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Glen Canyon Undercuts Smart Meter Competitors

— February 1, 2012

One persistent question was heard repeatedly from major smart-meter manufacturers at last week’s DistribuTECH 2012: “Who are these guys?”

The guys in this case are the people behind Glen Canyon – an upstart smart meter maker that jumped onto everyone’s radar just days before the smart grid industry’s latest annual event kicked off in San Antonio.  In multiple meetings with representatives of major incumbents (Itron, Elster, Landis+Gyr), one of the first questions to me and my Pike Research colleagues was what we thought about Glen Canyon (more on that below).

Why the great interest in Glen Canyon? Because the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based newcomer is offering to sell AMI smart meters for ridiculously low prices ($25 or less, according to reports).  That would undercut typical prices by a wide margin, and that has rattled nerves among the incumbents.

Glen Canyon representatives told me their NEXGEN meters are made by Hong Kong-based contract manufacturer Computime at a factory in Shenzhen, China.  The devices feature a communications package that includes an 802.15.4 wireless radio with a RISC-based 32-bit processor.  A key element of Glen Canyon’s system is its AMI cloud service, which while interesting is not unique as other vendors, including SAIC and GE, have similar offerings.

At DistribuTECH, Glen Canyon announced a deal with Beijing Guozhiheng Power Management Technology Group for 1.5 million NEXGEN meters that will be deployed over the next 18 months.  Not bad for a company just coming out of stealth mode.

If indeed GC can deliver at volume good-enough smart meters at cut-rate prices, then this could alter the competitive landscape.  It will also kick off a price war, mainly outside North America where utilities anxious to deploy smart meters but unwilling to pay premium prices might be willing buyers.  It’s too early to tell just how much ground shaking GC will eventually cause.  For now anyway, the meter business has felt at least a minor disturbance.

 

Smart Homes Coming, At a Gradual Pace

— January 19, 2012

The promise of smarter homes continued to make noise at this year’s CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics show.  But nothing really wowed me.  You might call this an incremental show – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Keep in mind that CES is huge, with 1.86 million net square feet of space used by exhibitors, record crowds (upwards of 153,000 people) and a record number (3,100-plus) of exhibitors showing off their newest gear.  Among the products, companies and people I saw, these stood out for various reasons:

Devices

Nest (Nest Labs): It’s hard not to like what Nest Labs has done to the lowly thermostat.  The much-publicized Nest device combines the simplicity of an iPod (the company founders, in fact, helped develop Apple’s iPod) with the ability to “learn” how you use energy to heat and cool your home.  The device then aims to help consumers reduce energy consumption and thereby lower their costs.  Company co-founder Matt Rogers told me the catalyst for Nest was to help people “save a ton” on energy consumption with an easy-to-use device.  After launching online last November, Nest Labs quickly ran out of stock.  Orders are wait-listed now as manufacturing ramps up.

Belkin’s WeMo Home Control Switch: This Wi-Fi connected switch sits between a wall outlet and small home appliances.  You turn it on or off through an app on iOS, Apple’s mobile platform, and the switch can be paired with a motion sensor for more functionality.  Availability of these WeMo devices is expected in the summer of 2012.  Other related devices – such as garage door openers, door locks, and baby monitors – are expected to join the WeMo family as well.

Retail

AlertMe and Lowes’s: UK-based AlertMe has partnered with home improvement chain Lowe’s to provide a cloud-based home management system.  AlertMe will be the platform behind Lowe’s new Iris service for North America, which enables consumers to monitor and control their homes through a smartphone or a computer.  The Iris service will launch in mid-2012.  AlertMe CEO Mary Turner told me the goal is to provide consumers with not only an intelligent digital dashboard for their homes, but also the ability to put their homes on “cruise control.”

Technology

ZigBee, Z-Wave, HomePlug, UPnP, HomeGrid (G.hn): Many of the leading networking technology groups were present at CES, as expected, each vying for greater traction in the connected home space.  While each has something to offer, there isn’t room here to dissect them in detail.  Suffice to say, many vendors have interesting products on the market or coming soon based on these technologies, which is very encouraging.  But it all makes for a cluttered landscape in consumers’ minds, and that slows the emergence of mainstream solutions.

Throughout the show, I heard people say, essentially, “The technology is available for smarter homes – it just needs to be deployed.”  For that to happen, I was told, both utility operators and consumers need more education, which while true, means a slower rate of adoption.  Sure sounds incremental to me – and should be expected, given the sluggish economy and the mood of consumers to move cautiously at the outset of trends that involve something as complex as the modern, connected home.

 

A Tale of Two Utilities

— January 3, 2012

As the new year dawns, a look at two U.S. utilities paints a contrasting picture in terms of customer engagement during a smart meter deployment. San Diego Gas & Electric (SG&E) has traveled a relatively smooth road as it nears the end of its installation of 1.4 million smart meters. Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has endured a bumpy ride as it continues with its smart meter rollout which has involved upgrading more than 8.8 million electric and gas meters. The California-based operator plans to wrap up its smart meter program in 2012, when the total will reach nearly 10 million endpoints.

Focusing on just customer engagement, SDG&E has set a high bar in its efforts by putting customers first and not just in words alone. According to the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), the San Diego operator:

  • Sent customer service representatives into the field to handle complaints
  • Trained entire staff on smart meters
  • Addressed complaints quickly
  • Identified old meters that were running slowly and called relevant customers one week later to explain potential bill increase
  • Sampled customer reactions with a door-to-door survey
  • Responded to emotional complaints with empathy as well as factual argument

As a result, while SDG&E received a few statements of health concerns, some high bill complaints, and requests for an opt-out option, the California Public Utilities Commission received far fewer complaints from SDG&E’s customers than PG&E’s.

By contrast, PG&E’s rollout was noted for the following, again according to the Consumer Collaborative:

  • PG&E was early to deploy advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), but did not initially take significant steps to educate or inform customers
  • After receiving complaints, the utility developed an AMI marketing, education, and installation notification campaign
  • PG&E hired 165 call center employees to handle AMI-related inquiries

Despite the operator’s revamped customer engagement policy, some customers have continued to oppose the smart meter program. PG&E recently asked the California PUC for permission to give customers an opt-out option, and the PUC is expected to issue its decision on the matter in the coming weeks. So, this shows some progress on the part of PG&E as it tries to be more flexible in its dealings with customers.

The point here is not to pile on PG&E – its own customers and the California PUC, among others, have done that well enough. PG&E deserves credit for being a pioneer with its smart meter deployment, and it has taken its share of arrows in doing so. But PG&E made a fundamental mistake early on: Not making customer engagement its top priority, and instead pushing ahead with its initial “our way or the highway” attitude. Not a good plan, especially as connected consumers have new online tools for organizing complaints, as we noted in our recent report, Social Media in the Utility Industry. PG&E seems to be on the right track for now, and we will continue to monitor this major utility as it moves ahead with its smart meter deployment in 2012. Other utility managers, meantime, should learn from past mistakes and keep customer engagement the top priority as they roll out smart meter projects.

 

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