Over the past two weeks, we’ve used this space to fulfill the annual tradition of looking back at the stories that have shaken the energy industry the most in the past twelve months. The year 2021 is one that no one in the energy sector will soon forget, as the most challenging part of these retrospectives was in fact narrowing it down from the various landscape-shaping incidents. The power industry just a few decades ago was long considered among the most inertia-filled and relative stable sectors of the economy, but the modern utility and energy markets look incredibly different today: renewable energy, digital technologies, restructured regulatory environments, and more are all serving to make the evolution of power companies and their stakeholders happen more rapidly than ever before.
Given this turbulent, quick-paced world that energy professionals now find themselves in, an important strategy will continue to be to look ahead and try to get ahead of the upcoming trends, major incidents, and demands of the sector. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure, so foreseeing potential trouble spots will let the forward-lookers in the industry get ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, new opportunities are being unearthed left and round and the first movers towards these potential disruptor technologies and programs will reap the rewards.
So, with all those potential fruits waiting for those that look ahead, BrokerX wanted to share our insights on 4 of the major trends that will assuredly define 2022 for the energy sector (be sure to keep tabs on this and remind us a year from now to see what we got right and where perhaps the path diverged!).
1. Cybersecurity Incidents Continue to Influence Energy Players
For many years, as the electric power grid has become more digital and interconnected, cyber experts have warned the industry that cybersecurity must be at the top of their list of priorities. The possibility of a major blackout event happening because of someone maliciously accessing critical grid systems has only grown as more and more nodes of entry have been created thanks to a more distributed and digital power sector. The ultimate concern would be a foreign actor wishing to wreak havoc by shutting down a major grid impacting a region, though smaller and singular actors are also a constant threat. In fact, 2021 saw one of the most major energy-related cyber events in the United States when a ransomware attack shut down the Colonial Pipeline and caused a ripple effect on gasoline supplies and prices all across the East Coast. The impacts here were widespread and highlighted the massive damage that could be done when a single part of a complex energy system is unexpectedly brought to a halt but should that same event happen on the power grid the harm could be even more widespread and hazardous.
In fact, such a threat came to fruition in 2015 in the Ukraine when an attacker downed major parts of the country’s power systems. Cybersecurity professionals have used this event and the constant stream of attacks that have been effectively fought off as evidence for why more attention in the C-Suite of utilities and in the meetings of grid operators should be paid to these threats and staying several steps ahead of bad actors. While it’s impossible to forecast whether any major event will be felt across the U.S. grid, it seems safe to assume that one of the following will indeed be a defining story 12 months from now:
The energy sector didn’t do enough to stave off cyberattacks and a major event on the grid occurs.
The energy sector does its homework and recognizes the need to harden its cybersecurity, which is supplemented by major government funding towards these ends.
So, one way or another, it seems likely that we’ll be looking back at the effectiveness of cybersecurity on the grid in 2022. Hopefully, the Colonial Pipeline attack was enough of an eye-opener for those in charge and they’ll stay prepared.
2. The 2022 Midterm Elections Dictate the Priority Placed on Different Energy Pathways
A major theme in the 2021 retrospective of the energy sector from BrokerX was the Biden Administration taking office and starting to implement its clean energy and grid resilience goals that were promised on the 2020 campaign trail. While the year ended in a bit of a whimper rather than a bang as the Democrats in charge failed to push the energy programs they desired through Congress via the Reconciliation Bill, 2022 will surely see fireworks in the world of energy policy either way. The reason for that is that 2022 is the Midterm elections where a sizable portion of the seats in the Senate and all of the seats in the House of Representatives will be up for a vote in November. The half-success that the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party has had in implementing major energy legislation during their first year with a virtual (but, obviously, tenuous) majority will paint any elections where energy policy plays a key role.
For those hoping for more energy-related directives from the federal government, the worst-case scenario will be that the past 6 months of legislative gridlock will cause those running to focus on other hot button priorities instead of energy commitments. The best-case scenario for these energy voters would be that the Reconciliation Bill ultimately gets passed and those representatives can run on the back of their success in trying to fund and shepherd in the reliable and clean energy system of tomorrow. The question will be how much appetite voters have to hear debates on energy, climate change, and related topics after the 2020 elections highlighted a pivot point for candidates that still ultimately led to a stalemate of sorts. That said, the 2022 seats in certain energy focused districts (such as communities reliant upon fossil fuels like those in West Virginia and Pennsylvania or those who are poised to benefit economically from investment in clean energy like New York and Virginia) should provide the greatest litmus test for how voters feel and where candidates think their best bets will be.
3. Clean Energy Technology Continues to Grow via Numerous Avenues
A somewhat evergreen prediction for each of the past few years has no doubt come from the reliable nature that the amount of clean energy generation on the grid will grow from the year before. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil, 2020 saw record amounts of renewables added to the grid in the U.S. In 2021, that record looked to be passed again (though we’ll have to wait some time before the final data are collected). So, in 2022, it almost feels like cheating to say one of the trends we’re forecasting is a record amount of growth in clean energy since that seems like a no brainer, but there are some key unique twists to the 2022 clean energy growth for which we can watch:
While much of the renewable growth has come previously from startups and non-traditional energy companies, in the coming year it will be the power utilities that start to take more of a leading role than ever before in the growth for renewables to meet their public commitments and regulatory requirements. Having the power of the legacy utility industry behind renewable growth more than previously provides more assurances and more total volume because of their access to resources and capital.
While wind and sun will surely see record growth as has been the trajectory for the past few years, much of the focus in the world of clean energy will come from other avenues as well. Specifically, federal legislation has put more of their weight than ever before behind small modular reactor nuclear energy and carbon capture technologies as some key clean energy technologies outside of the world of traditional renewables.
4. Energy Storage Will Be on Everyone’s Top Priority…but Can Enough Be Delivered?
Lastly, one of the key areas to focus on in 2022 is assuredly going to be in the world of energy storage. For many years, experts have seen energy storage as the key lynchpin to unlocking the next generation of clean energy, enabling the buildout of more renewable energy, the efficient distribution of electricity through the grid amid peaks and valleys of demand, and more. In theory, the wider availability of energy storage would be a true turning point in the energy sector, but actual implementation has been shortchanged because battery systems’ high costs, extensive resource needs, and large footprints. These problems won’t be 100% solved between now and the end of 2022, but many signs point to the fact that this upcoming year may in fact be a key pivot point in this energy storage journey.
To start, energy storage prices are falling quite substantially, masking the rate of cost reduction that solar panels experienced a decade ago. When solar systems were first made commercially available, they remained impractical for most implementations outside of those large industrial or commercial facilities that had suitable economies of scale or investors who could handle the high upfront capital requirements. Today, though, solar panel systems are accessible to more homes and businesses than ever before as the learning curve to create the equipment has made them more affordable than ever. The upcoming year will see more energy storage installed than in any other year because the cost to do so for an individual project has been trending in the right direction for years. On top of that, public funding in 2021 seemed to place a suitably high priority on energy storage to keep the prices falling precipitously, meaning the momentum should continue in the coming year.
Beyond that, any new major event like Winter Storm Uri knocking out power for much of Texas or the public safety power shutoffs amid wildfire season in California will see customers demanding energy storage backup rather than the traditional solution of diesel backup thanks to that cost parity. That said, as more homes and businesses turn to energy storage in 2021, it won’t all be a rosy outlook as the reality of supply chain issues will continue to be evident. Especially as energy storage solutions for homes and businesses compete with utility-scale projects and batteries for electric vehicles, this situation will create growing geopolitical tensions and may even become a defining talking point during the aforementioned 2022 elections. So, energy storage will be a major positive trend, but it’ll be important to keep an eye on the downstream impacts that will have as well.
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