Navigant Research Blog

Utilities Embrace Innovation at EUW, but Struggle with Culture

— November 25, 2015

There was a palpable buzz at European Utility Week in early November centered around change, innovation, and outsiders. For instance, one of the crowded presentations I witnessed was Neil Pennington’s talk about smart thermostats. Dr. Pennington, the director of innovation for RWE npower in the United Kingdom, noted that smart thermostats are a logical first step, but utilities should consider going beyond these devices and offer products and services that are highly personalized, connected, and automated. Move outside the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, he says, and think about home security and customer lifestyles if you want to succeed as an innovator.

Pennington’s message was effective. It generated some enthusiastic questions, and people in the audience were hungry for insights into how to engage customers in new and effective ways.

Other vendors and presenters at this trade show, which set records for attendance (some 9,000 visitors from 77 countries), offered similar stories about innovation and change. Joris Jonker, one of the founders of residential energy management company Quby, told me his company’s offering was gaining traction as a dashboard for the home, and that Netherlands-based utility Eneco would be installing 1 million units over 2 years. Indeed, Eneco has embraced Quby’s solution so much that it acquired the firm just ahead of the trade show. Eneco’s move demonstrates it is no longer business as usual for some utilities.

Other discussions included the outsiders, or non-utility companies like Google (or Alphabet, Google’s parent company), and how these firms might alter the utility game. Might Google, or perhaps Apple, or an unknown startup move aggressively with a customer-centric and data-driven business model to disrupt the utility status quo? Possibly, but others were not so sure, saying it would be hard to disrupt the incumbents, especially for smaller players. Still, the question about potential disruption sparked debate.

Beyond these change and innovation issues, several other themes played out at the show. The smart cities concept is gaining wider attention (as my colleague Eric Woods so aptly demonstrated in sessions he moderated), with companies like Itron and Sensus touting their capabilities in this area. And, of course, the Internet of Things (IoT) concept seemed to be on just about everyone’s lips. In that vein, one company that stood out was Sigfox, a French firm promoting its unique cellular communications technology that is designed for low-throughput connectivity among IoT devices. Very buzzy.

But for all the talk about innovation and change, there was an interesting poll conducted among attendees that revealed an Achilles heel for the utility business: an ongoing lack of innovation. The poll asked “What is the biggest threat to the utilities?” The results of the unscientific survey among about 400 people were:

  • Falling/flat demand: 6%
  • Revenue loss/distributed solar: 12%
  • Challenge Renewable/Integration: 12%
  • Regulatory/Policy uncertainty: 23%
  • Lack of “innovation culture”: 46%

So a key takeaway for me from the Vienna conference was that while there is a welcome mat set out for change and plenty of talk, true innovation is still some ways off. And the staid utility culture in Europe is ripe for a shake-up, internally, externally, or from both perspectives.


Nuclear Power Tiptoes Back into the Conversation

— October 28, 2015

This may be an uncomfortable notion for cleantech purists, but nuclear power has tiptoed back into the conversation about what sources will supply energy into the future. Recent developments indicate the move toward nuclear power may be closer than many people think. Consider these recent happenings:

  • U.S. nuclear regulators are close to approving the first nuclear power license in 20 years. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s 1,150 MW Watts Bar 2 unit could get the necessary go-ahead in the coming days, and if that happens, the plant could start commercial operations in 2016.
  • The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan could give the nuclear industry a shot in the arm; current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy has said that nuclear plants would be credited under the plan as zero-carbon generation as part of a compliance strategy.
  • Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained scientists are pushing a safer type of nuclear power generation that is designed to eat its own waste. Nuclear physicists Leslie Dewan and Jacob Dewitt have founded separate but comparable startup companies that focus on nuclear generators capable of operating on their own radiated waste, which removes the need for trucking and storing spent radioactive material.
  • China and Bill Gates are said to be making progress in the pursuit of nuclear power. Gates’ nuclear power company, TerraPower, has signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) that permits the two companies to work together on advanced nuclear technologies that tackle some of nuclear power’s toughest issues: environmental, safety, and cost. China also plans to build 400 new nuclear reactors by about 2050.

Closer to my world, I recently met an attorney who has a background in nuclear power but is no friend of fossil fuels. Attorney Priya Sinha Cloutier has clients that include biofuels companies and various other nuclear power industry players. Her take is that nuclear power needs to be part of the future of energy generation. She is a fan of solar and wind, but those technologies alone are not the only solutions in her mind. It was an interesting conversation, and helped me connect the dots.

Seems pretty clear that a new era is evolving in which nuclear power can be a part of the generation mix, though with better safeguards. Nuclear won’t be the one absolute answer, but could become a very important piece in the future of energy. Thus the nuclear option could take on a new meaning for the rest of the 21st century.


IoT Momentum Is Building—Even if Trend Is Overhyped

— October 12, 2015

Momentum keeps building for the Internet of Things (IoT) market—even if the concept is overhyped. Recent moves by market stakeholders point to significant investments and noteworthy strategies. In addition, there are important implications for the utility sector, particularly the residential segment.

Google’s strategy combines hardware and software elements for connecting things in the home. The company is expected to release Brillo, a slimmed-down version of the Android operating system designed for smart home applications, by year’s end. Brillo will be coupled with Weave, a protocol developed by Nest Labs, which is to be integrated into OnHub, a router that can control IoT devices. As part of Nest’s initiative with Weave, General Eletric (GE) and Procter & Gamble will be partners in the effort.

Comcast has made the IoT a key part of its strategy over the past year. Executives with the cable giant have said they want to become the conduit, or highway, that carries all the data back and forth among IoT devices. Also, the company’s Xfinity service is being positioned as a platform for IoT functionality, with the company having announced partnerships with Nest, August (locks), and Lutron for lighting.

Also, Intel is acquiring chipmaker Altera for nearly $17 billion with the aim of enabling new classes of products “that meet customer needs in the data center and Internet of Things (IoT) market segments,” according to a release. Altera is an attractive buy for Intel because its chips are used widely for networking and wireless applications. Similarly, United Kingdom-based Dialog Semiconductor, which supplies chips to Apple, announced in September its acquisition of Atmel for $4.6 billion in a deal to strengthen both companies’ efforts to compete in the IoT space.

Furthermore, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) says it will expand its cooperation with the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) to focus on technologies and testing to promote the adoption of the IoT in the energy sector. The two organizations plan to identify ways members can take part in an array of new and established testing activities.

Among utilities, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) in Illinois has a partnership with Comcast to leverage the interconnectedness of smart thermostats in a demand response program. The program, similar to other bring-your-own-thermostat (BYOT) setups, is a basic example of linking things, thermostats in this case, with as service that can increase energy efficiency.

With this kind of momentum, it seems clear the IoT trend has legs, but there are hurdles that could inhibit market adoption. First, there are many protocols in play, such as ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. These present interoperability issues. Second, many IoT devices are more costly than current alternatives, such as high-end smart thermostats. Third, some consumers have real concerns about potential loss of privacy or security breaches when so many devices are interconnected.

Despite these hurdles, the IoT market drivers seem strong, and important companies are placing big bets on it. Navigant Research expects global revenue attributed to residential IoT devices to grow from $7.3 billion in 2015 to $67.7 billion in 2025, based on our own focused definition on the built environment of things. For those interested in learning more about the IoT market, Navigant is hosting a webinar highlighting IoT trends on October 20 at 2:00 PM EST. My colleague Ben Freas, senior research analyst, will bring his building automation perspective, and we will be joined by Matt Smith, senior director of utility solutions at Silver Spring Networks, who will discuss the utility’s role in the connected IoT home.


President Renews Commitment to Clean Energy, but Sustained Effort by Stakeholders Needed as Well

— September 17, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama has renewed his commitment to promoting clean energy and energy efficiency with a set of executive orders designed to drive wider adoption of greener technologies. The president outlined his goals in a speech on August 24, in which he called for a greater penetration of renewable energy sources—wind and solar in particular.

The president’s executive orders encompass funding and a mix of private sector obligations, including:

  • Providing $1 billion in additional federal loan guarantees available for distributed energy projects using innovative technologies.
  • Releasing residential Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing for single-family homes to invest in clean energy technologies.
  • Creating a Department of Defense Privatized Housing Solar Challenge, as well as noting that companies are committing to providing solar power to housing on more than 40 military bases across the United States.
  • Announcing $24 million for 11 projects in seven states to develop advanced solar technologies that double the amount of energy each solar panel can produce.
  • Approving a transmission line that will support a 485 MW photovoltaic facility to be constructed in Riverside County, California and produce enough renewable energy to power more than 145,000 homes.
  • Creating a new interagency task force to promote clean energy, and announcing commitments from local governments, utilities, and businesses to drive energy efficiency in more than 300,000 low-income households, as well as investing more than $220 million in energy saving activities for veterans and low-income customers to help lower energy bills.

Energy Cloud and New Utility Thinking

These moves by the president and his administration are part of a larger trend already taking place, which Navigant Research has dubbed the energy cloud. In this emerging scenario, a broad range of technical, commercial, environmental, and regulatory changes are expected to combine to alter the traditional hub-and-spoke grid architecture. These changes are also resonating among some utilities. A recent survey of utility executives found that some 30% of respondents are planning investments in behind-the-meter technology (such as microgrids, energy storage, and distributed generation), and more than 40% of respondents are considering these types of investments.

The effort to promote clean energy has momentum and the government at the federal level can play a role, but utilities, their customers, and technology vendors are also needed to sort out what works and what doesn’t as part of a sustained effort. The approach taken by New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (NY REV) seems to strike the right balance of government regulators setting some new guidelines and letting market participants come up with solutions and business models that can drive the cleaner energy market forward.


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