Navigant Research Blog

Warily, Utilities Go Digital

— December 10, 2014

Utility customers are changing their behavior rapidly, increasingly viewing the utility much in the same manner they would their bank, cellular provider, or – even worse – preferred online retailer.  J.D. Power affirmed this in July with the publication of its 2014 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.  Consumer engagement technologies are also detailed in Navigant Research’s white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.  These other types of providers, the banks and the cellular providers, have at least one thing in common: they’ve completely rearranged their strategy and operating model around a growing digital environment.  But utilities by and large are behind in developing effective and user-friendly digital presences, and I would argue that this is largely due to not having approached digitization as a firmwide strategy.

What is digitization?  It’s a broad topic, including everything from advanced gathering and analysis of data to social media.  The slowest movers have been government and public service organizations, such as utilities, simply because they’ve had more or less inelastic demand and monopoly status.  But now deregulation and growing expectations are forcing utilities to improve their public image and provide services in a more competitive manner by enhancing historically low/declining customer satisfaction.  These changes include the ability to easily monitor all activity and make services changes online, incorporate services such as prepay and prosumer options, and develop specific and targeted web/mobile-based marketing campaigns.

Resistance in the C-Suite

A couple of barriers are keeping utilities from becoming better digital organizations.  Probably the greatest barrier has been the resistance of utility executives.  It’s no longer possible to assign an intern to maintain a Facebook page and call that a digital strategy – digitization needs to involve all parts of the firm, and will probably change the business model altogether.  Utilities are not only characteristically slow adopters of change, but also traditionally siloed both functionally and informationally.

At the heart of a digital strategy is the information that is gathered to guide it.  The utility must consolidate comprehensive internal and external information from distributed sources like smart meters, customer information systems, intelligent electronic devices located on the grid, social media, and weather reports, just to name a few.   If this information is located within different parts of the utility and structured differently than other types of data, it can be nearly impossible to analyze in one place, and utilities will only see a half-formed image of demand patterns and customer preferences.

Beyond the Web Site

Once this information is in place, however, the utility still faces a second and even greater challenge of determining if and how to restructure its offerings in order to provide services in a different manner.  This can trigger investments in reorganization efforts, such as human capital investment, cross-functional collaboration, IT purchases, and outsourcing.

It comes as no surprise that many utilities are reluctant to consider these sorts of reorganizations, as they already operate with relatively low margins and typically have restricted investment budgets.  In those cases, managed services can ease the cost of digitization through highly focused products and outsourcing.

Managed services companies can assist utilities in developing firmwide digital strategies and provide resources that allow them to do so at a lower cost (with less risk of faulty investing) than integrating internally.  Until recently, the majority of these companies’ services have been adopted for very specific programs and needs, but more competitors are ramping up to offer enterprise service models where customer-facing digitization only scratches the surface.   In our report, Smart Grid as a Service, Navigant Research provides an in-depth assessment of the utility IT services market globally.  It will be worth watching how this market forms as more utilities ease, or are shoved, into the full transition to digital.

 

Tug of War over Utility Customers Intensifies

— November 5, 2014

In the last few years, residential demand response (DR) has become a thriving market.  Recently, Constellation and Honeywell rolled out a service for all customers in areas that the companies serve designed to encourage consumers to purchase Honeywell thermostats and network them into Constellation’s platform.  Initially introduced only to Startex customers (a Texas subsidiary of Constellation) earlier this year, this service highlights the rising competition for energy customers.

Constellation claims that the program has the potential to shave upwards of $128 annually from customers’ electric bills.  Such services could help utilities reach energy efficiency targets as well as assemble an effective pool for residential DR programs.

There’s only one problem here, and it’s exacerbating tensions between utilities, energy service companies, and regulators.  The problem is that this type of program, also referred to as a hybrid DR model, blurs the lines around who exactly “owns” the customer, as well as who is providing the resource.

The New Disruptors

It seems natural for utilities to be receptive to the continued expansion in resources used to target electric customers for energy efficiency and DR programs.  But many utilities, particularly those in regulated markets, see this as encroaching on an established model in which the utility acts as the face of the service in all cases (regardless of who’s actually providing the service).  As utilities shift from vertical producers and deliverers of kilowatt-hours to being providers of electric services (the Utility 2.0 model), the general consensus is that they want to maintain their statutory ownership of their customer base.  Having already given up so much, it’s likely that utilities will put up a fight in holding onto at least this little bit of status quo and margin.

But that’s not how the many disruptive participants, which have evolved within the energy and utility industry or entered from the broadband and IT spheres, want to play.  They want the customer, too, either to expand their business and gain more margin or because they already own the customer through their primary business (think broadband providers).

Not Letting Go

Looking at it from an economic perspective, some argue that allowing non-regulated service vendors to compete will eventually favor the customer.  Others point out that, while an electric services model does have the characteristics of a highly competitive market, the fact remains that delivering electricity requires substantial and expensive infrastructure, therefore limiting the number of competitors, which could disfavor the end user.  Regulators have been understandably reluctant to institute any sort of rapid overhaul.

I’d argue that regulators and utilities are highly aware that they must change the way they do business in order to facilitate the transition of the energy industry to a lower-carbon state.  But it’s not surprising that they still want to defend their end-user relationships.  Customers like having a single point of contact for their energy services – not separate contacts and bills for delivery and energy efficiency.  Furthermore, as utilities lose revenue associated with dismantled vertical business models, energy efficiency and DR are among the few areas where they have the ability to supplement losses.  As hybrid DR models spread, it’s unlikely that incumbents will let their customer relationships go easily.

 

Power Sector Buzzes with Jargon

— October 2, 2014

As a utilities analyst, I encounter a number of buzzwords –  terms that seek to broadly and catchily define the multivariate technologies and approaches that have been developed to modernize the electric grid.  The most common are “smart grid,” “grid 2.0,” and “utility 2.0.”  In this post, I’d like to assist myself, and any interested reader, in better understanding these terms and how they differ.

Supposedly, the term smart grid was coined in 2003 by Andres Carvallo, then the CIO of Austin Energy, to explain the Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI’s) Intelligrid – an electric grid that was monitored and managed remotely and incorporated data analytics into processes.  The term didn’t really stick until 2009, when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded 99 American utilities a total of $3.4 billion dollars as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)-funded Smart Grid Investment Grant.

So what does smart grid mean?  According to the DOE,  it means “computer based remote control and automation … made possible by 2-way communication technology and computer processing.”  Let’s just call it the foundational definition for all of the technological innovation that exists to modernize the electric grid.

One for the Shredder

As for the second, newer term, grid 2.0, it turns out that this buzzword didn’t really pick up that much, and as far as I could ascertain, it’s used synonymously with smart grid.  So we can just throw that one out right now and stop confusing people.

Utility 2.0, on the other hand, is an important conceptual extension from smart grid.  I’m pretty certain I first saw this word last year in reference to microgrids, in a Public Utilities Fortnightly article that explained how different technologies can enable grid resiliency and lessen the impacts of outages.  The term has also been used to describe the concept of utilities revising their decades-old business plans to take advantage of increased renewables generation, distributed energy penetration, advanced demand-side management, and customer engagement.  Last spring, the state of New York introduced its Utility 2.0 plan, which seeks to introduce regulatory incentives for utilities to fundamentally upgrade their business models, operations, and infrastructure.

Ignoring Complexity

The problem with the term utility 2.0 is that, in most cases, it’s used only in reference to how utilities do business, not to the technological and infrastructure considerations that enable this business.  In that sense, it indicates that utilities and regulators and customers are all going to work together, take some financial hits, and pay for and install a smart grid, and it’s all going to be great.  That simple definition ignores the most difficult parts of the process.

We’ve moved past the simple understanding of the smart grid.  We need to better understand the complexity of enabling different systems within the electric grid to function as a cohesive architecture.  This will be a different process for each utility because each system is uniquely configured to adapt to different constraints, and because there are so many different types of offerings out there that are targeted at similar issues.

So, to me, the term utility 2.0 is not just about reshaping business practices and integrating new technologies, such as distributed generation and demand response; it’s the systematic integration of diverse systems that allow for each utility to realize its own transformative goals.  This concept, also called interoperability, might be the single most enabling aspect of updating our electric infrastructure.

 

Bill Gates: How to Fund Energy Miracles

— August 21, 2014

Through the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has taken a stand on improving global public health, investing in programs focused on basic advances such as developing a next-generation condom to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, creating a standalone vaccine cooler for communities that are stranded without electricity, and inventing a toilet that can solve sanitation issues by pyrolizing human refuse into something more usable (using solar power, no less).  Meanwhile, Gates is also challenging U.S. energy policymakers and their funding practices for energy R&D.

In a June blog post titled “We Need Energy Miracles,” Gates called for the United States to look hard at R&D allocations, potentially redirecting funding from the military and healthcare sectors toward energy research and pilot projects (presumably renewable ones).  Given the imperfections (intermittency, inefficiency) of existing renewable resources, Gates argued, this research is necessary to establish an equitable energy mix, both in the United States and abroad – especially in developing nations that must increase energy use to grow their economies.  He stressed the need to invest in projects that are “high risk/high reward” in order to achieve the sort of miracle needed to support growing demand and limit climate change.

Memo to Bill: DIY

Responding to Gates, Solar Wakeup (republished by Clean Technica) noted that Gates has been active in investing in energy storage with Aquion and LightSail but challenged him to be the major financer of the next energy miracle.  Why?  Simply put, it’s unreasonable to expect increased investments (private and public) in risk-agnostic energy R&D, and if one of the world’s richest men wants it to get done, he should do it himself.  Payoffs are slow for energy projects, the uncertainties many: macroeconomic conditions, volatile energy and resource markets, policy reversals, infrastructure needs, and high operating and maintenance costs.  Solar Wakeup’s challenge is based in reality.

But the cleantech and renewable energy sectors are already substantial in countries all over the world, and growth is accelerating.  China has recognized this.  In recent years, China’s public and private investments in cleantech, both at home and abroad, have explodedReports by Azure International explore the drivers for increasing investment in cleantech in China.  Risk is inherent in investors’ strategies for expanding their energy-related portfolios, and intangible values, such as technological and innovative prestige, sometimes compete with return on investment (ROI).  Encouraged by the government, Chinese investors have become increasingly willing to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects such as smart grids and smart buildings.

The topic of investment in renewables and smart grids is thorny, with many caveats and nuances that tend to shape the potential for ROI – but it’s safe to say that with China’s example, maybe Gates has a point in his stance against being risk-averse toward investing in potential energy miracles.

 

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