Navigant Research Blog

Real World Lessons for Utility Data Management

— April 9, 2013

Utilities want to know if vendors are overselling their wares.  Are vendors making commitments that that they really should not?  Sometimes it’s hard to know what a product will actually do – or not do – until it’s installed and running.  So most buyers will try to assure themselves that the product – hardware or software – will do what it says on the label.

But there’s another side that gets less attention: do vendors underplay the difficulty of living with a product?   As Calvin once explained to Hobbes, there’s a big difference between getting something and having something.  After the discussion session at a recent smart grid conference, I understand that having meter data management (MDM) can be more complicated than buyers may grasp during the acquisition cycle.

At the conference session, I joined five utility executives discussing their experiences implementing MDM.  The group was given a preset list of questions to discuss.  The first, “What have you learned from going beyond billing?” resulted in a bunch of blank stares.  The reason: that’s all these utilities have done with MDM – generate bills.  There is little “beyond billing” yet.

Perhaps the most common theme of the discussion was the difficulty of installing MDM and then integrating it with other applications.  All of the participants felt that this aspect had been underplayed by their vendors during the MDM purchase cycle.  Integration of MDM to other applications such as energy management, outage management, or customer information systems, has proven far more difficult than expected.

Response Times Slowed

All five utility officials were also dissatisfied with their MDM’s reporting capabilities.  Several utilities had reinstalled legacy reporting systems, piping the data from the new MDM back to the reinstalled legacy systems.  The group also wanted a separate replicated MDM database for reporting because running complex analyses against the online database significantly slows the response to real-time queries – usually driven by customer portals on the Internet or help desk agents on a call.

Everyone present agreed that MDM should be done before a smart meter rollout, or at least simultaneously.  No one thought it a good idea to deploy smart meters before the MDM was in place.  Some of the group felt that the holy grail of smart metering – interval readings every 15 minutes – is useless for residential applications, although useful in commercial and industrial applications.  One panelist said his utility had activated remote disconnect for only 1% of its smart meters, although that was due to local regulations governing disconnect processes.

Navigant Research’s report, Meter Data Management, published 3Q 2012,  stressed the need for detailed planning before installing an MDM system.  These discussions reminded me how true that is!


Automakers Face Zero-Emission Mandates

— April 9, 2013

It’s clear that fuel economy remains an important part of the purchase decision for a vehicle, but it doesn’t appear to be the greatest driver of innovation in this arena.  In 2011, about eight in ten people we have surveyed say that fuel economy is either “important” or “extremely important” in their purchase decision.  While this points to market demand today, the industry is focused on developing technology to meet new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements that won’t take effect until after model year 2017.

At the Automotive Megatrends conference in Dearborn, Michigan, the looming fuel economy and zero emission vehicle (ZEV) requirements dominated the powertrain discussions that I participated in.  For example, the panel on alternative drivetrains focused heavily on technology that can meet the CARB’s zero emission vehicle (ZEV) requirements.

ZEV Reality Check

Some argue that this sort of government intervention in the market is unrealistic, when ultimately the free market will decide.  This was made clear in Toyota’s presentation during the alternative drive panel, in which Tom Stricker, Vice President of Technical & Regulatory Affairs and Energy & Environmental Research, pointed out that hybrids have achieved 6% of the market in California in the past 13 years.  The question he essentially asked was: is it realistic to think that the market will reach 2.5 times that share for ZEVs within the next 13 years?

The answer is likely no, but the circumstances are certainly different than they were a decade ago.  Rising fuel prices are pushing greater interest in reduced petroleum fuel consumption.  There’s greater product support, with six ZEV models in showrooms (seven if you were to count CODA) only 2 years after introduction, compared to half that number of hybrids 2 years into their launch.  Not only are the vehicles available, but they are clearly cars customers want and customer satisfaction is high.

Of course, the challenges for ZEVs remain.  Public recharging infrastructure isn’t yet ubiquitous.  Our survey found a large disconnect between the expected and actual price of electric vehicles.  Finally, consistent range throughout the year remains a challenge.  Even so, 13,916 ZEVs sold nationwide last year.

To meet the upcoming mandates, I expect that we’ll see some additional experimentation in the coming years, in battery leasing, price reductions, and perhaps even different battery size options.  Of course, legal battles and delayed regulations aren’t off the table either.


New Architecture Enables Renewable Integration

— April 9, 2013

Sandia National Laboratories is developing a microgrid architecture that holds the potential to revolutionize not only the microgrid industry, but all electricity generation.  The secure scalable microgrid (SSM) will allow for 100% stochastic, or unpredictable, generation (e.g., solar PV and wind).  Many companies and individuals have feared that renewable generation assets will compromise the stability of the electricity grid, and, under more traditional grid architectures, this makes sense intuitively.  Since neither solar nor wind are load-following or dispatchable, they can wreak havoc in the absence of sufficient traditional generation or energy storage to compensate for the large swings in renewable production.

The SSM architecture includes a communication network that connects the loads to the generation assets, along with weather and load prediction, energy storage assessments, and a device to monitor the connection to the central utility.  It uses Hamiltonian functions to balance and optimize generation and load given uncertainties in the data it collects.  With an open architecture design, the SSM also promotes transparency of operation, configurability, extensibility to different systems, and its “plug-and-play” capability.

SSM is currently being tested at the SSM Test Bed in New Mexico, which includes programmable loads that mimic both fossil and renewable based generation, buses, and integrated control computers to effectively simulate the microgrid in Lanai, Hawaii.  While there is no timeline yet for the commercialization of the technology, its eventual introduction into the market will allow for significantly greater penetration of renewables than are currently feasible.

Enabling the Green Grid

The major implication for SSM is that electricity generation can become completely renewable and independent of fossil fuels, a necessary step in the greening of the power grid.  Environmental concerns aside, completely stochastic electricity production usually requires no fuel inputs.  As the production costs associated with solar PV and wind turbines continue to decrease, and stochastic generation becomes economically competitive with traditional fossil fuel generation, the SSM should allow a transition to mostly, or completely, renewable electricity generation.

New Zealand and Austria, for example, have goals of 90% and 78% renewable generation, respectively, in the coming decades.  While it’s relatively simple, if costly, to install sufficient qualifying generation, the task of ensuring grid stability is much more daunting.  Germany has recently experienced grid issues due to its high penetration of solar, since power outputs can change very rapidly.  The SSM grid architecture, if it can be scaled up for central grid use, would help to ensure that even significant fluctuations in power output from renewable sources can maintain consistent voltage and frequency across the grid.

In the near future, the SSM architecture will bolster the ability of utilities to meet renewable energy requirements by incorporating utility distribution microgrids (UDMs) into their portfolios and service areas.  As described in the Navigant Research report Utility Distribution Microgrids, UDMs are forecast to increase 1,100 MW by 2018, and this trend will only be reinforced by the advent of the SSM.

Total UDM Capacity by Region, Average Scenario, World Markets: 2012-2018


(Source: Navigant Research)


Why We Don’t Need a Fusion-Powered Rocket

— April 7, 2013

A team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) has won a second round of funding from NASA for their concept for a nuclear fusion-powered rocket to take men to Mars.  Given the very grave problems we face as a nation and as a species, not to mention the long and dismal history of fusion reactor design, the folly of this is astounding.

“We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space,” John Slough, the UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics who heads the project, said in a UW website feature, “that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

I call this kind of thing “future porn”: the starry-eyed reporting of R&D that aims to accomplish outlandish goals that, even if attainable, will almost certainly prove too expensive, complicated, or non-lucrative to ever become reality.  Future porn stories always contain lots of conditionals and very long timeframes.  The terms “could,” “would,” and “eventually” tend to appear frequently.  “Now, astronauts could be a step closer to our nearest planetary neighbor through a unique manipulation of nuclear fusion,” the UW site reports.

Slough’s team “was one of a handful of projects awarded a second round of funding last fall after already receiving phase-one money in a field of 15 projects chosen from more than 700 proposals.”

I can think of a half-dozen things that NASA should be working on that would be more applicable to our current predicament and beneficial to humanity than harebrained schemes for Mars exploration; warding off annihilating asteroids and dealing with climate change would be top of the list.

Fusion Fail

The fusion-rocket news out of Seattle coincides with a discouraging report in Science News on the National Ignition Facility’s long, quixotic, and so-far failed attempts to produce controlled fusion by compressing a sphere of cryogenic hydrogen using 384 beams from the world’s most powerful laser, thereby releasing tremendous amounts of energy.  NIF scientists 4 years ago confidently predicted “that by September 30, 2012, they would demonstrate a fusion reaction producing net energy, a milestone known as ignition.”  Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.

The NIF account makes for a fascinating case study in the peril of relying on computer simulations.  Essentially, the researchers were convinced by their computer models that the hydrogen would compress symmetrically, i.e., into a near-perfect sphere.  Instead, the material deformed and warped, defying the attempts to unleash more energy than the powerful lasers put in.  “Nature just wants to break you,” said John Edwards, NIF’s associate director of fusion – a remark that echoes the head-shaking sighs of just about everyone who’s ever tried to achieve a sustainable, controlled fusion reaction.

Instead of lasers, the fusion rocket out of UW would use large metal rings, made of lithium, caused by a powerful magnetic field to implode and compress a type of plasma, leading to continuous bursts of fusion that would power the rocket.  To master the intricacies of this ingenious scheme, the scientists have relied upon, you guessed it, “detailed computer modeling.”


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