Navigant Research Blog

Tech Companies Signal Important IoT Infrastructure Moves

— February 24, 2017

Several influential high technology companies have recently announced new strategies and partnerships as they build out the foundations for the expanding Internet of Things (IoT). These moves are likely to have important implications for the energy sector as utilities and their customers adapt to and adopt emerging IoT technologies.

The recent announcements cover a range of IoT areas, including smart grid, security issues, industrial use cases, and payment management. Oracle and Huawei extended their cooperative smart grid efforts by signing a memorandum of understanding dubbed a power IoT ecosystem partnership. The new deal calls for both parties to promote and sell an end-to-end advanced metering infrastructure solution aimed at helping utilities improve customer experience, increase operational efficiency, save energy, and reduce emissions. For its part, Huawei will provide tools for managing smart meters, communications networks, and headend systems; Oracle will leverage its meter data management software, smart grid gateway, and related solutions for utilities.

Cybersecurity and the Industrial IoT

AT&T, IBM, and Nokia have formed a new alliance to beef up IoT security. The new group, IoT Cybersecurity Alliance, will not set standards, but will instead focus efforts on conducting research, educating consumers and businesses, and influencing standards bodies or policymakers. Symantec, Palo Alto Networks, and mobile security company Trustonic are also founding members of the alliance.

Meanwhile, Nokia, Qualcomm, and GE Digital announced the successful demonstration of a private LTE network aimed at the industrial IoT market, specifically targeting companies operating in remote locations or sites where connectivity can be difficult. This would be a good fit for some utilities or companies engaged in energy exploration. Live field trials of the private network are expected to continue throughout this year.

Nokia separately introduced its worldwide IoT network grid (WING) in a bid to boost the IoT market. The IoT grid as a service offering is aimed at enterprises seeking a one-stop-shop for IoT needs across multiple geographies.

Visa and IBM have established a new partnership that will utilize IBM’s Watson IoT platform for extending digital payments to wearables, connected cars, and other devices. The idea is to enable commerce from any connected thing. From a connected car perspective, this could be useful for EV owners who need to charge their vehicles and pay for the electricity in a more seamless way and from a variety of suppliers.

Signs of a Wider Trend

On their own, these moves might not amount to much. However, when seen as part of a larger IoT trend, they represent another milestone along the road toward a much more connected and automated world. For utilities and other stakeholders in the energy industry, it pays to stay abreast of these IoT moves, as many are likely to have an impact on both sides of the meter.


The Energy Cloud by the Numbers: Supergrids Go Mainstream

— February 24, 2017

A common misconception around the rise of distributed energy resources (DER) and the Energy Cloud is that investment and innovation in the power sector is focused almost exclusively across the grid edge. While the grid’s center of gravity is shifting downstream, utility-scale generation and bulk transmission remain a key buttress for the grid in the midst of a historic transformation.

The global high voltage transmission network connecting centralized generation sources to the distribution grid is estimated to stretch across 3.5 million km. To put this in context, there is enough high voltage infrastructure deployed globally to wrap around the earth 75 times. Although already extensive, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that an additional $7.2 trillion investment is needed for transmission and distribution (T&D) grids through 2030—40% of which is just to replace existing infrastructure.

High voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, which function as arteries that move large amounts of electricity above and separate from the existing alternating current (AC) grid, are a key focus of this investment. Currently, there is more than 200 GW of HVDC capacity deployed globally.

According to Navigant Research’s Supergrids report, global investment in HVDC infrastructure is expected to increase from $8.3 billion annually in 2016 to $10.2 billion by the end of 2025. An estimated 65 supergrid projects heavily leveraging HVDC are in development or planned around the world. One such project, dubbed the Asia Super Grid, was born out of a memorandum of understanding among Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia in 2011.

Why So Much Fuss Over Expensive Hardware?

Since large-scale renewable energy projects tend to be built in remote areas where resource anomalies exist (such as wind in remote plains, solar in desert regions with high insolation, and geothermal power tapping underground steam located near centers of volcanic activity), bulk transmission is necessary to deliver generated electricity to large population centers, sometimes located thousands of miles away. The largest pools of renewable energy tend to be the farthest from human population centers; supergrids connect these areas of high supply to areas of high demand.

As discussed in the Navigating the Energy Transformation white paper, the emergence of the Energy Cloud will mean an expansion of traditional grid boundaries to integrate local networks of DER—microgrids, virtual power plants (VPPs), and others—as well as expand internationally to tap far-flung pools of renewable resources.

The Expansion of Traditional Grid Boundaries in the Energy Cloud

Source: Navigant Research

China is currently the world leader in the development and deployment of HVDC infrastructure. This is partly out of necessity; not only is China playing catchup with domestic demand for electricity, but the majority of its population of 1.3 billion lives in the east of the country, 2,000 km or more from its most concentrated energy resources. According to an Economist analysis, three-quarters of China’s coal is in the far north and northwest of the country, for example. Meanwhile, four-fifths of its hydroelectric power is in the southwest.

China’s state-owned utility, State Grid, is halfway through its 10-year plan to spend $88 billion on HVDC lines between 2009 and 2020. As investments continue, we expect the prospect of a global grid to come more sharply into focus—though obstacles related to cost, standards harmonization, consensus around rules of free trade of electricity, and geopolitical hurdles will first need to be more firmly settled.


Corporate Tax Reform: What the Power Industry Needs to Know

— February 23, 2017

Energy CloudUS corporate tax reform has been a key plank in the Republican platform for several years and has recently become a key focus of the Trump administration. In June 2016, the House Ways and Means Committee Republicans led an effort to unveil a blueprint toward a “Better Way for Tax Reform.” This proposal, backed by House Leader Paul Ryan, would (among other things) reduce the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 20%, allow capital investments to be fully and immediately deductible, and dramatically reduce tax rates on funds repatriated to the United States. The downside of the proposal is that it would eliminate the deductibility of interest expense on future loans. It would also introduce a so-called border adjustment, which would disallow deductions for import purchases while exempting export profits from taxation. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says the Trump administration is working with House and Senate Republicans with the aim of passing major tax reform legislation before Congress leaves for its August recess.

It’s too early to tell if real tax reform will be achieved by Congress during this administration. The border tax adjustment is being protested by many industries that rely heavily on imports, such as retailers and oil refiners, and opposition from Democratic congressmen and senators may derail the effort. Nevertheless, it’s useful to analyze how such reform (or portions of it) could affect business in the electric power industry, including utilities, independent power producers, equipment manufacturers, and constructors.

Renewable Owners

Renewable resource owners and investors in particular would be affected by the proposed tax reform due to most renewable plants’ heavy reliance on Federal Tax Credits and the accelerated depreciation of tax benefits in the capital structure. Currently, an entity with significant income tax exposure will often participate in a renewable project as a tax-equity investor to absorb these tax benefits in lieu of cash. With a reduction of the income tax rate to 20%, the value of investing in renewables for these tax-equity investors is significantly depressed. This could lead to a reduction in tax-equity supply and therefore an increase in tax-equity cost and cost of capital. This is somewhat offset by the full deductibility of capital investment (e.g., 100% depreciation in year 1), but again, that value is discounted by the reduction in the tax rate.

Due to the border adjustment, costs for renewable and conventional resources may increase to the extent that key components (e.g., combustion turbines, wind turbines, solar panels, inverters) are imported. Those costs cannot be deducted from income and are therefore taxed.  This would not be offset by the exemption for exports, since electric power generated in the United States is generally consumed in-country. As a result, power producers are disproportionately affected by the border adjustment, compared with other business that can export their product to foreign buyers.

The timing and duration of the adjustment presents another important impact, as utilities and investors may stop negotiating contracts for new resources until tax rates and rules are clarified. This could cause delay in plant construction and achievement of Renewable Portfolio Standards or carbon reduction goals. For renewables, this works against the need to start construction and secure the federal wind Production Tax Credit before it disappears in 2022 and the solar Investment Tax Credit before it drops to 10% (from 30%) in 2022. Duration also becomes a factor since the new tax regime may only last 10 years. Senate reconciliation rules require changes passed by a simple majority (in this case, 51 Republicans) must sunset after 10 years if they cause an increase in the deficit. Planning a 20- to 30-year asset under a 10-year temporary tax regime raises the risk of future cost increases.

Mitigation Strategies

Strategies to mitigate these impacts are varied. It’s likely that debt issued before a certain date in advance of the new tax regime will be grandfathered in, with the interest deductible over its term. Therefore, issuing debt now to fund resources in the future may be prudent to reducing costs. Procurement of major equipment from US-based manufacturing plants is also a viable strategy to avoid the taxation of imports under the border adjustment mechanism. Manufacturers should consider shifting production to US facilities to support this demand. Finally, the export of excess power to Canada or Mexico is also a viable strategy for mitigation, as these sales would be excluded from taxable income under the border adjustment. Utilities and/or independent power producers should consider border sites and transmission corridors that allow for these exports.

Each of these strategies will likely be constrained by specific eligibility rules and limits baked into the new tax law. Nevertheless, the momentum behind tax reform is significant, and advanced planning and actions around these strategies before the stampede will be time well spent.


US Smart Cities Market Continues Momentum through Readiness Challenge Grants

— February 22, 2017

SmartCityThis month, the Smart Cities Council announced the five winning US cities of the Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grant program. These cities—Austin, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Miami, Florida; Orlando, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—will receive a package of benefits from the Smart Cities Council, the world’s largest smart cities network. These benefits include city-specific readiness workshops, as well as an array of products and services from Council member companies. The workshops are expected to help the chosen cities develop a strategic approach toward utilizing smart technologies in a way that increases infrastructure innovation and investment. Some examples of the smart city products and services that Council member companies will be providing to the winning cities include:

  • Ameresco: Consulting services to optimize smart street lighting
  • AT&T: 25 AT&T Internet of Things (IoT) Starter Kits
  • Sensus: Free citywide hosted communications network for 1 year
  • Telit: Free access to the Telit IoT platform
  • Transdev: Up to 3 days of technical assistance in developing more efficient urban mobility options

Each city is focused on its own unique challenges as part of the Readiness Challenge Grants:

  • Austin is focusing on affordable housing, mobility, and economic development
  • Indianapolis has placed an emphasis on smart utilities and transportation
  • Miami is targeting urban resilience and climate adaptation
  • Orlando is centering on a comprehensive smart city plan with multiple department integration and regional stakeholders (with a particular focus on smart transportation and security)
  • Philadelphia is building a regional smart cities ecosystem through a coalition of city, community, business, and educational institutions

Evolving Initiatives

The Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grant program is expected to help the selected cities reach their goals for improved public services and build on the momentum generated by several important initiatives in the United States over the last few years. The White House Smart Cities Initiative was originally launched in September 2015 and included an initial investment of over $160 million for federal research and technology collaboration efforts to help municipalities address key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of climate change, and improving the delivery of city services. In mid-2016, Columbus, Ohio was officially announced as the winner of the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart City Challenge. The city is set to receive a total of $140 million, with combined contributions from the DOT ($40 million), Seattle-based company Vulcan ($10 million), and a group of local businesses called the Columbus Partnership ($90 million).

These initiatives demonstrate how the smart city concept is being embraced and implemented in the United States. With over 130 cities applying for the Readiness Challenge Grants, US cities are increasingly looking to achieve greater efficiency in the delivery of important public services such as transportation, water delivery, and public safety. Initiatives such as these from the Smart Cities Council, in addition to several national programs, are helping US cities develop long-term digital infrastructure strategies and implement high-impact smart city projects.


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