Navigant Research Blog

In Slowing Market, Echelon Exits Smart Grids

— September 16, 2014

The market for smart grid technology is still growing — in fact, Navigant Research expects it to grow from $44 billion this year to more than $70 billion in 2023 — but that doesn’t mean it offers easy money for vendors.  In fact, among smart meter vendors in particular, the recent slowdown in demand following the boom years under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funding in the United States and several large European deployments is prompting consolidation along with speculation that there is more to come.

San Jose, California-based Echelon announced on August 21 that it is exiting the smart grid market to focus on its Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) division.  Linz, Austria-based S&T AG will acquire Echelon’s smart grid division for modest consideration — according to SEC filings from Echelon, it will receive in the neighborhood of $5 million before expenses related to the deal; debts associated with the division will also be assumed by S&T.

From S&T’s point of view, the deal is attractive in both financial and strategic terms.  S&T will form a new company, along with unnamed financial investors, and spend approximately $3.3 million (€2.5 million) for 40% of the company, implying an enterprise value of just more than $8 million, or about 0.3 times run-rate revenue for the division.  That low multiple reflects the 52.7% decline in smart grid revenue that Echelon suffered in 2013 versus 2012 and its reliance upon a small number of customers.

In contrast, publicly traded Itron, which has also been the subject of recent deal speculation, is valued by the market at 1 times run-rate revenue.  Considering typical acquisition premiums for technology businesses (typically 25%-50%), one could argue that Itron’s value in a sale would be north of $2.5 billion, or between 1.3 and 1.5 times run-rate revenue.

Head East  

A large IT solutions and services company, S&T has recently expanded its offerings in the smart grid space.  It has a solid presence in Central and Eastern European markets where Echelon’s power line carrier technology is likely to be dominant for smart meter deployments.  Whereas many Western European meter projects are well into the deployment process (or at least in the request for proposal stage), several Central and Eastern European governments have committed to Europe’s 20-20-20 initiative and smart meter deployments, but major utilities have not yet made significant commitments to vendors.

At least one Wall Street analyst expects additional consolidation among smart grid technology vendors.  Louis Basenese of Wall Street Daily reported on August 18 that more than $30 billion in smart grid deals have occurred over the past 2 years.  Of course, GE’s $17 billion buy of Alstom Grid will add substantially to that sum, but Basenese believes both Itron and Silver Spring Networks are presently attractive, largely because of their patent portfolios.

Unfortunately, Echelon appears to have been forced to sell at what may be a nadir in the market for smart meter business — but considering the growth ahead for smart grid technology deployments, I would agree with Basenese that more deals are likely to emerge.

 

Utilities Warm to Cloud-Based Smart Grid Analytics

— August 5, 2014

Managed services for smart grid applications — also known as smart grid as a service (SGaaS) — haven’t exactly lit a fire under utility executives.  Despite the numerous advantages to outsourcing non-core activities like communications, software applications, monitoring, etc., many large utilities, citing security, control, and economics, prefer to keep these functions in-house.

But as smart grid deployments extend beyond the largest utilities, it seems likely that organizations constrained by finances or personnel will be obliged to consider the SGaaS model if they want to take full advantage of smart grid technology.

Vendors are repackaging their solutions in a spectrum of managed offerings, from hosted to managed to full business process outsourcing.  And cloud service providers, including Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, are actively courting utilities’ business.

On July 14, Itron announced that it has selected Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform for its managed Itron Analytics solution.  Microsoft Azure will maintain the infrastructure, allowing Itron and its customers to focus on the analytics.  Itron says its analytics solutions can be installed locally, run by the utility in the cloud, or operated and managed as part of Itron’s Total Services.

The Whole Enchilada

Itron’s Total Services boxes up the metering, communications, and meter data management, along with analytics, in a fully managed offering.  In other words, Itron will not only turn the knobs, but will also respond to the information coming in.  Texas New Mexico Power (TNMP) in Lewisville, Texas engaged Itron to provide meter data analytics for its 230,000 meters earlier this year.

TNMP told me that “a smart meter can trigger hundreds of alarms; our staff may not have the expertise to best respond, whereas Itron’s analysts do have that proficiency.”  TNMP is also working with ABB’s Ventyx unit for an outage management system (OMS) that will be hosted and administered by Ventyx.

Hefty Growth Ahead

Navigant Research’s report, Smart Grid as a Service, forecasts that the SGaaS market will grow strongly over the next decade.  Our forecast includes a host of managed services for utilities, including home energy management, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution and substation automation communications, asset management and condition monitoring, demand response, and software solutions and analytics.  We expect to see a $1.7 billion market in 2014 growing to more than $11 billion in 2023.  Software solutions and analytics sold under a software as a service (SaaS) model are the largest category of SGaaS spending today, followed by AMI managed services.

Annual SGaaS Revenue by Category, World Markets: 2014-2023

 

(Source: Navigant Research)

Challenges to the model do remain, however.  Most notably, the rate of return model that most investor-owned utilities work under encourages them to make their own capital and personnel investments.  But for smaller utilities (e.g., cooperatives and municipals here in the United States), the speed with which solutions can be deployed, and the absence of large upfront investment, will be attractive.

 

European Grids Look to RF Mesh Networks

— July 23, 2014

Communications networks for smart grids have evolved very differently in Europe than they have in North America, with power line communications (PLC) and cellular technology the leading forms of communications thus far for smart meter connectivity across the pond.  Here in the United States, the availability of unlicensed (free) spectrum in the 900 MHz band has led to the leadership of proprietary radio frequency (RF) mesh solutions, such as those provided by Itron, Silver Spring Networks, Elster, Tantalus, Landis+Gyr, and others.

The European Commission, however, has taken steps in recent months to bring 48 European nations into alignment on spectrum policy across the continent.  Specifically for smart meters and smart grid applications (and other machine-to-machine [M2M] applications), the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) announced in February a framework whereby 5.6 MHz of spectrum, from 870 MHz to 875.6 MHz, will be set aside for unlicensed M2M uses, including smart meters and grids.  Details can be found in CEPT’s Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) Report 189.

Indoor Reading

CEPT cited several reasons for supporting interoperability, including the creation of economies of scale and cost reduction, reduction in the risk of cross-border interference, and greater flexibility.  The choice of sub-1 GHz spectrum, where propagation characteristics are stronger than at higher bands, makes the spectrum suitable for reading meters that may be placed indoors, even in basements — a common practice in European nations.

Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s telecommunications regulatory body, this year made amendments to its Wireless Telegraphy Act that allow for commercial operations on a license-exempt basis at 870 MHz to 876 MHz as of June 27, 2014; similar action is likely across the 48 nations that participate in CEPT.

This is good news for vendors, like those named above, but also for utilities across Europe seeking more flexibility in their smart meter and grid deployments.  RF mesh solutions are often less expensive than PLC for near area networks, though that varies widely depending upon the structure of the grid in the region as well as the topography.  Nonetheless, some smart meter/communications solutions providers have struggled financially over the past couple of years after ramp-up for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding created a spike in demand that has since fallen rather sharply.

Room to Grow

Europe is poised to be the next big growth area for smart metering, thanks to the European Union’s (EU’s) 20-20-20 initiative, which a majority of European nations support.  Navigant Research estimates that current penetration of smart meters across Europe is just 15%, compared with more than 40% in North America.  While several nations have made significant progress in deployment (Italy, Scandinavia), Germany isn’t yet on board with the 20-20-20 initiative, and the United Kingdom and France are just getting rolling.  In Eastern Europe, there has been minimal activity to date, particularly in Russia, home to nearly 100 million meters.  For details on Navigant Research’s global smart meter forecast, look for our report Smart Meters, slated for publication later this year.

The Market for Smart Meters, Europe: 2013-2023

(Source: Navigant Research)

Smart meter shipments in North America are expected to total 121 million between 2014 and 2023; that total is forecast to be 221 million in Europe.  That’s more than $18 billion in anticipated revenue for smart meters — a market that surely every smart meter vendor will watch.

 

Emerging Broadband Technology Offers New Connectivity for Utilities

— July 15, 2014

In the battle for smart grid communications standards, yet another contender is now on the horizon, promising ultra fast data speeds over existing copper wires.  And while telephone companies (telcos) are the primary target market for the G.Fast standard, chipset developer Sckipio believes that the standard will be attractive to utilities for smart grid applications, in addition to broadband connectivity and over-the-top applications like video.

Designed to help telcos cost-effectively compete with cable broadband and very expensive fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity, G.Fast employs vectoring technology to eliminate interference (cross-talk) between multiple wire pairs in a single copper cable.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) instituted the standard in 2010, and recent field trials have shown promising results.

Belgacom has trialed the standard with 3,000 customers and reported a nearly four-fold increase in access speeds over copper.  This makes the technology a reasonable alternative to FTTH, particularly in urban areas with extensive copper infrastructure already in place.  In multi-dwelling units with extensive in-wall phone lines, the use of existing copper lines represents enormous cost-saving, as well as a speed-to-market advantage over running new fiber.

Coming Soon

G.fast is designed for use in the last-mile – in practice, over distances of less than 250 meters.  This allows fiber to reach as far as the basement of an apartment block, for example, eliminating the need to rewire the whole building and still allowing a notable acceleration in access speeds.  G.fast requires a short loop (less than 250 meters) and operates at higher frequencies than digital subscriber line transmissions, which also run over existing copper wires, increasing the risk of cross-talk unless the new vectoring technology is employed.

Sckipio says it has seen interest in Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific, and expects to see telco deployment begin in earnest in 2015.

Tel Aviv, Israel-based Sckipio was founded in 2012, and in December 2013 announced a $10 million venture capital round with Gemini Israel Ventures, Genesis Partners, Amiti Capital, and Aviv Ventures.  The company  is building ultra high-speed G.fast broadband modem semiconductors.

The G.fast standard is still working its way through ITU approval, and a few technical hurdles remain:  Powering the equipment and the unbundling of sub-loops is something that different countries are treating differently.

G.fast represents a great leap forward for telcos struggling with legacy copper networks.  As a viable alternative for utilities seeking connectivity for smart grid applications, it is likely still a couple of years out.  Given its very high data transfer speeds, however, it may well present a new alternative for utilities needing visibility and control at the grid edge — while also providing telephone companies with an opportunity to ramp up their business in the utility/smart grid vertical.

 

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