Navigant Research Blog

Transformative Winds Moving Electric Utility Industry in New Directions

Neil Strother — February 13, 2017

AnalyticsThere is a new wind of transformation blowing through the North American electric utility industry, and this change was palpable during the recent DistribuTECH conference in San Diego.

Evidence of a transformation came during numerous conversations I had with technology vendors and utility representatives at the conference. There has been similar talk of change at past D-Tech events, but this year the words have action and momentum behind them. Granted, the transformation taking place now remains at a relatively early stage in certain domains—microgrids and energy storage, for instance. Furthermore, some of the shifts currently taking place might still be struggling to gain traction 10 years from now. But as whole, changes in the industry are tangible and are moving beyond theoretical talk and pilots.

Among the innovations on display at D-Tech:

  • Microgrids: Schneider Electric and Duke Energy jointly announced the deployment of two advanced microgrids in Montgomery County, Maryland. The two systems will provide service to the county’s public safety headquarters and its jail. The goal is to ensure these facilities have more reliable and efficient power and to improve resiliency in the event of major storms or natural disasters. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this project is its microgrid as a service (MaaS) financing model. This arrangement eliminates many of the upfront costs to the county, making the microgrids more affordable to the municipal entity.
  • Customer-centric grid: Utilities are starting to more fully embrace the concept of customer-centricity. Oracle unveiled its new Network Management System version 2.3, which enables a utility to aggregate data from distributed energy resources (DER) like solar PV, EVs, customer-sited storage systems, and connected home devices. Oracle is not alone in providing tools for a deeper view of these customer energy resources, but the announcement does point to the demand the software vendor is seeing from utilities that recognize the shift taking place and the need to comprehensively manage the two-way data flow from grid-tied customer assets.
  • Demand-side solutions: Companies like Powerley and Tesla used the conference to demonstrate their solutions for enabling utility customers to better control their use of energy. Tesla, for instance, did not showcase its famous EVs, but rather its new Powerwall 2 residential battery system. The Powerwall 2 has 14 kWh of capacity, a significant increase from previous versions, and can enable a four-bedroom home to power lights, plugs, and a refrigerator for a whole day. Powerley’s solution helps utilities integrate the smart grid with smart home technologies, thus enabling residential customers to be more efficient energy users and save money.

Part of the transformation on display at D-Tech is being driven by regulators, which see the new technologies as helpful to a more efficient use of energy. But many of the new technologies on their own are driving the change, having been tested and proven to help solve utility business issues and demonstrate a positive ROI, either in real dollars or in softer benefits (such as increased customer satisfaction scores and greater engagement).

We at Navigant have seen this transformation coming for several years, as noted in our Energy Cloud report. Now those forces of change are closer to reality and catching some new air. The coming years should continue to move the industry forward, though some turbulence is to be expected.

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