Navigant Research Blog

South Korea Draws an Ambitious Roadmap for Smart Grids and Smart Cities

— November 12, 2014

South Korea has ambitions to be a world leader in smart grid technology.  The smart grid test bed on Jeju Island has been the proving ground for the technologies, partnerships, and business models required to achieve this goal.  Led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), South Korea’s national power company, the Jeju Island demonstration project involved a wide range of South Korean and international partners.  The project ran from December 2009 until May 2013, had a total budget of around $240 million, and included two substations, four distribution lines, and 6,000 households.  The sub-projects included power grid upgrades, demand response, electric vehicles (EVs), renewable power integration, and new energy market models.

In this regard, Jeju Island mirrors many other smart grid pilots around the world looking at the integration of multiple technologies and new business models, particularly island community smart grid projects such those in Hawaii and Bornholm.

From Islands to Cities

South Korea is different in that the government has now laid out plans to move beyond its initial demonstration project into a wider series of trials and eventually a national rollout of smart grid technologies.  The next phase will involve a series of eight smart grid/smart community projects, to be run between 2015 and 2017.  More impressively, KEPCO has laid out plans to extend these projects into a series of municipal-scale smart grids by 2020.  The final stage of this grand scheme will see smart grid technologies deployed across the whole country by 2030.

The total budget for the pilot projects is $876 million, around $400 million of which will come from central and local governments and the rest from the private sector.  KEPCO alone is investing $155 million.  The government expects the private sector to take the lead in further development from 2018 onward.  As well as smart meters, an EV charging infrastructure, and energy storage, KEPCO is piloting a smart grid station that will provide sophisticated energy management and grid integration for commercial buildings, beginning with up to 220 KEPCO buildings.  It sees these smart grid stations as building blocks for community energy management systems and city-scale energy management.

Big City Vision

These are ambitious plans, and some of the Korean experts I spoke at Korea Smart Grid Week were skeptical about the ability of the government, KEPCO, and other stakeholders to meet the proposed timescales.  However, even if those timescales prove challenging, the vision and the roadmap are impressive.  I don’t know of any other country that has laid out a plan of this magnitude that would see smart grid technologies deployed across all of its major cities by 2020.  Such an achievement really would mark South Korea out as a world leader in both smart grid and smart city infrastructure.

 

Massive Outage Highlights Bangladesh Grid’s Fragility

— November 11, 2014

On November 1, the Bangladesh power grid suffered a massive, country-wide blackout, which took well over a day to restore.  Only the most critical or prepared institutions and government agencies that had adequate diesel generation backup power had electricity, while the rest of the 160 million people in the country were totally in the dark.  The power outage brought much of normal life to a standstill, forced hospitals to rely on back-up generators, and even plunged the prime minister’s official residence into darkness.  Meanwhile, the garment industry and other manufacturers that represent 80% of Bangladesh’s exports were idled.

Initial reports suggested that the outage occurred when protective relays tripped at the interconnect substations between the India transmission grid and the Bangladesh transmission grid, where much of Bangladesh’s power is supplied.  While Power Grid of India, the India transmission grid operator, reported that its high-voltage transmission grid was operating normally, the Bangladesh Power Grid on the other side of the substation was down.  This sounds remarkably like the 2003 situation in United States, where much of the Eastern grid suffered an outage.

In the Dark

In my recent research, I have been looking into next-generation technologies and wide-area situational and visualization tools that transmission grid network operators are beginning to deploy to better anticipate and detect critical disturbances of the sort that likely led to this massive outage.  The Bangladesh outage was likely the largest on the Subcontinent since the Indian blackout in 2012, where two severe power outages affected most of northern and eastern India.  The July 31, 2012, India blackout was the largest power outage in world history, reportedly affecting over 620 million people — about 9% of the world’s population.  More than 32 GWof generating capacity went offline during this outage.

In the wake of that failure, the latest 10-year transmission plans in India call for the installation of over 1,300 synchrophasor phasor measurement units (PMUs) and associated analytics installed on India’s high-voltage transmission grid to manage sub-second disturbances.

The scope of the Bangladesh outage is yet to be determined, and it will require extensive transmission grid and generation forensic analysis, using available monitored information from the hours and minutes prior to the outage.  One can only wonder whether these next generation of PMU and synchrophasor analytics technologies, implemented on the Bangladesh side of the interconnected transmission network, could have prevented this crisis.

 

Tug of War Over Utility Customers Intensifies

— November 5, 2014

In the last few years residential demand response (DR) has become a thriving market.  Recently, Constellation and Honeywell rolled out a service for all customers in areas that the companies serve designed to encourage consumers to purchase Honeywell thermostats and network them into Constellation’s platform.  Initially introduced only to Startex customers (a Texas subsidiary of Constellation) earlier this year, this service highlights the rising competition for energy customers.

Constellation claims that the program has the potential to shave upwards of $128 annually from customers’ electric bills.  Such services could help utilities reach energy efficiency targets as well as assemble an effective pool for residential DR programs.

There’s only one problem here, and it’s exacerbating tensions between utilities, energy service companies, and regulators.  The problem is that this type of program, also referred to as a hybrid DR model, blurs the lines around who exactly “owns” the customer, as well as who is providing the resource.

The New Disruptors

It seems natural for utilities to be receptive to the continued expansion in resources used to target electric customers for energy efficiency and DR programs.  But many utilities, particularly those in regulated markets, see this as encroaching on an established model in which the utility acts as the face of the service in all cases (regardless of who’s actually providing the service).  As utilities shift from vertical producers and deliverers of kilowatt-hours to being providers of electric services (the Utility 2.0 model), the general consensus is that they want to maintain their statutory ownership of their customer base.  Having already given up so much, it’s likely that utilities will put up a fight in holding onto at least this little bit of status quo and margin.

But that’s not how the many disruptive participants, which have evolved within the energy and utility industry or entered from the broadband and IT spheres, want to play.  They want the customer too, either to expand their business and gain more margin, or because they already own the customer through their primary business (think broadband providers).

Not Letting Go

Looking at it from an economic perspective, some argue that allowing non-regulated service vendors to compete will eventually favor the customer.  Others point out that, while an electric services model does have the characteristics of a highly competitive market, the fact remains that delivering electricity requires substantial and expensive infrastructure, therefore limiting the number of competitors, which could disfavor the end user.  Regulators have been understandably reluctant to institute any sort of rapid overhaul.

I’d argue that regulators and utilities are highly aware that they must change the way they do business in order to facilitate the transition of the energy industry to a lower-carbon state.  But it’s not surprising that they still want to defend their end-user relationships.  Customers like having a single point of contact for their energy services – not separate contacts and bills for delivery and energy efficiency.  Furthermore, as utilities lose revenue associated with dismantled vertical business models, energy efficiency and DR are among the few areas where they have the ability to supplement losses.  As hybrid DR models spread, it’s unlikely that incumbents will let their customer relationships go easily.

 

Residential Solar Market Roiled by Proposed Rate-Basing Scheme

— November 3, 2014

There is a growing debate about the financing and subsidies of residential solar PV systems.  How this turns out could have a significant impact on the market’s future.  At the center of the discussion are Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tucson Electric Power (TEP), two regulated utilities that have proposed new rate-based solar programs for residential customers.  Such a move threatens private solar installation-financing companies such as SolarCity and Sunrun, which currently lead the growing market by offering no-money-down leasing schemes that have attracted thousands of new customers.

The private solar companies argue that allowing the utilities to sell rate-based solar systems would create an uneven playing field.  They believe the regulated utilities should set up their own separate, unregulated companies and compete for rooftop solar business with the independent installer-financing companies.  That’s precisely what electricity providers operating in other states have done.  For instance, NRG and Edison International have entered the rooftop solar market by establishing unregulated business units that operate in the Northeast and California, thus avoiding the controversy.

Keeping the Playing Field Level

This is a thorny question for Arizona, and both sides have convincing arguments, as my colleague Taylor Embury pointed in a recent blog post.   The solar installers argue that permitting the Arizona utilities to go ahead with their rate-basing plans would set up unfair competition because of their monopoly status.  The utilities say they just want to expand into solar because of customer demand for distributed generation (DG), and because it helps the utilities meet mandated goals for DG.  But the solar installers and their financiers have advantages they can leverage as well, in the form of the 30% income tax credit and a depreciation method called Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) that can make the investments quite attractive.  A decision on whether to allow the utilities to move forward with their solar programs is pending before Arizona’s utility regulator, and a ruling is expected before the end of the year.

This topic is certain to be part of the upcoming discussion during Navigant Research’s “The Home as Micro Power Plant” webinar, which takes place on November 11.  Besides the rooftop solar issue, panel members will examine the potential for residential energy storage, how plug-in electric vehicles could be used as grid assets, and whether residential combined heat and power can gain market traction.  To register for the webinar, click here.

 

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