Navigant Research Blog

The Impacts of the Evolving Energy Cloud

— April 9, 2015

In my July 2014 blog, I discussed how utilities should play both offense and defense as the energy cloud evolves and transforms the energy sector. Navigant Research’s new white paper, authored by Mackinnon Lawrence and Eric Woods, provides an update on the evolution of the energy cloud. To summarize, we foresee the strategic, business model, and operational impacts on incumbent utilities increasing, more so as new entrants play important roles in states like Hawaii, California, Arizona, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, and the Carolinas.

Distributed energy resources (as detailed in Navigant Research’s report, Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast) and renewables will continue to grow exponentially over the next 5–10 years globally, driven by expanding customer choices and a rapidly changing technology landscape. This will dramatically affect utilities’ customer relationships and increase the complexity of their operations as distributed, intermittent, renewable energy resources spread and the grid becomes more and more digitized. Below is an overview of the highlights of the themes we see evolving rapidly.

Customer Relationships: The further evolution of distributed generation, energy efficiency, demand-side management, demand response, smart metering, behind-the-meter energy management systems, and social media will drastically change the way utilities interact with their customers—many of whom will generate their own power, sell power back into the grid, and plug in their electric vehicles at night. These increasingly sophisticated energy customers expect increased self-service and new products and services, which in turn will require innovative front- and back-office customer operations. This is likely to lead, in many cases, to a strategic pivot in how utilities proactively engage with customers.

Operations: Increasing the return on capital investments and reducing operating expenditures has historically been a priority for utilities. As the energy cloud revolution spreads, the importance of managing assets and capital will only increase. Utilities must give special consideration to managing assets, particularly procurement and the decommissioning of stranded assets. Additionally, utilities will look to build or acquire distributed energy resources and other disruptive technologies that transform day-to-day grid operations while maintaining security and reliability through climate change and other major shifts.

Regulation: All of this will also have a profound impact on regulatory policy, raising the question: will current deregulated market structures be forced to change? The utility industry is vital for the global economy, and is regulated as such. As the energy cloud matures, the regulatory environment can and must change. For a more detailed examination of likely regulatory shifts, please see this blog by Mackinnon Lawrence.

Ultimately, the objective is to provide a safe, reliable, and affordable service to customers. But a fragmented landscape of players (developers, producers and operators, wholesale and retail) will drive the need for organizational, infrastructural, process and data integration, and coordination across the power value chain and could create significant cost in a highly distributed energy infrastructure environment. It will be very interesting to see how markets will evolve as the energy cloud transformation takes hold. More to come…

Mackinnon Lawrence contributed to this blog.


To Win, Utilities Must Play Offense as well as Defense

— July 10, 2014

Since I’m originally from the Netherlands and spent several years living in Brazil, the semifinal results of this week’s World Cup soccer (or football, as we Europeans call it) matches have been disappointing, to say the least.  One thing that’s clear from the tournament ‑ one of the most exciting World Cups in my memory, by the way ‑ is that to succeed at this level, teams must play well on both ends of the field: offense and defense.  The Netherlands squad, the Orange, played superb defense on Argentinean superstar Lionel Messi, but failed to muster a goal in 120 minutes of regular and extra time and lost on penalty kicks.  As for Brazil, it played neither offense nor defense.

The same is true for utilities in today’s rapidly transforming power sector.  Playing defense – by sticking with established ways of operating and traditional forms of customer service – is no longer enough to succeed.  Utilities must also play offense; they must proactively develop new capabilities and innovative business models to thrive in a world of proliferating distributed energy resources (DER), greater customer choice, and rising competition from new players.

A Shifting Landscape

Widespread coal plant retirements, stiff renewable portfolio standards in many U.S. states, and the spread of renewable generation are all irrevocably changing the mix of generation assets while increasing the need for load balancing and frequency regulation on the grid.  Navigant forecasts that cumulative solar capacity in the United States will reach nearly 70,000 MW – 60% of it distributed – by the end of 2020.

At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed limits on CO2 emissions from existing power plants will drive further changes in the generation landscape.  These limits will bring new natural gas capacity online, put upward pressure on wholesale electricity prices, and make demand response and energy efficiency programs key parts of the answer.

(Source: Navigant Consulting)

Today’s centralized, one-way power system is quickly evolving into an energy cloud in which DER support multiple inputs and users, energy and information flows two ways across the system, and market structures and transactions grow more complex.  The energy cloud is more flexible, dynamic, and resilient than the traditional power grid, but it also brings new challenges to a power sector that until recently has changed little in its fundamental structure for almost a century.

Lead or Lose

Facing declining revenue as customers consume less and produce more of their own power, utilities are faced with large investments to build new transmission capacity, upgrade distribution systems, and invest in new DER businesses.  Given these challenges, utilities must be adept at playing offense and defense.  An updated defensive strategy will entail:

  • Engaging with customers and regulators to understand customer choices vis-a-vis price and reliability
  • Improving customer service and grid reliability at the lowest prices possible
  • Finding equitable ways to charge net metering customers for transmission and distribution services
  • Developing utility-owned renewable assets to appeal to environmentally conscious customers

Playing offense is even more important.  Utilities must:

  • Create new revenue streams through the development of new business models, products, and services
  • Transform their organizations and culture in order to fully integrate sales, customer service, and operations
  • Upgrade the grid and operations to facilitate the integration of DER

These objectives can only be accomplished by implementing new business models that include developing, owning, and operating DER such as rooftop solar, customer-sited storage, and home energy management systems; providing third-party financing for DER; and offering new products and services focused on energy efficiency and demand response.

There is no going back to the old ways of doing business.  Utilities must lead – by playing both offense and defense – or they run the risk of being out of the competition.


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