers of homeowners and businesses in the US to go off grid.

The initial report, published earlier this month, has been followed up by a note from Morgan Stanley highlighting the extent to which investors had been unaware of these mega trends, which threaten massive disruption in the trillion-dollar utility business.

Sure, they had heard that solar was proving popular, but had no idea of the size of the market that Morgan Stanley had identified. And while most had been sceptical of the potential impact of battery storage, they were intrigued by the potential cost falls that could be achieved by Tesla, the electric car company, and its ability to monitor power levels in batteries and schedule a battery swap in the case of depletion.

More importantly, the investors were particularly focused on how utilities might respond. Solar, they suggested, should be seen as an opportunity and utilities should look at ways of becoming enablers of these technologies, rather than barriers.

Addressable distributed solar market in US could be 415GW

But first, back to the original report. There were a couple of major takeaways in this: One, the addressable solar market in the US is way bigger than anyone had previously imagined; and two, the Tesla gigawatt battery manufacturing facility could bring down the cost of storage quicker than anyone had imagined.

Even without the continuation of the 30 per cent investment tax credit – and taking into account the fact that many homes are unsuitable for solar – Morgan Stanley says its “base case” addressable market for distributed solar in the US is 240GW within five years.

morgan solar market

In its bull case – where a 10% tax credit remains and there are lower grid charges, it estimates the addressable solar market at 415GW. That compares to just 6.2GW of residential and commercial solar installed to date.

Another takeaway – and one that might be of interest to the policy makers and utility economists in Australia and elsewhere – is Morgan Stanley’s assessment that, the higher the fixed grid charge required of distributed generation customers, the more likely they are to buy batteries and go off the grid.

And this is where Tesla, and its new “gigafactory” for battery storage manufacturing, will play a critical role.

“There may be a “tipping point” that causes customers to seek an off-grid approach,” Morgan Stanley writes.  “The more customers move to solar, the remaining utility customer bill will rise, creating even further “headroom” for Tesla’s off-grid approach.”

It says that for every $25/kWh reduction in the cost of Tesla’s batteries, it estimates the all-in cost of power to customers will fall by $.01-$.02/kWh, or 15-30 per cent of the residential customer price for grid charges in some US states.

“Tesla’s off-grid, battery-based option will, post-construction of its Gigafactory, be in our view at approximate parity with the cost of the utility grid in higher-cost states, and over time we believe this will move in Tesla’s favor.”

Morgan Stanley expects customers to take one of three potential approaches – and they are remarkably similar to the scenarios painted by the CSIRO, in its Future Grid publication on Australia.

The first is solar customers staying on the grid, but net zero grid power usage. In this scenario, a customer produces more power than needed during the day, but draws from the grid at night time.

Under this approach, homeowners might not use batteries to a large extent, because the grid is effectively acting as a battery and power management system, ensuring customers have power when they need it. However, Morgan Stanley says this will likely push up bills for remaining utility customers, creating more “rate headroom” for off-grid approaches.

The second scenario is using no grid power, even at night, but having the ability to seek emergency grid service in the event of a home power system failure. In this approach, the homeowner would purchase significant battery storage capacity to draw down power at night stored in their batteries that was produced during the day from their solar panels. Customers would, however, remain connected to the grid, and could seek “emergency power service” from the utility in the event that the home power system fails.

The interesting question about this approach is the cost of that service. It would be likely, Morgan Stanley says, that the utilities would set a high emergency access fee, providing a further incentive for  customers to go fully off-grid.

That leads to the third approach – Fully off the grid. Customers choose this approach because to have any grid access would require a large non-bypassable, fixed-grid charge.

The key variable in this approach is the cost of power storage; Tesla’s Gigafactory for battery production, given it could reduce the cost of batteries to levels significantly below other storage options, would have a significant impact on the extent to which customers pursue this “off grid” approach.

Tesla could provide emergency power service by monitoring the power levels in home batteries and delivering replacement batteries in the event home batteries run out of power. (Read more about that here).

morgan off grid

But it is not just solar that is providing off-grid options. Morgan Stanley notes that the Stirling engine product being developed by NRG (these provide power from natural gas) could be cost competitive with solar, particularly in those states with less favourable solar conditions.

These stirling engines, coupled with batteries, would have a low capital cost, would allow households to use waste heat from the generator for heating the air and water in the home, and would run around the clock.

Morgan Stanley’s short and medium term distributed generation scenarios

So here’s how Morgan Stanley sees the market playing out over the next decade.

Over the next three to four years, solar penetration will continue at a rapid rate in Hawaii, the West and Southwest and  solar service providers such as SolarCity will continue to expand their scale and geographic scope, and solar installed costs will come down.

Utilities will react by imposing fixed grid fees on distributed generation customers, but these fees will not significantly slow down the adoption of solar in the “sun rich, rate high” areas of the US.

Tesla will build its Gigafactory and reduce the cost of storage further, and Tesla and SolarCity will  integrate storage into a complete home/office energy management system to allow customers to go off-grid, building off their existing joint venture.

Hawaii, currently at 10 per cent solar penetration, may experience levels of solar penetration that begin to substantially impact remaining utility customer bills, and impact grid functionality. As a result, the “rate headroom” for remaining customers to go off-grid will rise, and  customers might choose a “solar + batteries” off-grid approach.

Utility bills will continue to rise, as utilities continue significant capex levels, driven among other things by changes to the grid from the increase in renewables and gas-fired generation and coal plant retirements

Morgan Stanley’s scenario for five to eight years from now:

California and other Southwestern states will reach solar penetration levels above the 10% level currently experienced by Hawaii. Solar and storage costs continue to fall, but at a lower rate.

There may be an economic “tipping point” for solar in “sun rich, rate high” states, driven by the confluence of increasing utility bills, greater grid charges borne by remaining grid customers, falling costs of storage and solar, and greater sophistication regarding off-grid solutions.

“Given the incentive for customers to move to solar, more customers in the West/Southwest will in our view seek to do so,” it says. “If it becomes challenging for solar customers to secure utility approval to interconnect to the grid, we believe customers would likely pursue an off-grid approach offered by companies such as Tesla and SolarCity.”

However, under a “changing utilities scenario”,  utilities take steps to enhance the ability to integrate large amounts of renewables onto the grid. The idea would be to ensure solar customers stay on the grid and contribute to the cost of maintaining the grid, rather than lose solar customers to off-grid business models.

This might work in states where grid charges are relatively low and sun conditions are not as favorable as in the West/Southwest, but in the sun-rich, higher rate Western and Southwest states, this approach will likely not succeed  – “because, as per the prior bullet point, the penetration level of solar could grow to be extremely high and a “tipping point” would be reached in which remaining grid customers would have very high bills relative to solar customers, and the customer incentives to go fully off-grid could be high.”

One wonders what Morgan Stanley make of Australia. It has all the ingredients of the US south-west, but with even higher retail electricity costs, and higher network charges, and with distributors looking to increase their grid fixed fees. All it needs is a Tesla Gigafactory.

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Written By

is the founding editor of, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.


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