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Utilities Enter the Era of Distributed Generation

Mackinnon Lawrence — March 31, 2014

From the “Internet of energy” to the “utility death spiral,” the causes and effects related to the distributed generation (DG) transformation go by many names.  Faced with what is increasingly recognized as DG’s inevitability, utilities and the companies that supply DG technologies are faced with the difficult challenge of defining viable business models in a multi-dimensional technology landscape.

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and outspoken NRG CEO David Crane have loudly pointed out the futility of business-as-usual thinking in the face of DG’s advance.  It’s a mistake to think the power sector is oblivious to the changes enveloping it, though: most utilities do not actually have their heads in the sand, as recent headlines suggest.  According to Utility Dive’s 2014 State of the Electric Utility survey, 67% of U.S. utility professionals believe their company should take a direct role in supplying DG to their customers ‑ either by owning and leasing distributed assets or by partnering with established DG companies.  At the same time, key suppliers like GE, recognizing a dawning opportunity, are positioning themselves for growth.

Tip of the Iceberg

Although solar PV has provided a blueprint of sorts, a suite of technologies – collectively called distributed energy resources (DER) – is primed to usher in a reimagining of DG’s value proposition.  Composed of renewable and fossil-based generation, diverse fuel sources like the sun and biogas, power generation and storage assets, and applications from microgrids to combined heat and power (CHP), DG’s multi-dimensionality suggests that existing business models are just scratching the surface.  An estimated 37 million homes in the United States, for example, now have natural gas lines running directly to them, which opens up the possibility of micro-combined heat and power and fuel switching.

For utilities, the challenge is fairly straightforward.  Demand-side generation is leading to death by a thousand cuts, as the cost of maintaining and operating the grid is spread over a gradually declining revenue base due to eroding customer demand.

In its widely-cited Disruptive Challenges report, published in 2013, Edison Electric Institute lists the financial risks created by DG: declining utility revenues, increasing costs, and lower profitability potential.  Simply charging higher rates – one solution offered by the most entrenched utilities – risks accelerating the revenue ”death spiral,” as rising rates make it increasingly attractive to adopt otherwise expensive DG technologies.  Recent experiences across Europe have demonstrated that utilities must adapt (see RWE) or risk obsolescence, at least in the traditional revenue sense.

Transforming is Grand

On the supplier side, companies like GE are positioning for what is an inevitable expansion of DG globally.  The company announced last month the creation of a new business unit called GE Distributed Power, targeting the global distributed power opportunity.  Merging three existing business lines – Aeroderivative Gas Turbines, Jenbacher Gas Engines, and Waukesha Gas Engines – GE will invest $1.4 billion to combine formerly niche generation products into a cohesive distributed power offering.

The move coincides with the publication of a recent white paper, “The Rise of Distributed Power,” in which GE forecasts that distributed power will grow 40% faster than overall global electricity demand between now and 2020.  The trend, according to GE, is nothing short of a “grand transformation.”  The company estimates that globally, about 142 gigawatts (GW) of distributed power capacity was ordered and installed in 2012, compared to 218 GW of central power capacity.

Four key trends are driving the distributed power transformation, according to GE: the expansion of natural gas networks; the rise of transmission infrastructure constraints; the growth of digital technologies; and the need for grid resiliency in the face of natural disasters.  While these trends are playing out in the U.S., GE’s efforts are focused primarily on the fast-growing Asia Pacific market and the expansion of natural gas.

Big in Bangladesh

The momentum behind DG is especially strong in the developing world, where electricity demand outstrips the pace at which centralized power stations and transmission infrastructure can be financed and built.  The IEA estimates that in 2009, 1.3 billion people lacked access to electricity, representing around 20% of the global population.  A significant proportion of this population lives in Asia Pacific.

While the DG era represents a degree of complexity that has yet to be fully grasped, initiatives from both utilities and their suppliers point to increasing acceptance of its inevitability.

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