Navigant Research Blog

Smart Grid Demo Results Reveal Efficiencies, but More R&D Needed

— July 17, 2015

The Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project (PNW-SGDP), one of the largest in the United States, has been completed, and the project’s latest report shows a variety of new technologies can indeed reduce costs and improve energy efficiency. Additional research is required, however, to advance smart grid deployments elsewhere, according to project managers.

Transactive Control

One of the focal points of the 5-year PNW-SGDP was to evaluate a transactive control system in which decisions are distributed across the grid, even allowing consumers or individual devices to make informed choices about usage. This system is based on a two-way communication process that uses signals about the delivered cost of electricity and the amount of power needed by end devices, such as a smart appliance. The system shares information along the grid, from generation sources like dams or wind turbines to a residence. According to one of the models developed by IBM, peak demand in the Northwest could be reduced by 7.8% if 30% of the region’s grid used the necessary demand response (DR) equipment.

Saving Money, Energy

Some of the cost savings shown in the project were significant. For instance, smart meters with remote turn-on and turn-off functionality could eliminate more than 2,700 service calls a year and save an estimated $235,000 annually for Avista Utilities in its Pullman, Washington, service area. Avista also tested controls that lowered distribution system voltage by 2.1%, which would translate into about 7.8 GWh of annual energy savings, or about $500,000 in reduced annual costs for its Pullman distribution power lines.

Challenges

The project also uncovered some challenges for utilities. For instance, some of the participants were not prepared for the large amounts of data generated by the equipment, and occasionally data was mislabeled with incorrect units or times. In addition, a lack of technology standards made it difficult for various equipment to interoperate, which required extra effort to get products from different vendors to work together. Also, the relatively nascent market for the equipment created issues, especially when some manufacturers went out of business or stopped servicing their gear, and some of the equipment just failed outright.

The $179 million project, which was led by Battelle, included 11 utilities across five states (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming), the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), two universities, and multiple technology companies. Funding came from the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), through the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and from matching money from participants.

The PNW-SGDP lays a foundation for further grid modernization. Other utilities and stakeholders can leverage these findings and adapt them for their own future needs. And though the research is not fully conclusive, as the report authors point out, there are useful baseline results to work from which can enable the next wave of grid innovation.

 

Smart Grid Deployments Moving Ahead in Latin America

— June 3, 2015

Smart grid deployments in Latin America have struggled to gain traction in recent years compared to North America or Europe. But that is starting to change. Significant projects in two countries—Brazil and Mexico—are moving ahead, with vendors being selected in recent weeks.

Brazil

Eletrobras, Brazil’s leading electric utility, has chosen several technology vendors for a smart grid project that involves six of the utility’s distribution subsidiaries. The utility selected Itron’s new OpenWay Riva solution that enables a single network to support two communications technologies (radio frequency and power line carrier) in the same device. The result is an adaptive system that can dynamically choose the best path for communicating based on network conditions, type of data, or application requirements. The solution is supported by Cisco’s IPv6 network infrastructure.

Other vendors selected for the Eletrobras project include Siemens, Telefónica, and Telemont. Approximately 115,000 endpoints are expected to be deployed at the six subsidiaries in the states of Alagoas, Piaui, Acre, Rondonia, Roraima, and Amazonas. The goal of the project is to reduce theft of service, a chronic problem in Brazil. Full implementation of the project is expected to be complete in 2017.

Mexico

In Mexico, Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the state-owned electric company, has selected a number of vendors for its smart grid project in Mexico City’s Central District. Silver Spring Networks was chosen to provide its IPv6 network, which enables connectivity to cabinets that house a group of centralized meters. In addition, vendors chosen to support the project include Elster and Tecnologias EOS. Elster will provide its EnergyAxis software and field network devices in addition to its REX2, A3 ALPHA, and mREX2 smart meters. A total of 300,000 meters are expected to be deployed, according to Elster. Similar to Eletrobras, the goal of CFE’s project is to reduce theft of service, which can be substantial. Nearly 15% of CFE’s total electricity production was lost due to theft or defaults in 2013, according to the utility, and in some areas of Mexico City, that figure surges to more than 35%.

Theft Reduction and More

Clearly, the main driver for smart grid deployments in these two projects is the same: theft reduction. But beyond that, the technologies being deployed lay a foundation for additional smart grid applications. For instance, Eletrobras has indicated it will add outage detection and analysis along with improved transformer load management. And while these two projects do not necessarily portend a wave of similar deployments, they do represent a next step toward grid modernization by leading utilities and are likely to be imitated by others across Latin America in coming years.

 

The Comms Are the Cloud

— May 14, 2015

The Internet of Things (IoT). Smart grids. The energy cloud. What do all of these have in common? In order to achieve their promise, ubiquitous, high-speed, high-bandwidth communications networks will be needed. The energy cloud, as described in Navigant Research’s white paper, is expected to radically change the electric power industry over the coming decades. The energy cloud will emerge as the old-school, centralized monopoly utility model transforms into a decentralized, intelligent, two-way grid where utilities, markets, and prosumers transact in real-time for a cleaner, more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective energy industry. The potential in the long run is huge.

But today, adequate, ubiquitous communications that meet utilities’ needs for smart grid technology simply haven’t been widely deployed. Even in North America and Europe, where smart grid efforts have been underway for a decade or more, the infrastructure in place to transport all of that valuable data to the systems and devices that need it is, at best, a patchwork quilt of legacy and newer technologies, deployed in an ad hoc manner. The energy cloud won’t become a reality until seamless, high-speed, interoperable communications networks are present gridwide.

Utilities struggle with their communications networking strategies, even as the media waxes enthusiastically about the IoT and the coming nirvana of 5G technology; the recently announced mega-merger between Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent has been attributed to the marriage of the advanced wireless and wired communications that 5G capabilities will demand. But 5G networks are a decade away; a bit of a reality check is in order. Here’s the good news—and the bad news—about communications and the energy cloud.

The Good News

Perhaps the best news for vendors and service providers is the massive demand for utility communications that the energy cloud will engender. Navigant Research estimates that communications gear for basic smart grid communications technology will be a $30 billion opportunity over the next decade.

Communications Node Revenue by Region, World Markets: 2014-2023

Blog chart - RE(Source: Navigant Research)

 

This is likely conservative, based on expectations for deployment of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution automation and substation automation technology, and on the leading communications technologies used today—microwave, 900 MHz mesh, cellular, etc. (Detailed forecasts can be found in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Grid Networking and Communications.)

Additive to the infrastructure markets included in this forecast will be service fees collected by comms providers, independent network providers (see PDVwireless), networks for electric vehicle charging networks, connected solar panels, and more.

Remember the cell phones of the nineties? The novelty of being able call someone from outside of the home or office? That’s where we are today in terms of smart grid connectivity and applications. We can measure power consumption thanks to smart meters; we can monitor grid devices thanks to new sensor technology. That visibility provides a wealth of knowledge to grid operators—it’s great!

Now think about the explosion of applications—and revenue—that smart phones combined with 4G networks has allowed. That’s where the energy cloud is heading.

The Bad News

Solving the problem of ubiquitous connectivity—with low latency, high bandwidth, and seamless interoperability—is no small task.  Utilities tend to invest in the lowest cost connectivity solution for the application at hand. Once an AMI network is in place, utilities then begin to think about ways to leverage those networks. Now that we can connect to the meter, we could try (insert the smart grid application du jour here)! But all too often, the network in place wasn’t configured with that application in mind. Existing networks can be a serious limiting factor to cutting-edge smart grid applications. But those sunk investments have to be depreciated and a new rate case may be many years away.

Cautious Optimism

Despite the challenges utilities face in developing holistic, long-term, gridwide communications strategies, it will happen. It will take years—maybe decades—but the energy cloud revolution is already underway. Build the comms, and the energy cloud will come.

 

The Customer Interface in the Cloud

— May 12, 2015

As described in Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Energy Cloud, the power grid is undergoing a fundamental transformation to a decentralized architecture. This shift will bring profound changes to traditional stakeholder relationships. Specifically, the broad array of residential consumers—most of whom are beholden to their utility service providers and lumped together as a monolithic entity in traditional rate design—are emerging as one of the key underlying drivers of this change.

For utilities and stakeholders responding to this shifting market, early battles are being waged to lock-in consumer engagement. As Tesla’s recent Powerwall announcement demonstrates, in this emerging landscape, brand matters. Interface matters. Ultimately, as described in a recent article in Intelligent Utility, future customer engagement strategies will have to be diverse, flexible, and multichanneled. But above all, these strategies must seek to facilitate a connection between the residential consumer and the products and services they demand.

Prosumer Defection

Empowered by greater access to tools and direct marketing from intrepid companies, residential customers are exercising more control over their electricity usage and spending and over when and what type of power they buy. In some cases, these consumers are demanding the ability to self-generate and sell onsite power back to the grid. The dramatic rise of solar PV has demonstrated that, at the right price, consumers will embrace choice and ownership over their energy consumption patterns.

A growing minority of energy prosumers, meanwhile, are cutting out the utility entirely. As zero-energy homes demonstrate, when the capabilities of rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources (DER), energy efficiency improvements, and home energy networks are integrated, the resulting network can render the traditional utility-customer relationship obsolete. When aggregated across a distribution network, utilities take notice—which is exactly the scenario described in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Economics of Grid Defection report.

Renew and Replace

Customer empowerment is not unique to the power sector. As markets mature, the industrial model of companies owning and people consuming is often undermined by technology innovation. This typically results in a power shift in favor of customers. In the power sector, companies like NRG Home are positioning for just this scenario.

While the initial adoption phase of customer empowerment has ushered in a broad transformation on the grid through energy efficiency and DER, the next phase, replacement, will bring about a far more profound shift. Ford’s Model T proved that customers were willing to embrace the automobile over horse and buggy, for example. As disruptive as this was, the next hundred years proved that customers will exercise greater scrutiny and demand for product diversification, giving rise to a $1 trillion dollar industry.

During this replacement phase, companies invest to compete both for existing customers and for the customers of competing entities. They refine their product lines and cater to increasingly specific segments of the market. Some bundle services to drive value. Others sell no tangible products at all and instead provide access or an interface.

Who Needs Products?

Meanwhile, residential consumers are moving beyond the static behaviors accounted for in traditional utility rate design. Regardless of the market or circumstances, over time, consumers become more sophisticated and knowledgeable about the products they consume. They exercise greater scrutiny around quality and sourcing. They seek value and convenience. Eventually, they come to expect that technology will cater to their preferences.

Ultimately, presented with more choice with respect to price, quality, attributes, and features, consumer’s preferences and demands begin to define product lines. It’s the coming replacement market for demand-side energy solutions. In the home, for example, consumers have responded to product diversification in seemingly banal appliance markets like washers and dryers and more recently thermostats and smoke alarms.

It takes a long time to break down something as longstanding—and with as many private sector and government interests—as the power sector. But as the emerging energy cloud demonstrates, it’s happening; people are opting for more control over their energy dependence.

As customer engagement strategies mature in the energy cloud, there are important lessons to glean from the fast-expanding sharing economy where consumer entrepreneurs are competing with well-established entities. Interestingly, some of the fastest-growing companies facilitating these transactions—Uber, Facebook, Alibaba, and Airbnb—own no products at all.

 

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