Navigant Research Blog

Unraveling Germany’s Smart Meter Strategy

— November 4, 2016

Power Line Test EquipmentWith smart meters quickly becoming the norm for grid operators and utilities, Germany presents an interesting case study given the country’s hesitance to adopt this smart grid technology. Western Europe has distinguished itself as one of the global leaders in smart meter deployments. Buoyed by nationwide deployments from countries like France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the region is quickly advancing the business case for smart meter technologies. While many of the most affluent nations within Western Europe have initiated large volume deployments already, Germany has been largely hesitant to jump on the bandwagon.

This changed in July 2016, as legislation was passed that will kick-start smart meter activity within the country, though careful attention must be paid to the details, as this rollout deviates significantly from traditional deployment strategies seen elsewhere in the region. According to the recently enacted Digitisation of the Energy Turnaround Act, Germany’s smart meter rollout is finally set to commence. Years in the making, the country’s approach is unique given its selective deployment and tiered installation schedule.

Starting in 2017, large consumers with average annual consumption in excess of 10,000 kWh will be required to install smart meters. This threshold will be lowered to 6,000 in kWh in 2020, which applies to approximately 15% of electricity consumers. The majority of German households will remain unaffected given that average consumption hovers around 3,500 kWh. For households where smart meters are not required, utilities will still maintain the option to supply this technology to its customers, though the meters are subject to a cost price cap of 40 euros per year. While the overall program is set to last until 2032, some types of consumers and operators will be required to have rollouts finished before the end of 2024.

A Considered Approach

This resolution is long-awaited as Germany has struggled to justify the need for smart meters. In the summer of 2013, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology contracted with Ernst & Young to perform a cost-benefit analysis relating to a nationwide deployment of smart meters by 2020, in line with European Commission target deadlines. The study concluded that such a mandate was not economically beneficial and instead recommended a selective rollout similar to the country’s aforementioned strategy. While industry advocates may view Germany as dragging its feet on the issue, the country is taking its time to carefully study the implications of installing smart meters in a country with over 50 million households and businesses.

One of the benefits to this approach is the availability of more technologically advanced smart meters on the market today relative to the more primitive smart meters installed in Italy and some of the Nordic countries during earlier rollouts. Given the typically shorter lifespan of smart meters relative to traditional electromechanical meters, some of these European countries are already expected to be looking at upgrades or replacement units in the coming decade. While many in the industry have long touted the benefits of smart meters, Germany is taking a responsible approach in studying the overall implications and has a clear and rational basis for delaying nationwide implementation.

 

What to Consider When Evaluating Networking Solutions

— November 4, 2016

Ethernet CablesAs the electric utility business evolves toward a bidirectional, multi-faceted model (i.e., the Energy Cloud), utilities’ need for robust, future-proof communications networks is paramount—but decision-making can seem fraught with risk. The wrong choice can quickly become a limiting factor as management teams explore new applications at the grid edge. But as distributed generation proliferates and overall energy usage falls, the need for that visibility will only become more critical—to customer engagement, demand-side management, transactional energy, load management, asset management, and more.

Traditionally, utilities have preferred to purchase their networking infrastructure, making large capital investments that they can put into their rate cases. Regulators have generally shown a strong preference for the lowest (upfront) cost approach.

Increasingly, however, utilities are evaluating the total cost of ownership (TCO) for various solutions. So where Solution A may be the most attractive in terms of initial costs, over the 10/15/20-year lifecycle of the network, Solution A may actually be more expensive—or worse, it may not be robust enough to support emerging applications.

Recently, Navigant Research was commissioned to do a TCO analysis comparing private spectrum options for utilities with other more popular networking technologies, including unlicensed radio frequency (RF) mesh technologies, existing point-to-multipoint technologies like that of Sensus, public cellular, power line carrier (PLC) technologies, and others.

As it turns out, the TCO for each of these can vary widely. The rural, low-density nature of cooperatives makes for a very different economic model than that of a municipal utility or a large investor-owned utility (IOU). The results of our analysis can be seen in the table below.

Total Cost of Ownership for Various Utility Networking Scenarios: 15-Year Time Horizon

TCO Study

(Source: Navigant Research)

 Is My Existing Network Adequate?

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems are now operated at utilities serving half of all United States meters. Many utilities will try to leverage those existing networks for distribution automation (DA) or other advanced applications. In some cases, this may be a cost-effective approach. In other cases, however, ongoing maintenance costs and denser equipment requirements will result in high costs over time. Repeater creep—where utilities must continuously add repeaters to a mesh network in order to accommodate growing capacity needs—is a potentially expensive outcome when existing AMI networks are tapped for newer DA functions like Volt/VAR control; fault location, isolation, and restoration (FLISR); or demand response.

Historically, utilities have not been fond of purchasing private spectrum, primarily due to costs, which public cellular service providers have driven higher as their bandwidth needs grow (thank YouTube on your phone for that). More recently, however, there are some private bands available to utilities that may provide a cost-effective solution. Our TCO analysis considered the 700 MHz A-band licenses, which are available today across much of the United States for a relatively modest price/MHz POP (population unit).

Private spectrum ownership is now an affordable option—in some cases, the most affordable option—for a utility looking to deploy a variety of DA use cases across a large or varied territory. When used for a combination of AMI, DA, and even substation connectivity needs, the control and flexibility that private spectrum offers can be very attractive.

For further information on the Navigant Research Total Cost of Ownership Analysis, contact Richelle Elberg. For further information on the regional availability of licensed spectrum, contact Robert Finch at Select Spectrum.

 

Meters Are Sensors and Sensors Are Meters—and It’s All IoT

— August 30, 2016

Power Line Test EquipmentOn August 11, Hazelwood, Missouri-based smart metering system vendor Aclara announced it acquired the smart grid business of Tollgrade, a provider of distribution grid sensors and software for monitoring and analytics. The deal comes just 8 months after Aclara acquired GE’s electric metering business, and all of this in the wake of its own sale to Sun Capital Partners in 2014.

It’s no surprise that Aclara is broadening its portfolio horizons. Upside potential for Aclara’s legacy technology—power line carrier (PLC) communications for smart meter data transfer—is on the wane. While still popular with low density utilities such as rural cooperatives, PLC isn’t as strong a platform for some of the newer smart grid applications that utilities want their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) networks to support. Aclara has more than 14 million meters in the field and has been looking for growth opportunities since before its sale to Sun Capital.

Aclara has ventured into software, including solutions in the customer engagement and asset planning realms. It also offers several wireless communications solutions as an alternative to its enhanced Two-Way Automatic Communications System (eTWACS) PLC offering. These include cellular solutions and its Synergize RF point-to-multipoint system for utilities. But with the addition of GE’s meter business and now a leading line sensor/grid monitoring solution provider, Aclara has (or will have, presumably) a far more integrated set of products to offer. That means greater customer retainment.

The LightHouse product line also provides Aclara with an entry into the investor-owned utility (IOU) market where it has concentrated its efforts—Tollgrade has deployed its LightHouse system with DTE, Duke Energy, Toronto Hydro, and Western Power in the United Kingdom. In theory, Aclara can now better promote its various AMI solution sets to electric IOUs while marketing the LightHouse distribution monitoring solution to its sizable installed base of cooperatives and munis. Aclara historically has had a sizeable presence in the IOU marketplace with its gas and water AMI systems, with millions of endpoint systems deployed with customers in states including California and New York.

It’s All About the Smart

What makes a grid smart is the overlay of communications and software solutions that allow formerly manual controls to be automated. While Aclara was offering a piece of that smart equation with its legacy communications system, it now offers a broader array of solutions to smarten up not only the meters at the very edge of the grid, but also feeders throughout a distribution network.

The line sensor market hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm in the last few years, but it has shown promising traction more recently. Where the devices used to be expensive and analytics solutions (from which the return on sensor investments really come) were nascent, today’s costs are lower and the ways that real-time operational data can be used are growing exponentially. Navigant Research expects the global installed base of overhead line monitors to grow from a couple hundred thousand in 2016 to around 1.7 million by 2025.

Installed Base Overhead Line Monitors by Region, Worldwide: 2016-2025

Aclara Smart Meters

(Source: Navigant Research)

Generally, we don’t expect the overhead line monitor business to reach the same levels of penetration as, say, smart meters. They’ll be used on particularly troublesome feeders or where there are high levels of distributed solar wreaking havoc at the grid edge.

The Internet of Energy

What Aclara is doing by consolidating various sensors types—and a meter is just another sensor in the grid—into its product line is demonstrating its commitment to going beyond meter reading and boldly into the broader Internet of Things—or Energy—to make its platform more valuable and deepen its reach with utility decision makers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more announcements from Aclara, perhaps related to software or analytics that leverage the underlying network and devices now incorporated in the company’s stable of products.

 

Smart Meters Industry Consolidation Continues with Xylem’s Sensus Acquisition

— August 25, 2016

MeterOn August 15, Xylem, a global water technology company, announced that it had acquired Sensus in an all-cash transaction worth $1.7 billion. Sensus is a global provider of smart meters (with 80 million metering devices in the field), network technologies, and advanced data analytics, with a focus in North America. The company’s roots lie in the smart water metering business, though it maintains a significant installed base in electric and gas utilities. Some of Sensus’ notable electric advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployments include Southern Company, NV Energy, Portland General Electric, Alliant Energy, and Cleco Power LLC.

Industry Consolidation

As markets have matured and smart grid technologies have evolved, new industry motivations such as interoperability and deep integration among technologies have emerged, as evidenced by a string of recent industry consolidation transactions. Aclara made headlines in December 2015 with its acquisition of hardware provider GE Meters. This was quickly followed by another acquisition of Tollgrade communications earlier this month. Additionally, Honeywell completed its acquisition of Elster’s metering business in January of this year. The Xylem/Sensus transaction is just the latest example of industry consolidation, and it sets the company up to be a major player in the smart water market.

Smart Water Market

While smart electric meters have traditionally maintained the lion’s share of smart meter coverage, higher penetration rates and increasing concerns over water security offer growth potential for smart water meters and associated technologies going forward. With the low cost of water that many of us experience today, it’s easy to take this increasingly scarce resource for granted. Yet, the United Nations is expecting a 40% shortfall in water supply by 2030. This alarming prediction is the product of a variety of factors—growth in energy and food consumption, wasteful irrigation practices, inefficient pricing, industrial growth in emerging economies, and pollution and water quality issues, among others. All of this is suffice it to say that responsible water management through the use of smart meters and advanced data analytics among other technologies is going to play an increasingly vital role in global security—an opportunity that Xylem is now primed to take advantage of.

Sensus has traditionally been focused on North America with limited international deployments; nearly 70% of the company’s 2016 revenue was generated in the United States. This may be set to change as Xylem has highlighted its expansive customer relations and ability to extend the reach of Sensus’ technologies to new global markets. Combining the capabilities and scope of these two companies sets Xylem up for strong growth potential and the opportunity to be a global leader in smart water technologies moving forward.

 

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