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How Energy Companies Will Survive When Renewable Energy Is Free

By Jeff McMahon / Forbes / 6 December 2018

Main images: Shanghai at night. Getty Images

Envision Energy founder and CEO Lei Zhang likes to look at the numbers. And when he looked at the numbers behind the falling cost of renewable energy, he began to worry.

“We are convinced renewable energy is going to be dominating,” said Lei, who heads the Shanghai-based energy company. “It is going to give us almost, close to zero cost of energy, eventually. So we started to be worried. What’s the future of the energy company if you actually have almost-zero cost of energy?”

Utility-scale solar is reaching 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, Lei said, and in Mongolia, wind energy is about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“Renewable energy is basically like a teenager,” he said at the Stanford Global Energy Forum. “It started in 2000. So already a teenager is being so dominating, so invasive. I started to worry.”

Fortunately, teenagers can be problematic, and as Lei searched the numbers to find the most expensive aspect of a renewable-energy system, he found it in intermittency, which can undermine grid stability. So energy companies can find opportunities by managing grid stability, Lei said.

“You could have zero cost of energy, but you are going to have a huge cost of synergy.”

As renewable energy expands and transportation electrifies, the grid will become increasingly fragmented. Energy companies will have to manage fluctuating amounts of power generated by solar panels and wind turbines and fluctuating demand not only from homes, businesses and industry, but from electric vehicles charging and discharging at will.

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