Navigant Research Blog

In Detroit, a Utility Comes to the Rescue

— January 14, 2015

In early December, the municipal power system in Detroit had a major power outage that was thankfully restored by DTE Energy (DTE), the investor-owned utility that stepped in to lend a helping hand.  The Detroit municipal system supplies power to city buildings such as courthouses, hospitals, city offices, and schools, as well as critical local infrastructure such as traffic lights, municipal transportation, and fire departments.  Even the Detroit Red Wings hockey practices were disrupted by the power outage.  Fortunately, with the help of DTE, the outage was restored within 9 hours and life in Detroit was back to normal.

As news of the municipal power system outage spread, it was initially speculated that this power failure was another glaring example of the lack of ongoing investment in critical infrastructure that occurs when a municipality goes into bankruptcy.   The good news is that, as part of the bankruptcy process, Detroit will no longer run the electric system; DTE will begin running the grid over a 4-year transition period.  DTE’s deeper pockets will restore the high standards of operation for the Detroit municipal system.

The Beleaguered City

Detroit’s woes have been national news over the past 3 or 4 years, as illustrated by the many pictures of abandoned neighborhoods, factories, churches, and commercial buildings.  In fact, Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, said at a news conference on Tuesday, December 2, 2014 that, “Today is another reminder of how much works we still have to do to rebuild this city, and the bankruptcy order doesn’t solve the decades of neglect in our infrastructure.”  The mayor’s spokesperson, Robert Warfield, went on to say that the outages were “caused by extreme heat, cable failure, and routine maintenance – all combining causing system overload.”  Apparently, a cable feeding a critical substation failed, and the municipal utility tried to reroute the system, triggering a circuit breaker, which caused the blackout.

Spirit of Cooperation

During 2014, I wrote a number of blogs on various utility transmission and distribution issues that arise and the investment required to keep the lights on.  These issues are also discussed in detail in Navigant Research reports, including High-Voltage Transmission Systems, Flexible AC Transmission Systems, Synchrophasors and Wide Area Situational Awareness, and Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015.   Over the years, I have seen neighboring and even distant utilities step in to help utilities in another state or region restore power after a natural disaster, storm, or power failure.  DTE’s work to make sure the lights stay on in Detroit is another great example of the spirit of cooperation within the electric utility industry.

 

In Review: Energy Metatrends

— January 14, 2015

In Navigant Research’s 2013 white paper, Smart Energy: Five Metatrends to Watch in 2013 and Beyond, we discussed key shifts in the energy landscape.  In this post, I’ll review those trends and discuss which have come to pass and which have yet to materialize or have fizzled out.

The white paper covered the following metatrends:

  • Energy is becoming increasingly democratized
  • The role of government innovation funds is changing
  • Technologies are converging
  • The Southern African Power Pool is becoming the new BRIC
  • The role of utilities is changing

Energy Democratization

Distributed generation (DG), which lies at the heart of the energy democratization shift, has gained significant traction in recent years.  The growth of DG – spurred in part by greater consumer awareness, cost reductions for technologies like solar PV, and improved financing models, among other things – is one of the most dynamic factors driving the evolution of the traditional utility business model.  In Navigant Research’s report, Global Distributed Generation Deployment Forecast, we state that between 2014 and 2023, DG is expected to displace the need for at least 321 GW of new large-scale power plants, valued at more than $1 trillion in power plant construction revenue.  Annual DG capacity additions are expected to outpace centralized generation capacity additions by 2018, underscoring the importance of this metatrend going forward.

Government Innovation Funds

The white paper argued that quasi-governmental funds would step in to fill the void left by private equity and venture capital exiting the energy sector.  The role of government funds would expand to drive innovative technologies from R&D to commercialization.  While this has proven to be partly true, significant capital has exited the energy space, leaving many fledgling companies (and technologies) exposed to market realities.  Spectacular flameouts have rocked the cleantech financing landscape.  That said, governments remain key sources of funding across the innovation lifecycle, so the jury is still out with respect to this metatrend.

Technologies Converging

As discussed in our recent webinar on January 13, Energy Storage for Renewables Integration, storage reigns supreme within this metatrend, allowing for greater flexibility in managing electrons across both space and time.  Whether in an electric vehicle battery or advanced batteries deployed as peaking plants on the grid, energy storage has proven to be a linchpin technology unlocking the potential of distributed wind, solar PV, and microgrids.  For example, hybrid solar and storage deployments create exciting opportunities for energy consumers at the edge of the grid.  This is certainly a trend that has begun to emerge in a significant way.

Southern African Power Pool = the New BRIC

This metatrend is among the more difficult to measure, as specific goals remain longer term.  Economic growth appears to be gaining momentum across the region, but developments in Brazil, India, and China continue to overshadow the emergence of dynamic energy economies in Africa.  There is a general sense that investment to date in emerging energy technologies and infrastructure throughout emerging BRIC markets is just the tip of the iceberg.

Utility Role Changing

The changing role of the utility remains the most dynamic metatrend overall.  While predictions of a “utility death spiral” may prove to be overly dire, most acknowledge that utility business models will need to adapt to changing electrical grid realities.  In most cases, this will entail more complex partnerships with customers as utilities move toward more integrated service offerings.  In other cases, utilities may narrow their focus on one or two aspects of the grid, essentially becoming ”poles and wire” companies.

Summarizing, three out of five of these metatrends have materialized in significant ways.  While it is still too early to tell with the others, heading into 2015, we can expect a sustained global shift toward localized power generation and increased pressure on utilities to adopt (or at least explore) alternative business models.

For more on these dynamic changes and others, please see Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.

 

Despite Bumpy Road, Smart Meters Deliver Benefits

— January 13, 2015

As 2015 begins, it’s clear that smart meter investments around the globe will continue to play a key role in the transformation of electric utility grids.   A new report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) notes that the penetration of smart meters in the United States continues to climb.  As those deployments have unfolded, utilities and industry stakeholders have gained valuable experience in integrating the latest technologies that enable new grid and consumer applications.

As the FERC report notes, smart meters enable a number of applications that enhance a utility’s operational efficiency, including remote meter reading, remote meter connections and disconnections, tamper and outage detection and notification, voltage monitoring, integration of distributed energy resources (especially solar PV) through net metering, and time-based rates.  Advanced metering also provides demand-side benefits, such as deferred capital expenses, improved utilization of capital assets, reduced electricity generation, reduced environmental impacts, and more options for customers to manage consumption and lower costs.

Restorative Powers

Many of these smart meter benefits form the basis of what we described as smart metering 2.0 in Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.  Installing meters – just the first step in transforming the grid – lays the foundation for enhanced consumer engagement, demand response capabilities, and overall utility efficiency.  One recent example came from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which credited its smart grid technology for the quick return of power to half a million customers who had electricity knocked out when violent storms rumbled across Northern California in mid-December 2014.  The company said it restored power to more than 95% of those customers who lost power in less than 48 hours.

Outside the United States, smart meter deployments will expand in 2015.  In Japan, for instance, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is expected to accelerate its smart meter deployments as it attempts to install 27 million devices by 2020.  Japan’s nine other major utilities will soon follow with initial deployments that will eventually lead to a total of 80 million smart meters nationwide by 2024.  In Europe, France’s national utility Electricité Réseau Distribution France (ERDF) is expected to ramp up smart meter deployments as well, and deployments in Spain are expected to continue apace.

Best Laid Plans

But deployments don’t always go as planned, and schedules can get bumpy.  In Britain, for instance, the rollout of smart meters was supposed to accelerate in 2015, but another delay has pushed back the massive deployment until 2016.  In Germany, smart metering remains on a slower track since regulators said utilities can conduct deployments in a targeted way.  And even in places where smart meters are now common, such as Ontario, Canada, the debate about their value relative to the cost continues.

Nonetheless, investments in smart meters and related grid technologies will expand in 2015 and in the following years (see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Meters, for a detailed forecast).  New deployments will face challenges, especially large and complex ones like the one in Great Britain, which includes gas meters along with electric ones, and in Japan, where several communication standards are in play.  Even so, the value of smart metering technologies is undeniable, and they will continue to be a foundational piece of future smart grids.

 

California Sets an Ambitious Energy Agenda

— January 9, 2015

Living in California, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t always see things in the same way.  Given the ambitious energy and climate change goals outlined in Governor Brown’s inaugural address on January 5, this divergence may only grow.

What exactly did the governor propose?  Here’s a snapshot summary of targets he set for the state by 2030:

  • Increase from one-third to one-half the portion of the state’s electricity derived from renewable sources
  • Reduce today’s petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50%
  • Double the efficiency of energy use in existing buildings while also making building heating fuels cleaner

The Center of Innovation

For investors in and developers of clean energy technology, Brown’s targets mean that California will continue to lead the United States in terms of R&D and commercialization of renewable energy, electric vehicles, and smart building automation products.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for skeptics of Left Coast policy aspirations is that data suggests California is likely to meet its AB 32 goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to 431 million tons by 2020.  While the rest of the world continues to heat up and multilateral emissions reductions efforts by the United Nations in Lima, Peru late last year once again faltered, the only U.S. state to pass climate legislation with concrete objectives appears to be on its way to actually reaching those targets, despite a long list of hiccups and controversies.

Changing the Game

Will California meet Brown’s new goals?  That’s impossible to predict, but the real questions now lie in the details.  I, for one, was delighted to see the governor mention microgrids, since apparently he agrees that distributed renewables (such as rooftop solar PV) will be game changers.  The best way to transform such distributed energy resources from problems for the grid into solutions for climate change – including resilient communities that can keep the lights on during extreme weather events – is through the islanding capabilities of microgrids.

When I first started covering wind power in the ‘80s for the national trade press, I often dealt with skeptical East Coast editors.  “Do those wind turbines really work?” they would ask.  “Isn’t that just one of those California things?”  This was, of course, during Brown’s original tenure as governor, when he was dubbed Governor Moonbeam by the national press.  From a handful of wind farms jump-started by flawed but effective tax credits, a global industry was spawned that now generates an accumulated 321,559 MW of electrical capacity, or just under 3% of the world’s total electricity, according to Navigant Research’s most recent World Market Update report on the wind industry.  That’s up from less than 1% of California’s total electricity in 1985, 30 years ago.

Sometimes, the only way to leap forward is to go out on a limb on the policy front, and then see if entrepreneurs and capital markets are up to the task.  Only time will tell which is the wiser course – the prudent go-slow pace of national politics or the risk-taking adventure being drawn up in Sacramento.  I know where I’m placing my bets.

 

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