Navigant Research Blog

Despite Bumpy Road, Smart Meters Deliver Benefits

— January 13, 2015

As 2015 begins, it’s clear that smart meter investments around the globe will continue to play a key role in the transformation of electric utility grids.   A new report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) notes that the penetration of smart meters in the United States continues to climb.  As those deployments have unfolded, utilities and industry stakeholders have gained valuable experience in integrating the latest technologies that enable new grid and consumer applications.

As the FERC report notes, smart meters enable a number of applications that enhance a utility’s operational efficiency, including remote meter reading, remote meter connections and disconnections, tamper and outage detection and notification, voltage monitoring, integration of distributed energy resources (especially solar PV) through net metering, and time-based rates.  Advanced metering also provides demand-side benefits, such as deferred capital expenses, improved utilization of capital assets, reduced electricity generation, reduced environmental impacts, and more options for customers to manage consumption and lower costs.

Restorative Powers

Many of these smart meter benefits form the basis of what we described as smart metering 2.0 in Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.  Installing meters – just the first step in transforming the grid – lays the foundation for enhanced consumer engagement, demand response capabilities, and overall utility efficiency.  One recent example came from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which credited its smart grid technology for the quick return of power to half a million customers who had electricity knocked out when violent storms rumbled across Northern California in mid-December 2014.  The company said it restored power to more than 95% of those customers who lost power in less than 48 hours.

Outside the United States, smart meter deployments will expand in 2015.  In Japan, for instance, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is expected to accelerate its smart meter deployments as it attempts to install 27 million devices by 2020.  Japan’s nine other major utilities will soon follow with initial deployments that will eventually lead to a total of 80 million smart meters nationwide by 2024.  In Europe, France’s national utility Electricité Réseau Distribution France (ERDF) is expected to ramp up smart meter deployments as well, and deployments in Spain are expected to continue apace.

Best Laid Plans

But deployments don’t always go as planned, and schedules can get bumpy.  In Britain, for instance, the rollout of smart meters was supposed to accelerate in 2015, but another delay has pushed back the massive deployment until 2016.  In Germany, smart metering remains on a slower track since regulators said utilities can conduct deployments in a targeted way.  And even in places where smart meters are now common, such as Ontario, Canada, the debate about their value relative to the cost continues.

Nonetheless, investments in smart meters and related grid technologies will expand in 2015 and in the following years (see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Meters, for a detailed forecast).  New deployments will face challenges, especially large and complex ones like the one in Great Britain, which includes gas meters along with electric ones, and in Japan, where several communication standards are in play.  Even so, the value of smart metering technologies is undeniable, and they will continue to be a foundational piece of future smart grids.

 

The Trouble with Trying to Reduce Residential Energy Consumption

— January 5, 2015

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reminds us of the difficulty in trying to reduce energy consumption.  The story, by Jo Craven McGinty, notes that after 3 decades of effort aimed at lowering residential energy use in the United States, the overall level of consumption is still about the same, about 10 quadrillion BTUs per year.

Taking a deeper look, however, there is some positive news in the data.  While overall consumption is nearly unchanged, the average energy consumption per household has decreased, dropping to about 90 million BTUs a year in 2009 (latest year available) from about 114 million BTUs in 1980.

So, what is going on? Several things: newer homes tend to be larger than older ones.  And though they have more efficient envelopes and systems (double-pane windows, improved insulation, and efficient heating-cooling systems), it takes more energy to heat larger spaces, and the proliferation of devices in homes has required more energy use.  We now plug in more TVs, computers, DVRs, mobile phones, and second refrigerators.

The Efficiency Paradox

While our homes are more efficient, this is offset by an increase in energy consumption, a phenomenon called the rebound effect, or the Jevons Paradox, which holds that an increase in efficient use of a resource, like energy, can result in greater use and reduce the benefit.   This is not a hard and fast rule, and it is often debated among economists.  Nonetheless, there is a propensity toward squandering some efficiency gains once realized.  For example, when gas prices drop significantly, the cost per mile is lower, and people are more inclined to drive further or faster.

As McGinty points out, Americans receive mixed messages, being hectored to conserve energy while also being constantly invited to buy new gadgets and appliances that require energy.  This is evident in the U.S. Energy Information Administration data showing how consumption by type has changed.  In 1993, appliances, lighting, and electronics accounted for 24% of home consumption, which rose in 2009 to 34.6%.  Space heating was 53% of home energy consumption in 1993 and decreased to 41.5% in 2009.

Annual Residential Energy Consumption by End Use, U.S.: 2009

                               (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Helping to reduce residential consumption lies at the heart of home energy management systems and represents a key goal of utility energy efficiency programs.  No one is suggesting these efforts should stop just because the net result can seem frustratingly ineffective, or merely incremental.  But, as noted in Navigant Research’s report, Home Energy Management, one of the inhibitors to wider adoption is the uncertainty around net benefits.  Some argue that one way to avoid the rebound effect would be a tax to keep the cost of energy use the same.  But that would be a hard sell.

 

In Germany, a Small Town Becomes an Energy Dynamo

— December 8, 2014

A small town in Germany has become a symbol of what is possible for renewable energy and of the challenges it presents to the traditional utility model.  Wildpoldsried, in southern Bavaria, produces 500% more energy than it needs.  The town of approximately 2,600 people does this through solar, wind, biogas, and hydro systems and a healthy dose of government subsidies.

The transformation of the town’s energy use enabled it to produce all of its electricity well before the target date of 2020.  The excess energy, however, presented the regional utility, Allgäuer Überlandwerke GmbH (AÜW), with a problem: How to integrate the surplus renewable energy into the wider grid? So the utility partnered with Siemens on a project called the Integration of Regenerative Energy and Electrical Mobility (IRENE).  Using sensors throughout the town’s energy systems, operators are able to measure various levels of current, voltage, and frequency, and then a self-organizing automation system balances supply and demand to stabilize the grid.  In addition, local homeowners who have energy-producing systems (e.g., solar PV) are now prosumers, and each has a small device that controls how much power is sold back to the grid and at what minimum price, creating, in effect, a small-scale distributed energy resource market that feeds into the larger grid.

Cars, Solar PV, & the Grid

Wildpoldsried is not alone in attempts to modernize and create a more efficient grid.  In the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, officials in Japan have been wrestling with how to create more sustainable cities.  The Japan Smart City initiative includes projects in Yokohama, Toyota City, Keihanna (Kyoto), and Kitakyushu.  In Yokohama, for instance, one of the trials involves a home energy management system provided by Panasonic that integrates solar PV systems with battery storage.  In another trial, automaker Nissan has been testing a vehicle-to-home system, in which electrical power is furnished to homes from the batteries mounted in electric vehicles. (For more on these types of vehicle-grid integration projects, please attend Navigant Research’s free webinar, Electric Vehicles and the Grid, on February 10, 2015, at 2 p.m. ET.  Click here to register.)

Net Zero

Similarly, in the United States, California continues to be a bellwether for renewable energy and sustainability.  The state’s Zero Net Energy (ZNE) policy requires all new residential construction to be ZNE by 2020; a ZNE home is one that produces as much renewable, grid-tied energy onsite, such as from a solar PV system, as it uses during a calendar year.  Homebuilder KB Homes has constructed such a zero-net home in the Sacramento area that features a rooftop solar PV system with battery storage, an advanced greywater recycling system, triple-pane windows, and heavy duty insulation.  In the city of Lancaster, builders are offering similar types of ZNE homes as that city attempts to become a leader in alternative energy.

What Wildpoldsried and these other cities demonstrate is that through technology, regulations, and cooperation with utilities, a smarter and eco-friendly grid is possible.  For skeptics, these are real world examples of what is possible.  Yes, this can mean disruption of current business models.  But it does not have to mean destruction.  As noted in Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond, these and other smart grid trends are expected to unfold in the coming years, and stakeholders must adapt to this transforming energy landscape.

 

British Smart Meter Rollout Hits a New Snag

— November 24, 2014

There is another delay in the rollout of smart electric and gas meters in Great Britain.  The deployment of more than 50 million meters was expected to begin in the fall of 2015, but now that starting date could be up to a year later, meaning the fall of 2016.

The delay comes as the entity in charge of the communications system, known as the Data Communications Company (DCC), has said it is not feasible to meet the fall 2015 start date.  The DCC, which is run by outsourcing vendor Capita, blames the delay on U.K. government officials who changed the specifications that required redesigns for parts of the systems.  The delay is expected to add an additional $140 million to the expected $17 billion cost of the multiyear project.

This new delay follows an earlier postponement announced in 2013.  This new delay could mean that the mandatory completion target year of 2020 will not be met. However, the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) maintains that the deadline will still be met.

Pushback for Vendors

For the meter vendors and technology providers involved, like Sensus, Landis+Gyr, and Trilliant, the new delay pushes out their delivery cycles and could negatively affect their financial pictures as well.

So far, the other large European smart meter deployment in France (as noted in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Meters) is still on schedule, with the installation of the first 3 million meters expected to begin sometime in the third quarter of 2015.

No doubt there is plenty of frustration among the parties involved in the British project, but what they plan to do is undeniably complex.  Connecting one type of smart meter, electric for instance, poses enough of a challenge, but connecting both an electric and a natural gas meter at the same time and expecting the communications elements to run smoothly is asking a lot.  Further delays, or at least a speed bump or two, are more than likely.

 

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