Navigant Research Blog

Realistic Goals, Measurable Outcomes Lead to Columbus Smart City Challenge Win

— July 21, 2016

Bangkok SkylineOhio won its first major victory of the year when LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the state’s first major sports title in over 50 years. Soon after, the City of Columbus, Ohio was officially announced as the winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart City Challenge. The city is set to receive a total of $140 million, with combined contributions from the DOT ($40 million), Seattle-based company Vulcan ($10 million), and a group of local businesses called the Columbus Partnership ($90 million).

One of the keys to Columbus winning the competition and beating out the better-known technology centers of San Francisco, Austin, and Denver was the city’s ability to demonstrate that its plan would result in increasing poor residents’ access to new transportation options. The city has proposed numerous solutions in this area. A few of the key proposals were:

  • An autonomous vehicle program that would transport residents from the Linden neighborhood—which has 3 times more unemployment compared to the city average—to a nearby employment center.
  • The creation of transit cards for low-income populations to use for ride-hailing or carsharing services, with or without having smartphones or bank accounts.
  • The building of smart corridors through wireless technology, which enables a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system that is more safe and efficient for high numbers of users (it’s important note that Columbus is also the largest city in the United States to not offer rail service).

Several of these transport initiatives are also expected to be integrated with improved access to healthcare services to help address the high infant mortality rates in many of Columbus’ poorer neighborhoods.

Other components of Columbus’ transport plan include an increase in electric vehicle (EV) charging stations throughout the city, enhancing smart grid technology by using EVs as distributed energy storage devices, expanding the municipal EV fleet, and securing 50 of the city’s CEOs to personally commit to buying and driving EVs, as well as installing charging stations for their employees.

Additional Funding Sources Also Crucial

While a focus on increasing poor neighborhood access to reliable and affordable transportation options was vital to the final awarding of the Smart City Challenge competition to Columbus, the $90 million pledged by the Columbus Partnership (if the city was to be selected) also played a major role. Financing the development of smart city projects continues to be the most significant challenge in the market, as outlined in Navigant Research’s recently published Smart Cities report. The guaranteed added investment by the Columbus Partnership made the city a highly realistic option for successful implementation and more likely to achieve the outcomes that were highlighted in its final proposal.


California Water Summit: A New Landscape for Water Management

— June 21, 2016

??????????????????Drought is not new to California, but 2012-2015 has been the driest 4 consecutive years in history. With climate change forcing us to face the idea of a new normal, the biggest question is: What if the next drought is even worse? This year’s California Water Summit highlighted how the discussion around California’s water situation is shifting focus from emergency measures to long-term preparation. This will require stakeholders to generate new solutions to address water management, both from the top down and the bottom up.

Top Down: Putting the Right Systems in Place

The California Department of Water Resources has been managing the variety of funding opportunities available to public utilities and others through Proposition 1. One focus area relates to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to oversee the management of the groundwater basins that provide over half of California’s water in dry years. The process of forming GSAs requires the input of many stakeholders on how to protect our watersheds from unsustainable use. As this effort evolves, it will be important to help these entities organize effectively and meet their planning requirements.

Another hot topic as resources become scarcer is that of water rights. Nobody wants to lose their access to water, but things have definitely changed since this fragmented system was put in place, resulting in suboptimal use of a precious resource. The summit called upon a number of Australians to share their experiences with the electronic water markets implemented in response to a culmination of factors, including their own drought that lasted over a decade. Though the endeavor was technologically challenging, the Australians said the largest obstacle was political inertia.

The California Water Summit also exhibited a strong focus on recycled water as an important water supply. Case studies showed the criticality of regulation and investment that support this resource as consumers become more comfortable with expanding its uses.

Bottom Up: Aligning the Resources

The Pre-Summit Workshop was dedicated to public-private partnerships, termed P3s, as a way to spur investment in water infrastructure. Various opportunities were discussed throughout conference sessions, including grant funding, which can take up to several years to secure. The summit wrapped up with a number of case studies that highlighted the importance of involving various stakeholders at every step in the process. One set of stakeholders to be particularly aware of is disadvantaged communities, as these sometimes overlap with areas hardest hit by drought.

Infrastructure is composed not only of large civic construction projects, but also of the more subtle IT networks that enable more precise management of water-related systems. These investments are also necessary as utilities seek to eliminate inefficiencies from leaks and other sources of waste. As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” We can expect increasing focus on (and hopefully investment in) California water data over the next few years.


Take Control of Your Future, Part VII: Merging Industries, New Entrants, and Colliding Giants

— June 13, 2016

Modern commercial premisesIn my initial blog in this series, I discussed seven megatrends that are fundamentally changing how we produce and use power. Here, I discuss how merging industries, new entrants, and colliding giants are changing our industry.

What Is Happening?

The power energy industry (the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity) is not the sole territory of the incumbent utility anymore. Several players from other industries, including oil & gas (O&G), technology, retail, telecom, security, and manufacturing, are trying to get into the game. Navigant sees many cross-industry movements, and one of them is increased crossover investments between the electric utility and O&G industries. Besides pursuing mergers and acquisitions, which I discussed in one of my previous blogs, we see investments in new areas of opportunity like renewables, distributed energy resources (DER, including distributed generation, energy efficiency, demand response, storage, etc.), transportation, smart infrastructure and cities, and energy management.

As an example, in April, the French supermajor Total announced the creation of a Gas, Renewables and Power division, which it said will help drive its ambition to become a top renewables and electricity trading player within 20 years. According to a statement by the supermajor, “Gas, Renewables and Power will spearhead Total’s ambitions in the electricity value chain by expanding in gas midstream and downstream, renewable energies and energy efficiency.” Other companies, like ENGIE and Shell, have made similar announcements.

A Total Gas Station in Paris


(Source: Reuters)

Fighting for Future Energy Positions

The large incumbent players in the energy industry are under pressure. And the way things are unfolding now, it doesn’t seem like this will change anytime soon. Time to make some minor tweaks? Change course more drastically? Or completely reinvent ourselves? These are discussions that are taking place more frequently at the board and executive levels of the incumbent players.

Electric utilities are under pressure because consumption growth is minimal and, in many cases, flat to slightly negative. The average consumption per customer (both residential and commercial) is declining due to self-generation, energy efficiency, demand response, etc. As a result, revenue is declining. Costs are increasing because of needed investments in a safe, reliable, cleaner, and more distributed and intelligent electric power grid. Utilities are identifying new revenue streams and thinking through new business models that will bring shareholder value going forward.

Oil companies are under pressure because of the continued low oil price. Ever since the oil price dropped to historic lows in 2014, the struggles of the industry have been daily news. Short-term hopes for a recovery were tempered significantly by the outcome of the recent OPEC meetings in Doha. Oil companies are looking for ways to survive by taking out costs, reducing their upstream capital investments, and shutting down unprofitable assets. They are also looking for new opportunities to grow revenue and future shareholder value.

Industry Giants Are Responding

In the last couple of months, I’ve attended several meetings with CEOs from large utilities and O&G companies. It is remarkable how their views on what is happening in the energy space are so similar. What is even more interesting is that their strategies to address the challenges and opportunities are almost identical.

Here is what they say is happening:

  • Energy consumption and gross domestic product (GDP) growth: Although population and GDP growth (at a slower pace) drive growing energy demand, the trend line between GDP and energy consumption growth has been broken. This is especially the case in developed countries. Energy consumption in the United States flatlined from 2014 to 2015 even as GDP grew by 2.4%. Since 2007, energy consumption has fallen 2.4% while GDP has grown by 10%, according to the 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. At the level of individual utilities, we see this playing out. Utilities with no or limited customer growth see their overall revenue declining. Utilities that still see customer growth are reporting that demand (and revenue) is not growing at the same pace. This is creating an unsustainable situation, with flat or declining revenue, while the costs to serve their customers and investments in the grid are growing.
  • Impacts of climate change: In an earlier blog, we discussed the impacts of the growing number of policies and regulations to reduce carbon emissions. It is now clear that this impact is being felt. Beyond the COP21, Clean Power Plan, and other global or federal policies and regulations, many initiatives at the regional, country, state, and local levels are being designed and implemented in support of carbon emissions reductions. Sustainability objectives between government, policymakers, utilities, and their customers are more closely aligned than ever before. States and regulators will continue to discuss how sustainable targets can be met without affecting jobs and the access to safe, reliable, and affordable power. And utilities and O&G companies will continue to evolve to support cleaner, more distributed, and more intelligent energy generation/exploration, distribution, and consumption.
  • Big power to small energy and the rise of the prosumer: Customer choice is driving a large move from big to small energy. More and more customers are choosing to install DER on their premises. DER solutions include distributed generation, demand response, energy efficiency, distributed storage, microgrids, and electric vehicles (EVs). This year, DER deployments are projected to reach 30 GW in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, central generation net capacity additions (new generation additions minus retirements) are estimated at 19.7 GW in 2016. This means that DER is already growing significantly faster than central generation. On a 5-year basis (2015-2019), DER in the United States is expected to grow almost 3 times faster than central generation (168 GW vs. 57 GW). This trend varies by region because policy approaches, market dynamics, and structures differ. However, the overall move to small power will persist. In other words, the movement toward customer-centric solutions and DER will ultimately become commonplace worldwide.

And here are the strategies of large utilities and O&G companies going forward:

  • Search for shareholder value: Both utilities and O&G companies are looking across the entire energy value chain for future shareholder value. Right now, that value is not in exploration & production or power generation. Yet, shareholders are still interested in natural gas pipelines and transmission that support the movement of natural gas and electricity.
  • Attempts to develop new solutions and businesses: There has been more than just interest from incumbent players in new energy solutions such as renewables and other alternative fuel sources (hydrogen, biofuels, etc.), DER, behind-the-meter energy management, electric transportation, smart cities, etc. With serious profitability and growth pressure on their core businesses, more serious attempts to build new, potentially transformational businesses in this space are increasingly evident.

For example, Total’s Chairman and CEO Patrick Pouyanné states, “The goal is to be in the top three global solar power companies, expand electricity trading and energy storage and be a leader in biofuels, especially in bio jet fuels.” To this end, Total announced last month that it is acquiring Saft, a designer and manufacturer of high-tech batteries for the manufacturing, transportation, and civilian and military electronics sectors. The company reported sales of €759 million ($856 million) in 2015 and employs more than 4,100 people in 19 countries. “The combination of Saft and Total will enable Saft to become the group’s spearhead in electricity storage,” Chairman and CEO Pouyanné said in a news release, “The acquisition of Saft is part of Total’s ambition to accelerate its development in the fields of renewable energy and electricity.”

Transportation and Smart Cities

Transport electrification, the increased use of biofuels (including bio-jet fuels), and the use of hydrogen to fuel vehicles are all on the rise. These alternative fuel vehicles will slowly but surely replace existing carbon-based transportation fleets, which represent approximately 35% of the global demand for oil. Now there are reports of 500,000 committed purchases of the Tesla Model 3. If Tesla can produce 500,000 cars a year, with models that are in the $30,000-$40,000 price and 200-plus-mile range, this will be another tipping point and game changer for EVs.

Meanwhile, as part of the smart city movement, cities are examining the sources and efficiency of their energy in order to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs. In the process, cities are becoming more ambitious and proactive in setting energy strategy. They are seizing opportunities to work with utilities and other stakeholders to create new urban energy systems. The emerging vision is of a smart city with integrated large- and small-scale energy initiatives, including major infrastructure investments, citywide improvements in energy efficiency, and distributed energy generation. As a result, both utilities and O&G companies are increasingly interested in becoming even more engaged with new transportation concepts and innovation (well beyond fuel) and smart cities.

So What Does This Mean?

Do the above examples represent some isolated, small adventures in crossover investments, or do they mark a trend toward two mega-industries (electric utility and O&G) colliding across the entire energy value chain and looking for shareholder value? Time will tell. What is certain is that there will be winners and losers.

There is a clear push for new revenue streams and growth opportunities given the current oil price situation. But we see also new, longer-term threats that will force the incumbent players to reinvent themselves and become broader energy companies. The industry giants seem to be in the best position to be the winners—and ultimately, they have no choice. After all, these are still the biggest companies in the world, and they have a huge shareholder interest that needs to be fed into the future. They simply are not going to declare “game over,” return the equity to the shareholders, and then advise them to go find new companies to invest in.

This post is the seventh in a series in which I discuss each of the power industry megatrends and the impacts (“so what?”) in more detail. My next blog will be about the emerging Energy Cloud. Stay tuned.

Learn more about our clients, projects, solution offerings, and team at Navigant Energy Practice Overview.


Reading for a Changing Utility Landscape

— January 6, 2016

If you have been on the Internet recently, you will have noticed that the end of 2015 brings with it endless online posts regarding some of the year’s bests, worsts, highlights, and lowlights. I’m following suit by listing a handful of my favorite semi-work-related books. Throughout the last year, many thought leaders introduced creative approaches that apply to current utility business challenges. These approaches include, but are not limited to, organic growth, disruptive technologies, and fraternal twins, and global warming and climate change. Here are my favorites from 2015:

  1. How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, by Kevin Ashton.
    Now that the Internet of Things (IoT) has entered the energy and utilities industry in a big way, it is time for people in this industry to read something by the man who coined that term, even though the book itself is not specifically focused on IoT. Debunking the idea that greatness is the result of single moments of revelation, Ashton argues for the merits in repeated experimentation, failure, and gradual development. Utilities feeling pressured by an all-or-nothing approach to developing an integrated and smart organization can pivot their focus a bit more toward how they can start to get their hands dirty, focusing on small achievements to support the foundation of much larger change.
  2. Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff.
    While I did not love the heavy historical narrative in this book, it did really hone in on the concept that one should never underestimate their competition (in BlackBerry’s case, the iPhone), and that competition can come from anywhere. Since the power utility industry has traditionally been protected by a regulated monopoly model, lessons in dealing with competition are likely less ingrained than in other deregulated markets. But as the regulatory environment changes, young companies in solar, storage, IoT, energy efficiency, and demand management have encroached on utility consumers like never before, and there are no signs that their momentum will slow. The utility-customer relationship is becoming more important than ever, right when it stands the most threat.
  3. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, By Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
    Based on a 4-year study of random individuals tasked to predict outcomes based on common information, the authors of this book found that the best forecasters followed a common methodology based on data collection and objectivity. This seems like an obvious outcome, but the authors also noted that it is very rarely applied to business, economic, and political forecasting. Something for all of us to ponder.

These are just three books that felt pertinent to me this year given the changes occurring in the United States and globally, where environmental, political, and technological forces are shaping organizational change at an unprecedented rate. In a time of unruly transition, one thing that cannot hurt executives is to start reading up on the topics that have helped leaders in other evolving industries—and look for ways to apply lessons to their new challenges.


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