Navigant Research Blog

Busy Start to 2015 for Smart Grid Companies

— January 22, 2015

Smart grid companies must have gotten their wishes granted during the holidays, because they are in a sharing mood to kick off the new year.  A burst of merger and acquisition and partnership activity shows that the ecosystem is growing and there’s enough room for everyone to get a piece of the bigger pie.

Trilliant and Innovari announced the completion of interoperability testing of the Innovari Interactive Energy Platform (IEP) and the Trilliant Smart Grid Communications Platform (SCP).  This combination enables utilities to improve operations and benefit customers with a shared communications infrastructure for smart grids.  The Innovari IEP provides automated demand response (DR) for commercial and industrial customers.  The Trilliant SCP complements the IEP with a two-way communications network to deliver grid situational awareness that enables real-time demand side management and the integration of distributed renewable energy resources.

Analytics and Engagement

Silver Spring Networks acquired longtime partner Detectent, which provides software to improve advanced metering infrastructure and utility grid operations, ensure revenue protection, and deliver enhanced customer engagement programs.  Detectent’s utility analytics solutions will be offered both as a standalone solution or powered by Silver Spring’s smart grid big data platform, the SilverLink Sensor Network.

Schneider Electric, meanwhile, announced two recent partnerships.  The first is a partnership with PlanetEcosystems to provide utility service providers with Efficiency Advisor, an integrated suite of software-as-a-service customer management offerings.  Combining Schneider’s Wiser Home Management system with PlanetEcosystems’ P-ECOSYS customer engagement platform, Efficiency Advisor will offer features like behavioral usage efficiency, home usage reporting, personalized recommendations, and an energy marketplace for customers to find contractors and financing options for energy efficiency programs.

Schneider’s second announcement involves a partnership between its European DR division, Energy Pool, and Hyosung, a South Korean industrial conglomerate, to offer DR in the newly opened South Korean marketplace.  Energy Pool will provide its DR expertise and manage operations, while Hyosung will tap into its network of industrial partners and provide IT support.

Just Couldn’t Wait

Often, companies will wait for the DistribuTECH conference to make big announcements about partnerships and new technologies, but these deals apparently couldn’t wait.  They’ll be discussed at this year’s DistribuTECH in San Diego, running February 3 to 5.  Last year, the theme at the conference seemed to be data analytics, as vendors showed how they can extract usable information from the plethora of data now available from meters and devices.  Based on these early announcements, it appears that the one-word summary for this year’s conference will be “interoperability.”

Now that the analytics are available, vendors are realizing that they likely can’t offer all possible analytical tools for utilities on their own, so collaboration will be necessary.  Whether that is through mergers and acquisitions or partnerships, I expect this trend to continue and am sure there will be more announcements at DistribuTECH from those who held back their surprises.

 

CPower Reemerges as a Demand Response Player

— December 15, 2014

In October, I wrote about the announcement that Comverge and Constellation would combine their commercial and industrial demand response (DR) businesses into a standalone entity.  The questions were: What would the new company be called?  Would they take one of the existing names?  Combine the two names?  Come up with something new?  Instead, they brought back a familiar brand: CPower, the name of the DR provider that Constellation bought 4 years ago.

But this is not your mother’s CPower, according to Chris Cantone,  the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.  The C in CPower carries multiple meanings aside from the lingering brand recognition: the combination of Comverge and Constellation, customer engagement, and curtailment services.  “The market has been excited about the announcement, and our channel partners have been waiting for an independent DR provider,” Cantone told me in a phone interview.  The company is still in a little bit of stealth mode as the behind-the-scenes business combination unfurls, but expect a media splash in the near future.

Divide and Succeed

What value does this new structure bring to the parties involved? Cantone says that the future of DR will entail greater technical requirements, which were hard to fulfill under a larger organization like Constellation.  CPower can be more strategic and proactive on its own, while maintaining a preferred provider relationship with Constellation for its customers.  From Comverge’s perspective, there was a lack of synergy between its utility-focused residential business and its market-focused commercial and industrial business, so it made sense to split them up and allow them to build to their own strengths.

So was Constellation’s purchase of the original CPower 4 years ago a mistake?  No, asserts Cantone.  It was an invaluable experience for the old CPower DR experts to get immersed in the energy markets and learn how DR fits into the bigger picture on the wholesale side with generation and the retail side with customers’ energy procurement strategies.   Additionally, the 2011 deal was the move that set in motion the trend of larger energy entities investing in the DR realm, as Johnson Controls bought Energy Connect, Siemens bought Site Controls, Schneider bought Energy Pool (in Europe), and NRG bought Energy Curtailment Specialists.  Will those combinations survive?  Cantone thinks they will have to deal with the same issues that Constellation did, and we will have to see who can find internal solutions and who sets DR free.

The Real Threat

Regarding business strategy, the initial intent is to focus on the existing markets in the United States, like PJM, ERCOT, NYISO, ISO-NE, and California.  An expansion into utility programs could be the next growth step, followed by selective entry into the burgeoning international arena.

I contacted executives at EnerNOC to get their take on what looks to be their strongest competition, but they declined to comment .  In the meantime, EnerNOC and CPower may find common ground to combat the potential disruption from the court drama over FERC 745 to remove DR from the wholesale markets, which could affect them more than any amount of friendly competition could.

 

Ericsson Resurges in Smart Grid Market

— October 7, 2014

Swedish telecom giant Ericsson was fairly active in the smart grid communications market a number of years ago; in particular, the company was involved in a number of WiMAX- and LTE-based smart meter deployments in Australia.  More recently, Ericsson has been notably absent from the space, especially in North America.  It looks like that hiatus may be ending.

On October 1, Ericsson closed on its buy of Newton, Massachusetts-based Ambient Corp. for $7.5 million.  Ambient will be integrated into Ericsson’s Global Services division.

Ericsson has reportedly also hired a former DNV EMA utility expert and acquired a grid management company in recent months; competitors say they are starting to see more of Ericsson in the North American market.  The company is a major supplier of LTE infrastructure to the wireless industry; it appears likely that the Ambient buy will support additional efforts to promote the use of the 4G wireless technology for smart grid networks.

Lost Luster

Ambient made a splash in the smart grid comms arena a few years back when it was awarded a product award at the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) 2011 Telecom Forum. The UTC Product Awards is an annual competition highlighting the best in critical infrastructure industry technology.

Ambient’s smart grid communications solution combines multiple communications technologies – including RF mesh, cellular, power line communications (PLC), and Wi-Fi – into a single node, providing flexibility to utilities needing a variety of solutions due to topology or coverage issues.  In 2013, Ambient announced its nodes had been certified for the Verizon LTE network, and by the middle of that year Duke Energy had deployed nearly 200,000 of those nodes.  In mid-2013, Ambient also announced a contract with Con Ed for commercial and industrial (C&I) metering.

Ambient proved unable, however, to leverage the early hype around its solution and its Duke relationship for sales growth.  The company, which was publicly traded prior to its July bankruptcy filing, reported less than $600,000 in revenue in the March 2014 quarter, down from nearly $5 million in the prior year period.  The company lost nearly $18 million in 2013 on sales of $11 million.

Future-Proof?

Ericsson’s interest in promoting LTE’s place in the smart grid communications market isn’t surprising.  While LTE is generally considered an expensive solution for smart grid applications, utilities are increasingly worried about the longevity and flexibility of their communications networks – and LTE provides low latency, security, and signal prioritization features that should ensure its ability to handle just about any smart grid application that’s deployed in the next 20 years.

Both AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless are aggressively courting the utility vertical with their cellular solutions, including LTE, and one meter vendor representative recently told me that it sees LTE as the future of smart grid communications.  If that’s the case, it seems Ericsson will be joining the competitive fray.  And with the backing of Ericsson, Ambient could be able to get some much needed traction in the marketplace as well.

 

Contrary to Trends, Constellation Spins Off Its Demand Response Unit

— October 7, 2014

The recent action in the demand response (DR) industry has been in the direction of consolidation.  Constellation (a unit of Exelon) bought CPower; Johnson Controls bought Energy Connect; NRG bought Energy Curtailment Specialists; and in Europe, Schneider Electric bought Energy Pool.  Only EnerNOC and Comverge are left as major independent DR providers.  The acquiring companies in these cases are large corporations that own generation, electric supply business, and/or energy management systems, intent on diversifying their product offerings and capturing more of the financial and customer value chain that DR provides.  These companies are also expanding into tools like distributed generation, solar, and energy storage to act as a one-stop energy shop for commercial and industrial customers.

Comverge’s just announced merger with Constellation’s Commercial and Industrial DR business is an exception to that trend.  The new entity will be an independent company, owned by Comverge’s parent company HIG Capital, with Constellation holding a minority stake.  In effect, Constellation is spinning off its DR business.  Is this just an anomaly, or is it a signal of a strategy shift across the industry?

Priority: Generation

I think that the Comverge-Constellation deal is a standalone case, due to circumstances specific to these companies.  Exelon values its large generation portfolio.  Services like energy efficiency and distributed generation, which mainly play on the retail side of the market, are not direct threats to the company’s wholesale generation revenues.  They can be incorporated into the retail supply business as value adders without negatively affecting the corporation’s main assets – its large generation facilities.

But DR for the commercial and industrial market is primarily a wholesale market product in the territories where Exelon has generation, such as PJM, ERCOT, ISO-New England, and NYISO.  In these environments, DR competes directly against generation: every megawatt that DR gets takes away from generation, and every cent the price of energy goes down thanks to DR comes out of generation’s coffers as well.  For Exelon, being a major operator of power plants while also running one of the largest national DR portfolios may have become too much of a conflict.  So, perhaps the company decided to break off the DR business and unify its wholesale market strategy.

Progress and Profits

Exelon’s distribution utilities run some of the most progressive DR programs in the country.  Baltimore Gas and Electric has the first default peak time rebate program in the country.  Commonwealth Edison recently announced a similar initiative.  PECO is piloting a dynamic pricing program.  Ironically, if Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order 745 on DR compensation gets overturned by the court system and DR becomes a purely retail product, Exelon may rethink its strategy and get back in the commercial and industrial DR game.  Then it might just be another customer product offering with less direct impact on wholesale markets.  From Comverge’s perspective, it saw an opportunity to substantially add to its commercial and industrial DR book.  The wholesale DR markets are all about scale these days, with players that can afford the credit requirements and aggregate large portfolios together to manage risk.  There are not big incremental costs to operate a bigger DR business – so the move should improve the company’s profitability.

 

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