Over the past several years, the falling costs for solar PV, energy storage systems (ESSs), and other distributed energy resources have prompted some industry observers to predict the major threats to the utility business model would be driven by increasing numbers of customers generating their own power. This prediction has proven to be premature and not a serious concern for many utilities. The costs and complexity required for customers to truly become independent of their local electricity provider remain too high. However, some utilities with largely rural and remote service territories face unique challenges to provide reliable and affordable service to their customers. Select providers around the world have begun exploring opportunities to offer off-grid energy systems directly to customers in an effort to reduce costs while establishing a new segment of their business.
Examples Around the World
In the US, Vermont-based utility Green Mountain Power claims to be the first in the country to actively help its customers go off-grid with combined solar PV and energy storage offerings. With a high percentage of rural customers, long feeder lines, mountainous terrain, and frequent blizzards, the company faces higher costs to reliably serve each customer. A key aspect of Green Mountain Power’s offering is selling its customers the Tesla Powerwall residential storage system through a well-established partnership with the EV and stationary storage provider. To reduce the energy required by these customers, the utility provides energy efficiency retrofits and home automation controls. It also supplies backup generators to ensure electricity is always available.
On the opposite side of the world, one of New Zealand’s largest electric distribution companies is facing similar challenges and has established its own off-grid program. Powerco has begun constructing several all-in-one microgrid energy systems for customers in remote parts of the country. The company’s offerings include solar PV, energy storage, and backup generators configured to meet a customer’s year-round energy needs. Powerco has partnered with US-based ESS provider SimpliPhi Power to offer its modular 3.4 kWh lithium ion battery units. The utility has determined that these off-grid energy systems are more cost-effective than having to extend the reach of the centralized grid by just 2 km, with an added benefit of reducing fossil fuel consumption and providing greater reliability for customers.
As explained by my Navigant colleagues in a 2016 article, threats to the utility business model have evolved into something far more pernicious in the past 3 years. Solar PV, ESSs, and other individual technologies are increasingly combined into complex hybrid energy systems driven by evolving technology platforms to meet the energy needs of end customers. These developments have resulted in previously unheard of competition in the market from cable and telecom companies, solar PV providers, home security firms, and large tech companies.
Utilities Facing Increased Competition at the Edge of the Grid
(Source: Navigant Research)
Utilities such as Green Mountain Power and Powerco recognize these threats and are attempting to get ahead of the competition posed by new energy service providers. These companies recognize that they must be innovative with their offerings to keep pace with the demands of customers and the industry’s technology-driven evolution. By encouraging customers to adopt new technologies and go off-grid on their own terms, utilities can establish a profitable extension of their business while forging stronger relationships with customers.