Navigant Research Blog

European Utilities Have Increased Their Activity in New Energy Platforms: Part 3

— February 15, 2018

The energy industry is experiencing a profound transformation as the sector moves towards the more intelligent, more distributed, and cleaner use of electricity. Utilities’ traditional business models are being challenged by disruptive firms offering new services leveraging new technologies. In the first post of this blog series, I described how European utilities have reinforced their strategic interest in new energy platforms. In the second post, I showed that regional differences in new energy platform activity persist between North America and Europe. In this post, I argue that some of the new energy platforms have been highly active recently as European utilities strive to build their portfolio of digital services.

DER Integration and Electric Mobility Are Still Leading

Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Integration and Electric Mobility remain the leading new energy platforms, and they experienced increased levels of activity throughout 2015-2017.

(Source: Navigant Consulting, Inc.)

Most of the selected European utilities have announced key partnerships, investments, and acquisitions in these two platforms. A 50% increase in the number of announcements was recorded between 2015 and 2017. Activity in the Internet of Things, Transactive Energy, and Telecommunications Networks platforms has been steady, with the most active utilities being Centrica, ENGIE, E.ON, and Innogy. Fewer announcements were made in Smart Cities in 2017 versus the previous 2 years. Most originated from Enel and ENGIE, which remain pioneers in the platform serving municipalities and local communities.

Activity Types Are Shifting

There has been a shift in the activity type by platform. The Electric Mobility platform once consisted almost entirely of partnerships. Utilities would typically sign agreements with car makers and EV supply equipment providers to develop bundled offerings and run pilot programs. In 2017, several investments and acquisitions were announced: Total invested in Xee and OnTruck, ENGIE acquired EVBox, and Enel acquired eMotorWerks. This is representative of a platform getting more mature as utilities better understand where the value lies and which companies are the key acquisition targets. The activity in this platform has also intensified because the prospect of electricity as the major transportation fuel is becoming clearer. Several major car makers have announced aggressive plans to electrify their vehicle offerings, providing more evidence that the mobility sector is changing rapidly.

Lastly, the number and size of acquisitions have been increasing. The largest deals announced in 2017 are EnerNOC’s acquisition by Enel for $250 million and REstore’s acquisition by Centrica for €70 million ($80 million). Both companies had established leading positions in the demand response (DR) markets: EnerNOC in the US and part of Asia Pacific, and REstore in Europe. These deals epitomise the DER Integration platform reaching a critical maturity state. After several years of market consolidation among DR players, some large utilities are buying their way in by acquiring the leading, established players.

The Race Is Intensifying

The race to new energy platform services has intensified among European utilities. Players building a balanced portfolio across several new energy platforms and multiple geographies are more likely to succeed in a fast-moving industry. While numerous products and services developed by the new energy platform companies seem promising, not all of them will be successful. Utilities need to strategically select the players that have the most agile talent and can quickly react to market changes and evolving customer needs. Some of the new technologies are prone to disrupt the energy industry. Incumbent utilities should watch market signals and adjust their portfolio of partnerships, investments, and acquisitions accordingly. Some of the utilities covered in this analysis appear to be further along, while others are still defining their strategic priorities. 2017 was a highly active year for new energy platforms—2018 will be a year to watch.


Ericsson Presents Its Future Vision for the Neural Grid

— February 13, 2018

At its London-based industry analyst event, Ericsson detailed areas for future growth. Its primary customer base (communications service providers [CSPs]) is looking for growth in an age of flat revenue from existing services. Ericsson believes this future growth will be made possible by the rollout of 5G communications—by 2026, Ericsson predicts 5G will contribute to a potential 36% of revenue growth for CSPs.

Ericsson cites the utilities industry as the largest opportunity for digitization. With a $101 billion addressable market likely in 2026, utilities present the second largest Internet of Things (IoT) opportunity (after manufacturing). The energy transformation is central to this growth. As the industry shifts toward a distributed future, connected asset deployments will increase exponentially. In addition, regulatory focus on advanced network flexibility requires significant improvements into a distribution utility’s visibility of loads and supply. All things being equal, the energy industry presents a juicy opportunity for CSPs.

Cellular Carriers to Prosper in Utilities with a Group of Technologies

Ericsson stated that CSPs will only succeed with a combination of technologies, and presented the reasonably compelling proposition of IoT services, supported by network-slicing-enabled 5G communications, and a concept it calls the distributed cloud.

IoT is often cited as the next big thing for CSPs. The term IoT has failed to gain traction in the utility industry primarily because the industry was comfortable with the technology long before the term was used to describe it. But this experience also presents a problem for telcos chasing profits in energy—the industry has to be convinced to switch from the proprietary, self-built, and decades old IoT communications networks to public carrier networks. The critical question is how Ericsson, and its CSP clients, can profit from the utilities industry.

Existing infrastructure may be difficult to convert to a public carrier, particularly for utilities rewarded for CAPEX on new assets. However, the sheer volume of low value assets that will become connected in the future pose many problems to utilities. Passing responsibility onto a third-party provider could well be an attractive proposition, if issues surrounding scalability, security, cost, and network availability are overcome.

5G may be the answer to this, particularly when connecting lower value, less critical assets (such as customer owned distributed energy resources (DER) or network equipment on low voltage networks). 5G offers much greater bandwidth than previous communications, while the ability to create virtual slices of the same physical network communications will help utilities overcome concerns regarding network availability for more valued assets.

Ericsson’s Distributed Cloud Approach Could Help Future Distribution Operation

Ericsson’s distributed cloud concept plays well into utilities’ current and future needs for edge computing. Ericsson has identified an opportunity for CSPs to host cloud servers in their existing real estate. CSPs’ buildings often have underutilized floorspace, yet are in central locations, directly connected to fiber rings and have good power supply. Ericsson believes its distributed cloud could compete as a low cost alternative to utility-owned, grid-edge computing that provides local data filtering and analytics.

Navigant Research has actively defined the technological needs of future transactive markets, in particular real-time visibility into DER, the calculation of hyper-local pricing of network access, the hosting of localized smart contracts for transactive energy participants, and more. The technology proposed by Ericsson has surprisingly close alignment with these requirements. Ericsson’s biggest challenge to convert an opportunity into sales is to overcome the industry’s innate conservatism and the current preference for proprietary IoT infrastructure. Regardless of how attractive the public network is, utilities still have a strong preference to build their own networks. Increasing cybersecurity concerns will only reinforce this attitude.


Consumers Are Ready for Upgraded Energy Platforms, and Utilities Should Oblige

— February 13, 2018

Utility managers in the US seeking to shake-up and modernize customer engagement have new evidence to support such efforts. A recent study supports the idea that many consumers are ready for an upgraded online platform to interact with their utility. The study, by Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative, finds nearly half (48%) of respondents said they would use an online platform that combines current and historical household energy usage data, preference settings, utility (or third-party) programs and offers, and use this information to help better understand and manage their energy use.

According to respondents, the two most popular applications are energy rewards programs (52% probably or definitely would use) and energy manager tools (46%). The study authors call on energy market stakeholders to move beyond energy alone and imagine how new innovations from other industry sectors can be applied to their businesses. In other words, think and act more like Amazon.

The study also underscores the growing trend of increased spending by utilities on customer experience tools across the globe, as noted by my colleague, Michael Kelly, in his recent Navigant Research report, Customer Management and Experience Technologies. In this report, he notes how engagement has become a much more complex process for utilities, and exhorts them to take a more proactive approach, deploying across multiple channels in a holistic manner so customers experience a consistent set of information and tools, no matter how they engage.

Behind-the-Scenes Work Needed, Too

There is no question engagement tools should keep pace with current consumer expectations. The customer-facing online tools they see today are often not up to expectations.

That said, there is also work to be done on the backend, those behind-the-scenes processes that can speed up the mundane and create a better experience for customers. Duke Energy has taken such steps by adopting robotic process automation (RPA), a new method of processing customer information. In the past, the company would have to manually process hundreds of thousands of requests a year for starting, stopping, or transferring energy services. That could take 3 business days to simply turn around the request during a peak season. Now, by using RPA technology, Duke Energy processes such requests around-the-clock, and can immediately send a confirmation to a customer who is then assured that their request was received and that follow-on services have been scheduled. This step reduces friction in the system.

Whether it is improved customer-facing platforms or deploying backend system upgrades through new tools like RPA, these steps must be taken by utilities. The customers have come to expect them. It still boggles my mind, though, at how slow the shift to new digital tools is in the utility sector compared to others. But at least the movement is headed in the right direction.


European Utilities Have Increased Their Activity in New Energy Platforms: Part 2

— February 8, 2018

The energy industry is experiencing a profound transformation as the sector moves towards the more intelligent, more distributed, and cleaner use of electricity. Utilities’ traditional business models are being challenged by disruptive firms offering new services leveraging new technologies. In the previous post, I described how European utilities have significantly reinforced their strategic interest in new energy platforms. In this post, I highlight the key regional differences in new energy platform activity between North America and Europe. In the final post, I will argue that some of the new energy platforms have been highly active recently as European utilities strive to build their portfolio of digital services.

Key Regional Differences

Major differences can be drawn between North America and Europe: European utilities tend to acquire or invest in North American companies whereas they are mostly partnering in Europe (see the following figure).

(Source: Navigant Consulting, Inc.)

Activity in North America mostly consists of investments and acquisitions. California leads the way, attracting nearly two-thirds of partnerships, investments, and acquisitions announced in 2015-2017. Examples include investments in distributed energy resources (DER) management system provider AutoGrid and urban mobility data analytics company StreetLight Data, and acquisitions of EV charging platform provider eMotorWerks and battery storage systems integrator Green Charge Networks.

Additionally, European utilities have been strengthening their presence in California. Building upon the acquisition of EV charging platform provider Oxygen Initiative, Innogy set up Innogy e-Mobility US. The Los Angeles-based entity is responsible for expanding the utility’s Electric Mobility solution offering in the US. Similarly, Total Energy Ventures relocated part of its team from Paris to the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to the local startup community, which accounts for half of its investment portfolio.

States such as California, New York, and Massachusetts benefit from qualified talent and access to capital. Many startup founders are alumni from leading US universities who developed their initial product in partnership with a research lab at their universities. Additionally, the US incubator, accelerator, and investor ecosystem is recognized as one of the most active in the world, thereby attracting startups looking for financial and advisory support.

Most of the activity in Europe relates to partnerships. The geographical proximity partially explains this trend, as European utilities typically test energy services in their core market before expanding. Enel has been building an EV charging network totalling 2,700 stations in Italy as of October 2017 and plans to nearly double the network capacity by the end of 2018. E.ON partnered with Google to expand Project Sunroof to Germany. Homeowners in selected German cities can purchase solar panels, energy storage, and system management software from E.ON—and the utility guarantees the financial returns estimated by the online tool.

New Trends

One new trend is the rising number of investments and acquisitions realised with companies based in Europe. The total number of deals concluded in 2015-2017 nearly matches the figure for North America (21 vs. 25), making Europe an attractive region for startup activity. This shift is also related to the trend of startups building upon successful business deployment in Europe and expanding to North America. Netherlands-based EV charging infrastructure developer EVBox, acquired by ENGIE in 2017, is now expanding to the US.

In conclusion, European utilities’ activity in North America remains focused on investments in, and acquisitions of, new energy platform companies. In Europe, although the majority of activity still consists of partnerships, an increasing number of investments and acquisitions has occurred over the last few years.

In the final post, I will argue that some of the new energy platforms have been highly active, as European utilities are striving to build their portfolio of digital services.


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