Navigant Research Blog

Data Centers and Military Microgrids: The Diesel Dilemma

— October 20, 2017

If something isn’t broken, why try to fix it? This kind of thinking sums up the perspective of many owners and operators of data centers. If they feel comfortable with the technology or solution that has been in place for quite some time, the incentive to enact something new and different is small. As a result, to maintain power for mission-critical loads, data centers have historically relied upon diesel generators linked to lead-acid batteries and (perhaps) dual feeds from two different utilities.

The Uptime Institute has created de facto data center industry standards that range from Tier I to Tier IV, with the latter representing the highest possible resilience. “Human beings have an almost emotional attachment to their diesel generators, as they give data center owners and operators both comfort and a form of insurance,” observed Chris Brown, CTO for the Uptime Institute. He does not see a decline in reliance upon diesel generators. According to Brown, “Engine generator usage will likely hang on, as the emotional tie and the form of insurance will still be present.”

Despite these insights, new data highlights how existing power infrastructure does carry risks for data centers. The average power outage cost for a data center in 2015 was $740,357—a 38% increase in the cost of downtime compared to 2010. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic found in Eaton’s Blackout Tracker Annual Report for 2016 is that the increase in maximum downtime costs rose to $2.4 million.

Military Base Parallels

One analogy to the challenge facing data centers is military bases in the United States. A typical large-scale military base may feature from 100 to 350 backup diesel generators, each hardwired to a single building. In many instances, they are sized at more than 200% of each building’s peak load as a contingency for energy security. Just a simple networking of existing diesel generators into a microgrid can offer cost savings for military microgrids and data centers alike.

A study by Pew Charitable Trusts found, for example, that creating a microgrid instead of relying upon standalone backup diesel generators reduces the cost of resilience by $1 billion or more. Note that the savings vary by region, with the greatest savings for those military microgrids deployed in the PJM Interconnection transmission control area. Yet, when displacing diesel backup generators with 50% diesel/natural gas fuel hybrid microgrid, California military bases boast the largest net savings. With a 50/50 portfolio of diesel/natural gas, microgrids in the PJM territory and the Southeast ironically show an increase in cost on a dollar-per-kilowatt basis if compared to the current reliance upon diesel backup generators. This is largely a result of low diesel fuel prices in those parts of the country, and it arguably points to the need to diversify power generation sources with a microgrid beyond fossil fuels.

Annual Net Cost of Protection ($/kW of Critical Load)

(Sources: Noblis, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

A new report by Navigant Research, Military Microgrids, notes that a key to innovation lies in new business models. The same could also be said for data centers. Data centers like to control their own destiny, which often means they want to own infrastructure. Yet, just like solar leases and third-party power purchase agreements accelerated the solar PV industry at a critical point in time in its development path, similar models could also bring microgrids into the mainstream.

Does such an approach hold promise for state-of-the-art data center microgrids? Schneider Electric would like to find out. Learn more at the upcoming webinar on October 24.

 

Working Together toward a Circular Economy in Europe

— October 19, 2017

The European Commission is taking the lead on circular economy strategies through the circular economy package. Thus, an increasing number of industry associations and companies in Europe are working toward a circular economy. They are devising ways to implement related measures to reap the benefits while also preparing for upcoming regulations and directives.

Earlier this year, Ecofys, a Navigant company, and Fipra organised a roundtable discussion with industry coalitions, private sector, and the European Commission on the circular economy package, with a focus on the upcoming Strategy on Plastics. The aim was to gain more clarity regarding the current direction and expected content of the strategy that the European Commission will publish by the end of 2017. Ecofys and Fipra are working together with complementary specialisations and a common goal of furthering the narrative about the circular economy. Ecofys specialises in strategic insights, research, and analysis while Fipra specialises in public affairs strategies. This combination of skills is critical to proactively developing substantiated, viable alternatives to the challenges presented by the circular economy.

Cooperation between Stakeholders

The key message of the roundtable discussion based on feedback from participants was the importance of cooperation between all stakeholders in the value chain to find creative solutions to making the plastics materials stream circular. According to the roadmap on the plastics strategy released by the European Commission in January 2017, the three challenges the Commission plans to tackle are the following:

  1. High dependence on virgin fossil feedstock
  2. Low rate of recycling and reuse of plastics
  3. Significant leakage of plastics into the environment

The European Commission plans to conduct a variety of actions, including studies and analyses on alternative feedstocks, reuse, recycling, marine litter, and micro-plastics. It also plans to develop standards for secondary raw materials and the biodegradability of plastics, as well as consider policy tools such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) aimed at increasing the recyclability of products.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

For a business, this transformation to a circular economy is about efficiency gains, both in terms of input and output, and ensuring each part of its value chain is being targeted. Factors such as shifting focus from product design to usage of recycled content, investing in recycling processes and technology, and creating a market for secondary raw materials based on competitive prices, quality, and quantity are all essential drivers in this transition.

Companies should emphasize all levels of the value chain, including all economic operators and the final customer. A more holistic lifecycle approach should be taken to evaluate where along the chain the most efficiency gains can be made. This transition to the circular economy will be a long one, and it can only be sustained if it is profitable for businesses. It’s also important to note that recycling cannot be a goal in and of itself. Rather, it should be seen as a means to an end.

The application of the waste hierarchy in the member states will also be heavily considered in all actions within the strategy by the European Commission. The main concern for the private sector is that the competitiveness of European businesses is ensured to encourage a successful transition to the circular economy.

The key positive takeaway from the discussion on the circular economy with multiple stakeholders is that there is great interest and belief in this important issue, as well as the desire to implement related measures. However, the motivation to act needs to be accompanied by specific implementation steps to accomplish the transition in companies and sectors.

 

Service Providers Capitalizing on Smart Home Opportunity

— October 17, 2017

The smart home is a concept gaining hype and excitement with its futuristic promises. This market is projected to see significant growth, as Navigant Research expects smart home platform revenue to increase from $4.2 billion in 2017 to $39.5 billion in 2026. As discussed in our report, The Smart Home, a range of companies are vying for market share in this hotbed of opportunity, from startups to large tech incumbents.

Recently, I had a chance to attend the Service Delivery Innovation Summit, a conference bringing together a range of service providers to discuss innovations in the service business. Service providers are increasingly looking toward the smart home as a way to create new revenue streams as existing business models are challenged by newer offerings, such as traditional cable TV versus streaming services.

Who Can Take the Chance?

Service providers are arguably the best positioned to seize opportunity in the smart home. These companies are already trusted by consumers and have existing touchpoints and technologies deployed in the home, making it convenient and easy to go to market with smart home technologies. Because service providers are already in the home, they also have the unique position of being the gatekeeper for technologies that enter the home. Thus, service providers can profit from becoming smart home technology aggregators and can assist in solving many of the issues that exist in the smart home, such as technology interoperability, the comprehensiveness of solutions, and data privacy and security.

Additionally, broadband service providers and telcos offer products and services that support the development of smarter homes, such as cellular and broadband connectivity (which allows for the communication of connected devices and smart home data transmission). They can also use existing networks and infrastructure to offer new smart home-related services, such as professional installation and customer support.

Early Smart Home Investors

Some service providers are already making big investments in the smart home space. Comcast has been in partnership with EcoFactor to offer its EcoSaver thermostat-based energy management service to Xfinity Home customers since 2013. In 2016, the company partnered with Earth Networks (which has since spun off its home sensing and software company Whisker Labs) to bring big data and analytics to the EcoSaver service. In 2017, Comcast finished its acquisition of iControl, a home automation company. It will use the acquisition to build a Center of Excellence in Austin, Texas to wholesale its home automation and security services.

Service Providers Are Paying Attention

Comcast is just one example of a service provider ramping up activity in the smart home industry. Others such as energy providers Centrica and Vattenfall, as well as Telefonica, AT&T, Verizon, and Cox, are also offering home solutions. Service providers are increasingly recognizing the opportunity in this market and can help the progression of smarter homes.

 

Data – The Foundation of Value in the Energy Market Transformation

— October 17, 2017

I attended GreenBiz’s annual Verge Conference in mid-September and found a unifying theme throughout the diverse discussions on the intersection of technology and sustainability: data is the key to market transformation. The topics of the conference’s sessions spanned from environmental justice to grid modernization, but in every conversation and demonstration, it was clear that access to, and use of, good data is the foundation for innovation and value creation. An unwavering commitment to environmental justice was the undisputable, yet unofficial, secondary theme of this year’s event. I would argue this important societal goal can be tackled alongside the transformation of the energy industry by using data and technology.

Decentralization Is Coming

Panelists on the plenary session roundtable for day 1 represented the major contingencies in the US utility landscape—a municipal, a retailer, and an investor-owned utility. From three points of view, these industry leaders agreed that decentralization is coming and “the traditional utility business model is obsolete, if not dead.” At Navigant, we have been articulating this time of market disruption as the emergence of the Energy Cloud. We are exploring how various platforms are creating value through business models built around a more dynamic relationship between energy supply and demand. The foundation of this new energy reality is digital transformation, in which data fuels business opportunity. Buildings2Grid (B2G) integration is just one of the platforms that illustrates the power of data in creating new business opportunities for utilities, as discussed in Navigant Research’s Building-to-Grid Integration report.

As one panelist put it, “Markets move at the pace of innovation, grid moves at the pace of regulation,” which can place a significant hurdle in front of a large proportion of our energy providers. So, how can utilities take a seat at the table in a new energy reality? It starts with data. Navigant Research took another look at utility opportunities in the Energy Cloud with a complementary report, Intelligent Building Technologies for Value-Added Services. The connectivity and data-driven insight of intelligent building solutions create the roadmap for redefining how commercial buildings operate and opportunities for new services to optimize energy use and generation. Or, as one of the more memorable lines from that Verge utility plenary put it, “great innovation is where megabits meet megawatts.”

Across the board, electricity suppliers are unified by a fundamental goal to keep lights on—to support reliable and resilient power. Intelligent building technologies provide a digital lens into commercial customer operations and a pathway to new engagement models for ensuring that power is reliable and resilient but also supports broader customer goals such as sustainability and operational efficiency.

 

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