Costs for utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have declined in recent years—most sources show that system costs on a per-watt basis have fallen about 10% to 15% per year from 2010 through 2016. The level of those costs in certain years often varies across sources for reasons largely attributable to the way these costs are estimated.
To estimate capital costs of generating technologies, analysts use one of two common methods—total reported costs or aggregated component costs. Both approaches help explain the cost of utility-scale solar PV systems.
Reported costs: Using actual project data provides an empirical analysis that captures a large range of reported project costs in the market and accounts for the substantial variability in project design, location, and timing observed in the real world. Challenges with this approach include uncertainty about whether certain cost components are included in reported system costs, such as interconnection costs and the treatment of financing expense. Also, the data for each year reflect projects completed in that year, which do not necessarily reflect the costs of projects initiated in that year.
Component costs: The component cost approach provides more detail on the impact of changes in component-level technology and costs, which can be significant in a fast-moving market like solar PV. Such approaches typically represent either best-in-class or common-practice project criteria and do not necessarily capture the wide range of real-world project cost factors. Estimates that exclude financing expenses are called overnight estimates (i.e., as if the plant could be built instantly with no financing requirement). Component-based estimates may not reflect all potential costs to a system, such as developer profit margins.
EIA started collecting data on total capital costs directly from project owners as a part of the Form EIA-860 Annual Electric Generators Report in 2013. Because of respondent confidentiality, EIA only publishes capacity-weighted average values of new projects coming online each year and has published data for 2013, 2014, and 2015. This data series includes facilities with a nameplate capacity of at least one megawatt of alternating current. Respondents are asked to exclude government incentives and financing expenses from the reported costs.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) begins with EIA’s capital cost dataset and gathers additional information from corporate financial reports, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) filings, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Section 1603 grant database. LBNL’s annual Utility-Scale Solar Report defines utility-scale solar facilities as those with at least five megawatts or more of alternating current, which cuts out some of the smaller plants included in EIA’s Electric Generator Report.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) publishes the Solar PV System Cost Benchmark report with estimates of total system costs based on the most up-to-date information on reported component costs and conversations with industry. These costs do not include additional net profit components, which are common in the marketplace. Also, NREL’s bottom-up approach models costs for a project sized at 100 megawatts of direct current, which is large enough to have realized some economies of scale relative to smaller systems.
EIA also projects future capital costs as part of the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO). Starting costs of solar PV come from contracted capital cost studies based on information on system design, configuration, and construction derived from actual or planned projects, using generic assumptions for labor and materials rates.
Although EIA does not update the capital cost study each year, in years where the report data are not updated, EIA extrapolates cost trends observed in the literature, including the sources noted above, and considers expected cost declines from learning-by-doing. For 2018, AEO2018 projects installed capital costs of $1.85 per watt (AC) for fixed-tilt PV systems and $2.11 per watt (AC) for single-axis tracking systems.
Principal contributor: Cara Marcy
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
Global liquid fuels
Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions
2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?
Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.
ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.
But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.
Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.
So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.
Supermajor Net Profits for 4Q18 and 2018
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)