Navigant Research Blog

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.


Market Heats Up for IoT Energy Management Solutions

— February 1, 2018

Managing energy grids has grown ever more complex as the number of connecting devices has risen sharply. Millions of two-way communicating smart meters, pieces of advanced substation automation equipment, and distributed generation assets have come online in recent years, creating an intricate Internet of Things (IoT) network that can challenge even the best of grid managers. Connecting all these devices is a challenge, and is by no means trivial.

How Best to Organize and Interpret Data from Connected Energy?

The real test comes when trying to organize, make sense of, and glean valuable insights from the huge data volumes generated by these IoT devices and sensors. From there, the objective becomes turning those insights into useful and lasting applications for today and tomorrow. Solutions vendors have worked hard to meet their grid customers’ need for advanced technological tools to manage the data and applications. Lately, the vendors have developed some new offerings.

Platforms for Smart Cities and Utilities

Landis+Gyr launched its Gridstream Connect IoT platform, which is aimed at utility, smart city, and consumer applications. The platform is designed to integrate a variety of smart devices and utilize various communication protocols, including radio frequency mesh, LoRa, and cellular. The platform’s IPv6-based architecture can work independently with third-party devices and software to control street lights, solar inverters, EV charging stations, environmental sensors, and an array of distribution assets. The overarching idea is to provide utilities a way to leverage sensor technology at the grid edge for smart community and smart home applications, while also laying a foundation for future distribution strategies.

IoT Analytics

SAS and Trilliant joined forces to create a harmonized system that targets analytics for IoT. Under the agreement, SAS will contribute its event stream processing capabilities for structured and unstructured data, and provide machine learning technology for event detection, distributed energy resources optimization, and revenue protection. The SAS pieces will be matched with data from Trilliant’s real-time, multi-technology, multi-application networking platform. The two firms are already working jointly with the town of Cary, North Carolina, where they are in the middle of deploying analytics-based applications for street lighting, with the goal of improving public safety and boosting energy efficiency throughout the town.

Predictive Maintenance Software Solutions

ABB unveiled its Ability Ellipse software solution, which is designed to help utilities take a more proactive approach to predictive maintenance. The Ability Ellipse software unifies the functionality of ABB’s enterprise asset management, workforce management, and asset performance management packages. The software suite enables customers to better optimize asset utilization, and reduce equipment failures and system outages. Ability Ellipse is the latest offering in the firm’s Ability family, which embeds business processes and leverages real-time equipment data and IoT to connect predictive analytics and asset management systems to mobile workers in the field.

And More

These three examples of the latest solutions are by no means the only ones in the market. Competitors like Itron and Siemens come to mind. Yet these latest moves by the above vendors signify that current tools are inadequate to harness the growing complexity of energy grids. As the digital transformation of energy markets continues, grid managers will need these types of advanced software solutions to seize the opportunities awaiting them as they forge the emerging grid of tomorrow. Without them, the opportunities will be lost, or upstarts will move in with advanced tools and disrupt the incumbents.


Hidden Nuggets among the CES Glitz

— January 30, 2018

Sometimes surprises hit you slowly—hidden nuggets overlooked at first glance but demonstrating some hidden or potential value upon further reflection. Such was the case for several companies I met with at the recent CES trade show in Las Vegas. My colleague, Paige Leuschner, covered the major themes at CES in a recent blog: artificial intelligence, home healthcare, and Google everywhere. By contrast, the following firms captured my mind not for hogging the spotlight, but for showing real promise in several technology areas:


This startup aims to solve one of the difficult challenges in the Internet of Things (IoT) world—how to secure sensing devices that have limited processing power and run on batteries. Think of a sensor on a remote area of a plant that monitors heat or temperature. Most solutions protect the gateways that gather sensor data, but miss that first hop from the sensor to the gateway. The company’s patent-pending StarDust offering secures that first hop from the sensor with a patented technology that fits into tiny sensors and uses a fraction of battery power. The solution should appeal to many firms deploying IoT technologies, from utilities to manufacturers to healthcare providers.


This French company is no startup. It has been around since 2004, toiling away in the geeky machine to machine space. Lately, however, the company has been riding the strong interest in LoRa technology (also mentioned in a previous blog). Kerlink offers a suite of networking equipment for low power wide area networks (WANs), the type of systems that enable IoT connections at scale. The company announced a nice win during CES, a deal for an additional 800 base stations to be supplied to Proximus, a Belgian telecom company building out its own LoRaWAN IoT network. Kerlink appears poised to take advantage of several IoT use cases, including smart cities, smart buildings, smart health, advanced transportation solutions, and connected agriculture.


With a larger booth area, Royole was not nearly as subdued at CES compared to the two above. Nonetheless, it could be overlooked among the hundreds of other showy vendors. What caught my eye was Royole’s flexible display and flexible sensor technologies. Royole’s displays are as thin as 0.01 mm, which is about one-fifth the thickness of a human hair; and the company claims its displays are the thinnest in the world. The ultra-slim sensors can be embedded in furniture or the console of a car for controlling a chair or the dashboard electronics. One can imagine other applications for these sensors in an IoT-connected world, such as in clothing, walls, or medical gear. Founded in 2012, the company is poised for growth with the recent completion of its $1.7 billion production facility in Shenzhen, China.

To be sure, these three represent only a handful of the many companies not hogging the spotlight at CES. Competitors could surely surface and outmaneuver them, or the market could simply go sour on their products. The point is that CES is not only a place for the latest gadgets or products from the big brands, but also a place where the wallflowers can take the floor and show off their potential diamonds in the rough.


Look to Islands to Teach Us More about IoT

— January 16, 2018

Islands play an important role in the energy sector, and in other sectors. The Hawaiian Islands, for instance, have been a test bed for new technologies at scale, such as rooftop solar and energy storage systems, led by the Hawaiian Electric Company. The concept of islanding, where a distributed energy resource continues to provide power to a location that goes off the grid, has gained stature through the deployment of microgrids. And in the Internet of Things (IoT) realm, both Spain’s Balearic Islands and New Zealand have recently entered the picture as laboratories for IoT technologies.

Case Study: Balearic Islands

Officials in the Balearic Islands are promoting a system involving half a million sensors that will blanket the islands as part of a broad IoT project. The plans call for 50 IoT antennas that can support at least 50,000 sensors. The underlying network infrastructure is based on the emerging LoRa technology, a low power wireless standard for wide area networks that is well-suited for IoT applications.

Several applications for this IoT network are under discussion, from helping tourists identify uncrowded beaches to helping the elderly avoid getting lost. One of the pilot projects uses the network to monitor the availability of some 1,200 parking spaces in a lot at the Balearic Technology Innovation Park.

The Balearic experiment has attracted the attention of Google, which has supplied the local government with its own IoT platform. The online search giant has also brought in its partner Beeva, a Spanish consultancy, to help steer another pilot project that aims to optimize the use of boat moorings in the city of Pollença’s harbor.

Case Study: New Zealand

In New Zealand, similar efforts are underway in that island nation. Telecom carrier Spark is building its own LoRa IoT network, with plans to cover 70% of the population by the middle of 2018. Officials there envision the new network will support connectivity for traffic lights, waterways, and machinery. And they expect to provide such services at lower costs compared to existing infrastructure.

Will these new, island-tested IoT networks prove to be trend-setters? Perhaps. But there are competing IoT network technologies, of course—such as 5G, which has many people in the energy and automotive sectors excited about what it offers (see Navigant Research’s 5G and the Internet of Energy report for some details). No matter how these IoT networks turn out, it pays to keep an eye on the latest advances so one does not get stuck on a technology island.


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