Schneider Electric launches tool for renewable energy development

By Katie Fletcher | August 17, 2016

Schneider Electric, a global specialist in energy management and automation, recently launched a collaborative online platform it calls the New Energy Opportunities or NEO Network to help commercial and industrial companies identify and evaluate renewable energy, cleantech and energy-efficiency prospects around the world.

Schneider Electric will act as the network moderator, building the platform and qualifying organizations that participate. Part of the Schneider’s business is the Energy and Sustainability Services (ESS) group that actively advises and manages energy strategy and procurement on behalf of its clients for around 40 gigawatts of commercial and industrical (C&I) load on a global basis. “Essentially, companies look to us to evaluate and figure out how to come up with their best energy management strategies,” said David Hughes, NEO Network program manager for Schneider Electric.

Hughes added that the energy landscape that exists today is completely different than it was even a decade ago. Companies are continually setting aggressive targets around renewable energy. “They understand that alternative energy solutions exist and are more commercially viable,” Hughes said. “They are looking at energy stability, energy security and the impacts of climate change.”

How to buy typical brown power in Texas is different than evaluating a distributed energy generation project or evaluating the REC (renewable energy credit) value for a solar, wind or biomass project and determining how that counts in carbon accounting, he explained. “We found ourselves in this position where our customers, and the market of corporations and institutional buyers, needed more access to information, more access to education,” Hughes said.

According to Hughes, the developer, what ESS refers to as the solution provider, was understanding that they really needed to pivot in a lot of ways to become better positioned to provide these solutions to corporations. “NEO is really the answer to what we saw as a gap in the market to accelerate these opportunities on a global scale,” Hughes said.

The company hopes that the NEO Network will accelerate renewable energy transactions by connecting buyers with developers of viable projects and technology providers. Companies can use the platform to find the right tools and financial vehicles they need to meet sustainability goals. That could mean a power purchase agreement (PPA) for electricity from a biomass generator, for example.

“Solar or biomass? Grid connected or not? PPA or lease? The endless questions and combinations make it difficult for companies to move their sustainability programs forward with speed and confidence,” said Steve Wilhite, senior vice president of energy and sustainability services at Schneider Electric. “Add in the falling price of renewables and storage, and a mass of new industry players, and the picture gets even more blurred. Our vision is to remove the layers, the complexity, and advance informed decision making and partnerships.”

NEO is organized to allow participants to: discover, connect and exchange. The discover aspect provides participants access to a knowledge center with whitepapers, research reports and market intelligence, covering more than 50 countries and regions. The connection component occurs when companies create profiles outlining their sustainability objectives, project experience, capabilities and references. These online, community forums allow participants to post questions, join in facilitated discussions and share best practices. Lastly, participants are encouraged to exchange by collaborating and searching for existing developments based on technology type, project size and location.

Schneider and ESS have a content team of analysts around the world who are responsible for monitoring energy markets and understanding the different technologies that exit. Hughes said that in addition to the in-house expertise, a community of people who have been through the process of evaluating renewables and navigating their internal chain of command to get a project done have formed to help educate counterparties in the C&I space. Hughes shared the theoretical example of a California-based biomass developer who understands the intricacies of that market sharing this knowledge with a potential corporate offtaker. “That’s a unique situation, and that level of depth and expertise, we think, is needed in order to accelerate the education process,” Hughes said.

Since launch, the network has had sustainability and energy managers at Fortune 1000 companies join with technology providers, project developers and affiliates, like investors and law firms. The founding participants include AEG, Allergan, Bloom Energy, Equinix and VF Corp., a company that oversees apparel companies like The North Face and Timberland. Participation in the NEO Network is available via subscription.

As for biomass, Hughes said, they’ve had a few inquiries from generators after the launch. “It is a reliable, clean source of baseload power,” he said. “Obviously, with where natural gas prices are now, the economics are more challenging, as it is with some of the other forms of renewables in the short term.”

Even so, Hughes said he believes there is an abundant supply of biomass and there is “absolutely opportunity to accelerate it here in the U.S.,” but the awareness and education of the benefits needs to be bolstered. “In the biomass space, I think there is a big opportunity to educate the C&I community on the value and the benefits of it,” he said. “We really look forward to NEO being a place where that happens and ideally being a part of the acceleration of this as a viable, baseload generating source as we seek to decarbonize our electricity supply.”