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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On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.
But why this and why now?
There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.
There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.
As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.
The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.
So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.
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