Navigant Research Blog

Transition Away from Coal-Fired Power Plants Keeps Building

— June 29, 2015

The transition away from coal-fired power plants continues among a number of U.S. utilities both in an effort to comply with carbon reduction standards and for cost-cutting reasons. In the last few months alone, several thousand megawatts of coal-generated capacity have been taken offline. The trend is similar in other industrialized countries, with a key exception.

In the United States, Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power (AEP) has ceased generation at 10 of its coal-fired plants across five states. Operations were halted in May at coal units in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia; combined, these units generated more than 5,500 MW. AEP intends to close two more of its coal-fired plants in 2016 in Oklahoma and Texas. Similarly, PacifiCorp, the Berkshire Hathaway-controlled utility operating in several Western states, shut down two coal units at its Utah Carbon Plant (172 MW) in April. Also, the company laid out plans to take nearly 3,000 MW of capacity offline by 2029. As part of PacifiCorp’s long-term resource plans, the company expects to add more renewable energy resources, further reduce its use of coal, and meet most of its expected generation needs with increased energy efficiency over the next decade.

Though no recent plant shutdowns have taken place in North Carolina, Duke Energy did announce that its controversial Asheville plant (which was part of a recent federal criminal settlement related to groundwater contamination) would shift from coal to natural gas and solar generation over the next 4–5 years. A new 650 MW plant would replace the 376 MW coal-fired facility and would significantly reduce emissions, the company said. In Arizona, Salt River Project officials have agreed to buy the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s portion of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station plant as a next step in the eventual closure of one of the three generators in order to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Overall, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the proposed federal Clean Power Plan could lead to about 90 GW of coal-fired generation being removed by 2040 under one scenario, which would be more than double the amount taken offline if no new carbon standards were in place.

A Global Trend

This trend away from coal is playing out in most other major industrialized countries as well, with one exception. Canada and the United Kingdom have implemented policies for phasing out coal. In France, Italy, and Germany, the markets for coal are weak, according to E3G, a European public interest non-profit organization that conducted research for Oxfam on the topic among the G7 countries. For instance, France has shut down seven units in 2015 and is now down to a total of four. Japan is the exception; plans in the country call for an increase in coal-fired electricity generation in part due to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, which led to the shutdown of nuclear power plants that made up 30% of Japan’s energy supply, with coal filling the gap for now.

With the exception of Japan, the shift away from coal-fired plants is underway in leading nations, though not fast enough nor in the way environmental groups like the Sierra Club and others would like. Nonetheless, the direction away from coal seems clear.

 

Big Tech Players Take Next Steps in the Smart IoT Home Space

— June 24, 2015

No matter what it’s called—the smart home, connected home, or Internet of Things (IoT) home—many companies are moving forward with a variety of products to enhance comfort, convenience, and energy efficiency in the home. In particular, tech giants Apple and Google (Nest) have generated significant buzz lately and are poised to remain driving forces as the market continues to evolve.

Apple, Google, and More

Apple’s vision for its HomeKit platform is starting to become more visible, with some of the first devices entering the market that can be controlled via Siri through iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches, according to a recent story on the MacRumors website. When HomeKit was announced a year ago, it was more of a vision of the possible. But now companies like Lutron (smart lighting kit) and Insteon (home automation hub) are selling HomeKit-enabled products. In addition, ecobee (smart thermostat) and Elgato (Eve sensing system) are prepared to launch HomeKit-enabled devices in a matter of weeks. Other manufacturers are expected to follow suit.

Meanwhile, Google has forged ahead with its own platform with the announcement of Brillo, its IoT operating system based on Android. Brillo has a communication layer called Weave that is designed to enable IoT devices to talk to one another and the cloud. Weave will also be used by Nest and Nest ecosystem devices so they can interoperate. Brillo is expected to be available in the third quarter of this year, and Weave will be offered in the fourth quarter.

It is not just Apple and Google shaping the IoT and smart home space, however. Industry groups are active as well, aiming to set standards across multiple operating systems and network protocols. For instance, the AllSeen Alliance and the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) are two groups working on open-source standards for the IoT that will include the home as well as other industry verticals.

Multiyear Competition

A few things to remember in this chaotic space: It is still early days as the smart IoT home market takes shape and the players jockey for position. Also, this is a multiyear competition, with no clear winners at this point. It is easy to see Apple and Google setting the stage to dominate given their strong brands among consumers. But companies like Samsung, ADT, Bosch, Qualcomm, and Honeywell, to name just a few, see opportunities as well and are focusing on the growing market possibilities that are expected to eventually include billions of new devices and billions of dollars in potential revenue. What’s more, there is room for startups to emerge or new partnerships to form that take the market in a new direction. For instance, ComEd has joined with Comcast and Nest Labs for a demand response program involving smart thermostats. For some guidance on what lies ahead, Navigant Research has a new report called IoT (Internet of Things) for Residential Customers that discusses these issues and challenges facing stakeholders.

 

Google Enters IoT World, Again

— June 18, 2015

The Internet of Things (IoT)—a much hyped, though somewhat ambiguous, concept about interconnecting devices to create a system of systems for user convenience and detailed in Navigant Research’s IoT (Internet of Things) for Residential Customers report—is not a new concept.

For years, IoT products have been available to consumers, including smart thermostats, smart meters, connected LED bulbs, and more. Today, the IoT is being implemented by big names like AT&T, ADT, and Apple. Finally, one of the largest and most well-known multinational technology companies in the world is joining the race—Google.

In late May, Google unveiled its new IoT platform, Brillo, at the company’s annual developer event, Google I/O. Brillo is an operating system that manages connected devices, streamlined specifically for use in objects other than smartphones and tablets, which allows the user to create a true IoT smart home.

Brillo is based on Google’s existing Android operating system, which is important for integration with already existing Google technologies, like Google Now voice recognition. Brillo will be paired with Google’s newly created IoT language called Weave. Weave is a communications layer, enabling devices to talk with each other, the cloud, and Android-based smartphones. Google will make Brillo available to developers in 3Q 2015.

The Second Attempt

Brillo is not Google’s first attempt at entering the IoT world. In 2011, Google introduced Android@Home, a service designed to turn the user’s home into a network of Android accessories, using Android as the home’s operating system. Similar to Brillo, Android@Home was announced at a Google annual developer event 4 years ago. However, the Android@Home concept disappeared almost as quickly as it was introduced. Today, the digital landscape is much different, and consumers and developers more readily accept the concept of a connected lifestyle.

With a vast expanse of competition for creating interoperability in devices, it is unclear how Google’s Brillo and Weave will fair. Google has the kind of brand-name recognition that could turn this small, new concept into something very big—the kind of big that exists in nearly every home in America. The fact that Google is leveraging its Android platform also means immediate scalability, so many device manufacturers can use Brillo.

Challenges Ahead

However, there are already standard, protocol, and communication layers out there, and it is unclear how Brillo will interact with these. Take, for example, ZigBee. ZigBee is a communications standard operating on IEEE 802.15.4 that has been around for over a decade. ZigBee already exists in millions of connected products, such as sensors and lights, and the next version (ZigBee 3.0, set to be released in 4Q 2015) is designed to unify and make an entire system of connected devices easier to use. This means that consumers may end up with Brillo/Weave devices and ZigBee devices that cannot communicate—a problem that will likely take some time to resolve. Regardless, Google and its entry into the IoT world is something to keep an eye on for years to come.

 

Pilot Sheds Light on TOU Rate Sign-Ups

— June 16, 2015

Shifting customers to time-of-use (TOU) pricing creates new challenges for utilities that are considering such moves due to regulatory pressure for greater efficiency and energy conservation. According to a recent Utility Dive report, lessons learned from a pilot program at PECO reveal some useful ideas that could be applicable to other utilities.

PECO, the Exelon subsidiary operating in Philadelphia, identified more than 120,000 residential customers who would be eligible for its Smart Time Pricing program and used direct mail, bill inserts, and email to promote sign-ups. Eventually, 4,882 customers agreed, approximately a 4% acceptance rate, with direct mail the most successful method and email a near total failure.

The TOU pricing was simple. The peak generation rate was nearly $0.16 per kWh on weekdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., excluding holidays; the off-peak rate was just under $0.7 per kWh during the remaining hours. Results were somewhat predictable: the program yielded an average of nearly 6% reduction in peak electricity demand between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. during the summer months; there was little load reduction in the winter months. For customers enrolled in the program, load reductions produced an average cost savings of 5%. Most of the savings came from people changing their use of large appliances and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Program Surprises

One of the surprises from the pilot came from people’s perceptions, or in some ways, their misperceptions. While the average savings was 5%, many people thought they had saved more. In a follow-up survey, 46% of respondents said they saved more than $20 on their bills, when in fact just 5% had. Another eye opener from the PECO pilot involved demographics. Critics of TOU programs argue that the pricing is unsuitable for some groups such as the elderly, low-income, or disabled. But in this pilot, households that reduced usage the most were those with at least one senior citizen or someone covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The PECO pilot contrasts with other attempts in recent years. For instance, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in California chose to compare two groups of customers: those who were defaulted into TOU plans versus those who were given a choice to opt in. More than 90% of customers who were notified they were being placed on TOU rates at the start of a summer season stayed on the plan, compared with a participation rate of 15%–20% for those given an opt-in choice. SMUD also fund that many customers liked TOU rates, and the utility intends to make TOU pricing its default structure beginning in 2018. The rest of California is likely to follow suit, as regulators in the state are in the process of redesigning rate structures and considering proposals for implementing more widespread TOU rates by 2019.

There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to TOU pricing. Utilities and regulators can consider several methods for implementing these sometimes controversial programs. Two things are clear: if executed properly, both customers and utilities can benefit, and preconceived notions may not always be valid.

 

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