Navigant Research Blog

Trilliant Takes Smart Grid Lead in Great Britain

— July 8, 2013

Despite the recently announced delay in the mass rollout stage of smart meters in Great Britain, smart grid technology vendor Trilliant continues to land new business there.  Redwood City, California-based Trilliant has signed a new contract with utility RWE npower to supply hardware and software during that utility’s first phase of smart meter rollouts.

The deal calls for Trilliant to provide its head-end software platform (called UnitySuite) and the in-home communication hubs that link smart meters and home area networks with RWE npower’s smart grid infrastructure.  The value of the contract with RWE was not disclosed, but Trilliant said the deal will make it the largest provider of in-home communications solutions in the country.

The deal extends Trilliant’s solid foothold in the British smart meter market: Trilliant has been supplying smart metering communications gear to British Gas for several years.  Now, with a second major utility buying its products, Trilliant is poised for a strong run in Great Britain where a national mandate calls for up to 50 million smart meters (both electric and natural gas) to be deployed by the end of this decade.

In the Hunt

Trilliant aims to be at the forefront of this first phase of Great Britain’s smart metering – called the Foundation Stage – so that when the mass rollout begins in a couple of years, the company will have learned the hard lessons that can help it and its utility customers stay ahead of competitors.  The competition promises to be stiff: the multiyear, countrywide upgrade to smart meters is valued at some $17.8 billion.

With that much money at stake, many smart grid technology vendors in addition to Trilliant are focusing on Great Britain as the next big opportunity.  It’s a complicated process, however, with the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) in charge of procurements, which are split into three separate competitions.  The first is for data and communications (which has attracted two bidders, G4S and Capita); one is for data services (IBM, HP, and CGI Group have made the final cut); and the third is for communications services (bidders for this include Airwave, Arqiva, Vodafone, and Telefonica).  The winners are expected to be announced in August.

So while Trilliant has staked an early lead, many other vendors are poised to grab a share of one of the most interesting and lucrative smart metering deployments announced to date.


In the Power Sector, the Lawyers Are in Control

— April 23, 2013

During a recent thunderstorm, a power surge fried the motor of my pool pump.  With prime algae-growing season nearly upon us in Texas, this was suboptimal timing.  Still, being a smart grid researcher, I thought I’d write to my co-operative power supplier, CoServ, and find out what happened.  So I sent a short note via their “Contact Us” web page, asking if they could look into their distribution management system for that Sunday morning and see if there had been a power swell in my neighborhood.  This was purely out of curiosity – this is what I do for a living, right?  Here’s the reply that I received about 4 days later:

 Thank you for taking the time to contact CoServ Electric. As you are aware there were adverse weather conditions in your area at the time of the service abnormalities.

CoServ Electric works hard to ensure all our members receive reliable service. However, because of the nature of the electric utility industry, continuous service cannot be guaranteed. (For example, situations involving animals on the lines, unforeseeable equipment issues, or weather events such as happened in your case.) Because this event was an “Act of God” and not something we could have foreseen or prevented, we cannot accept liability for any reported damage. We recommend contacting a qualified electrician to make sure your electric service beyond the point of service (the electric meter) is properly protected from common outside disturbances.

Thank you again for your report and for allowing us to serve you as a member of CoServ Electric. If you would like to discuss this situation further, feel free to contact me.

Okay, I admit that lots of people walk around with an entitlement mentality.  Still, it would never occur to me that my power utility is responsible for lightning strikes.  Is CoServ up there in the sky hurling thunderbolts at my pool?  Of course not.  They bear no liability for the pump.  So why such a defensive response?

Litigation Phobia

Here’s my theory: because their lawyers made them to do it.  In its 108-page tariff for electric service, CoServ already states that it is not responsible for acts of God.  Nor should it be.  Making any utility liable for all acts of God in its service area would most likely render that utility bankrupt.

And that’s the problem.  I have seen (but will not link here) job postings for “NERC Compliance Manager” where one of the essential candidate requirements is a law degree.  An analysis of NERC CIP v4, which added additional clarification of the term “critical cyber asset” (CCA), shows 17 new clauses to define a CCA.  Each of those clauses gives a utility enough wiggle room in a courtroom to escape penalty.

I’m currently researching cyber security for smart grid telecommunications.  As ever, the overriding investment theme for cyber security emerges as avoidance of fines or litigation.  After 23 research interviews I have a consensus response that there are a handful of utilities in the United States that proactively address cyber security, in each case because of a single individual that really cares.  The remaining utilities are characterized by my contacts as doing the minimum necessary to avoid legal consequences.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for keeping our utilities healthy financially.  From a purely selfish perspective, researching those utilities puts bread on my table.  But – can we please focus on operations and reliability, not legal ramifications?


Real World Lessons for Utility Data Management

— April 9, 2013

Utilities want to know if vendors are overselling their wares.  Are vendors making commitments that that they really should not?  Sometimes it’s hard to know what a product will actually do – or not do – until it’s installed and running.  So most buyers will try to assure themselves that the product – hardware or software – will do what it says on the label.

But there’s another side that gets less attention: do vendors underplay the difficulty of living with a product?   As Calvin once explained to Hobbes, there’s a big difference between getting something and having something.  After the discussion session at a recent smart grid conference, I understand that having meter data management (MDM) can be more complicated than buyers may grasp during the acquisition cycle.

At the conference session, I joined five utility executives discussing their experiences implementing MDM.  The group was given a preset list of questions to discuss.  The first, “What have you learned from going beyond billing?” resulted in a bunch of blank stares.  The reason: that’s all these utilities have done with MDM – generate bills.  There is little “beyond billing” yet.

Perhaps the most common theme of the discussion was the difficulty of installing MDM and then integrating it with other applications.  All of the participants felt that this aspect had been underplayed by their vendors during the MDM purchase cycle.  Integration of MDM to other applications such as energy management, outage management, or customer information systems, has proven far more difficult than expected.

Response Times Slowed

All five utility officials were also dissatisfied with their MDM’s reporting capabilities.  Several utilities had reinstalled legacy reporting systems, piping the data from the new MDM back to the reinstalled legacy systems.  The group also wanted a separate replicated MDM database for reporting because running complex analyses against the online database significantly slows the response to real-time queries – usually driven by customer portals on the Internet or help desk agents on a call.

Everyone present agreed that MDM should be done before a smart meter rollout, or at least simultaneously.  No one thought it a good idea to deploy smart meters before the MDM was in place.  Some of the group felt that the holy grail of smart metering – interval readings every 15 minutes – is useless for residential applications, although useful in commercial and industrial applications.  One panelist said his utility had activated remote disconnect for only 1% of its smart meters, although that was due to local regulations governing disconnect processes.

Navigant Research’s report, Meter Data Management, published 3Q 2012,  stressed the need for detailed planning before installing an MDM system.  These discussions reminded me how true that is!


New Architecture Enables Renewable Integration

— April 9, 2013

Sandia National Laboratories is developing a microgrid architecture that holds the potential to revolutionize not only the microgrid industry, but all electricity generation.  The secure scalable microgrid (SSM) will allow for 100% stochastic, or unpredictable, generation (e.g., solar PV and wind).  Many companies and individuals have feared that renewable generation assets will compromise the stability of the electricity grid, and, under more traditional grid architectures, this makes sense intuitively.  Since neither solar nor wind are load-following or dispatchable, they can wreak havoc in the absence of sufficient traditional generation or energy storage to compensate for the large swings in renewable production.

The SSM architecture includes a communication network that connects the loads to the generation assets, along with weather and load prediction, energy storage assessments, and a device to monitor the connection to the central utility.  It uses Hamiltonian functions to balance and optimize generation and load given uncertainties in the data it collects.  With an open architecture design, the SSM also promotes transparency of operation, configurability, extensibility to different systems, and its “plug-and-play” capability.

SSM is currently being tested at the SSM Test Bed in New Mexico, which includes programmable loads that mimic both fossil and renewable based generation, buses, and integrated control computers to effectively simulate the microgrid in Lanai, Hawaii.  While there is no timeline yet for the commercialization of the technology, its eventual introduction into the market will allow for significantly greater penetration of renewables than are currently feasible.

Enabling the Green Grid

The major implication for SSM is that electricity generation can become completely renewable and independent of fossil fuels, a necessary step in the greening of the power grid.  Environmental concerns aside, completely stochastic electricity production usually requires no fuel inputs.  As the production costs associated with solar PV and wind turbines continue to decrease, and stochastic generation becomes economically competitive with traditional fossil fuel generation, the SSM should allow a transition to mostly, or completely, renewable electricity generation.

New Zealand and Austria, for example, have goals of 90% and 78% renewable generation, respectively, in the coming decades.  While it’s relatively simple, if costly, to install sufficient qualifying generation, the task of ensuring grid stability is much more daunting.  Germany has recently experienced grid issues due to its high penetration of solar, since power outputs can change very rapidly.  The SSM grid architecture, if it can be scaled up for central grid use, would help to ensure that even significant fluctuations in power output from renewable sources can maintain consistent voltage and frequency across the grid.

In the near future, the SSM architecture will bolster the ability of utilities to meet renewable energy requirements by incorporating utility distribution microgrids (UDMs) into their portfolios and service areas.  As described in the Navigant Research report Utility Distribution Microgrids, UDMs are forecast to increase 1,100 MW by 2018, and this trend will only be reinforced by the advent of the SSM.

Total UDM Capacity by Region, Average Scenario, World Markets: 2012-2018


(Source: Navigant Research)


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