Navigant Research Blog

Off-Grid Offerings Aim to Keep Utilities Ahead of New Competition

— November 9, 2017

Over the past several years, the falling costs for solar PV, energy storage systems (ESSs), and other distributed energy resources have prompted some industry observers to predict the major threats to the utility business model would be driven by increasing numbers of customers generating their own power. This prediction has proven to be premature and not a serious concern for many utilities. The costs and complexity required for customers to truly become independent of their local electricity provider remain too high. However, some utilities with largely rural and remote service territories face unique challenges to provide reliable and affordable service to their customers. Select providers around the world have begun exploring opportunities to offer off-grid energy systems directly to customers in an effort to reduce costs while establishing a new segment of their business.

Examples Around the World

In the US, Vermont-based utility Green Mountain Power claims to be the first in the country to actively help its customers go off-grid with combined solar PV and energy storage offerings. With a high percentage of rural customers, long feeder lines, mountainous terrain, and frequent blizzards, the company faces higher costs to reliably serve each customer. A key aspect of Green Mountain Power’s offering is selling its customers the Tesla Powerwall residential storage system through a well-established partnership with the EV and stationary storage provider. To reduce the energy required by these customers, the utility provides energy efficiency retrofits and home automation controls. It also supplies backup generators to ensure electricity is always available.

On the opposite side of the world, one of New Zealand’s largest electric distribution companies is facing similar challenges and has established its own off-grid program. Powerco has begun constructing several all-in-one microgrid energy systems for customers in remote parts of the country. The company’s offerings include solar PV, energy storage, and backup generators configured to meet a customer’s year-round energy needs. Powerco has partnered with US-based ESS provider SimpliPhi Power to offer its modular 3.4 kWh lithium ion battery units. The utility has determined that these off-grid energy systems are more cost-effective than having to extend the reach of the centralized grid by just 2 km, with an added benefit of reducing fossil fuel consumption and providing greater reliability for customers.

Avoiding Threats 

As explained by my Navigant colleagues in a 2016 article, threats to the utility business model have evolved into something far more pernicious in the past 3 years. Solar PV, ESSs, and other individual technologies are increasingly combined into complex hybrid energy systems driven by evolving technology platforms to meet the energy needs of end customers. These developments have resulted in previously unheard of competition in the market from cable and telecom companies, solar PV providers, home security firms, and large tech companies.

Utilities Facing Increased Competition at the Edge of the Grid

(Source: Navigant Research)

Utilities such as Green Mountain Power and Powerco recognize these threats and are attempting to get ahead of the competition posed by new energy service providers. These companies recognize that they must be innovative with their offerings to keep pace with the demands of customers and the industry’s technology-driven evolution. By encouraging customers to adopt new technologies and go off-grid on their own terms, utilities can establish a profitable extension of their business while forging stronger relationships with customers.

 

Innovators Wanted for DER Solutions: Part 3

— November 7, 2017

Coauthored by Brett Feldman

Earlier this year, Navigant Research wrote about innovations required to overcome challenges to widespread distributed energy resources (DER) adoption and integration. Next, we offered examples of some companies and products looking to address those gaps from different perspectives, with varying levels of success so far. Here, we follow up with a few more examples related to business models, customer relationships, market structures, and organizational paradigms.

Models

Edison Energy is an unregulated business unit of Edison International, the parent company of regulated utility Southern California Edison. It is branded as an advisory and services company that can design energy solutions—on both the supply and demand side—for large energy users. It is one of the major early competitors demonstrating the emerging energy as a service business model, having made rapid strides into the market by acquiring four startups—collectively, a $100 million investment (SoCore Energy, ENERActive Solutions, Delta Energy Services, and Altenex).

However, Edison Energy has also struggled to find its footing, despite the aggressive approach to acquiring new capabilities. It is now undergoing a major shake-up at the executive level, including the departure of its president in July 2017 after a strategic review by its parent company.

Relationships

The customer relationship with utilities, energy usage, and technology providers is changing. Utilities are now expected to offer a wider array of customer-facing services, offer a digital experience, and accommodate customer self-generation like solar PV. In many cases, utilities and technology providers are increasingly competing for the same customers (e.g., as a demand response program provider).

At the same time, other vendors are finding new products and services to sell to utilities to help them meet changing customer needs. Schneider Electric is one such vendor tapping into this transformation. In this case, Schneider Electric is marketing its WiserAir smart thermostat to utilities as a way to engage customers with an energy management platform before a competitor does.

Markets

Transactive energy is a hot topic in the energy industry and a concept that has great potential for DER markets. Transactive energy would allow customers with DER to trade power and grid services with each other and their utilities, leveraging blockchain technology for encrypted trading between parties. Policymakers and technology vendors have been the loudest proponents of transactive energy so far, but utilities are cautious about the value/benefits of such a market.

Utilities are also mindful of the influence of market forces on the reliability of their distribution systems and the large amount of software and grid technology that would be required to manage such a market. These are some of the primary reasons that a true transactive marketplace is still a relatively distant goal, even in California, which has been investigating DER for more than 10 years and is making progress on locational pricing for grid resources.

Organization

Many of the industry changes associated with DER have major repercussions for regulatory and utility organizational structures. These repercussions are most apparent in New York, under the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative. In 2016, the New York Public Service Commission approved structural reforms to electric utility regulations related to the alignment of utility shareholder financial interests and customer interests. Under the order, utilities have four ways of achieving earnings: (1) traditional cost-of-service earnings; (2) earnings tied to achievement of alternatives that reduce utility capital spending and provide definitive consumer benefit; (3) earnings from market-facing platform activities; and (4) transitional outcome-based performance measures. Changes to earnings, ratemaking approaches, and technology deployment will have a major influence on the affected utilities and how they are regulated.

 

It’s a Tie! The USITC Announces Its Section 201 Solar Trade Case Recommendations

— November 3, 2017

On October 31, 2017, the US International Trade Commission (USITC) announced the remedy recommendations that it will forward to President Trump. As we have discussed in previous blogs (here and here), this case has been shaping the future of the US solar industry. Impacts have been felt around the world since May 2017, when Suniva and SolarWorld asked the USITC to investigate.

What Did They Recommend?

The recommendations of each USITC commissioner can be found here. In summary, they recommended a system involving import quotas, import licenses, and a percentage-based ad valorem tariff of up to 35% in the first year of implementation. The commissioners rejected Suniva’s petition to set a minimum import price at $0.74/W; in percentage terms, this would be comparable to a 100% tariff. Like with Suniva’s petition, the tariff will be reduced each year and will drop to up to 32% in the fourth year of its implementation (the best case would set the tariff at 15%).

So, What Will Happen Next?

On one side, even when the highest tariffs are applied, module prices in the United States would regress to those seen about a year ago—when the industry installed 14.6 GW of capacity, doubling its previous installation record. Thus, the effects on the downstream of the solar industry should be minimal. It is unlikely that the protection given by the USITC will be enough to create a boom for solar manufacturing in the United States, but it should be enough to keep a profitable cottage industry focused on the local market with modest growth potential.

On the other side, the tariff and quota limits will stop future global price declines from being reflected in the US market. This will affect the competitiveness of solar and hence, its expansion into areas with lower irradiance.

With China hitting 50 GW of installed capacity this year (3 times the second largest market), India poised to take over the United States as the second largest market, and installations in the global sun belt (Latin America, Middle East, South East Asia, and Australia) soaring, global solar players are unlikely to be affected by the tariff. However, potential mirror tariffs might push out US companies with local manufacturing capacity, like First Solar, from the international markets.

Overall, the recommendations of the USITC commissioners favor the status quo, keeping the solar industry intact but slowing its growth.

 

Postcard from Puerto Rico

— November 1, 2017

It has been more than a month since Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico. The majority of this US territory remains without reliable electricity and is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. The lack of power in Puerto Rico, as well as the hurricanes that struck Florida and Texas, have turned up the heat on utilities, regulators, and the federal government regarding how best to rebuild power grids for greater resilience to protect against future outages during natural disasters.

While companies such as Tesla proclaim that Puerto Rico provides the perfect opportunity to deploy solar PV plus energy storage microgrids to rebuild regional power supplies, others argue the quickest way for restoration lies with fixing the traditional hub-and-spoke centralized transmission grid. Where does the truth stand? As is often the case, somewhere between these two extremes. Though I personally would invest more heavily into microgrids, I would not restrict them to solar energy because hurricanes can both damage and limit power production. Nonetheless, wind-powered mobile microgrids were part of the immediate response, smart dual-fuel generators should also be vital parts of the microgrid solution mix.

Can Lessons from the Military Rebuild Puerto Rico?

There are some important lessons that Puerto Rico can benefit from if it listens to the US military, a key responder to the crisis in Puerto Rico.

As I noted in a recent blog, the US Department of Defense (DOD) and data centers have been wrestling with how to maintain uptime while scaling back its reliance upon diesel generation. In a new Navigant Research white paper sponsored by Schneider Electric, I argue that innovative business models, such as microgrids as a service, may be the ticket to transforming industries reluctant to embrace distributed energy resources (DER) innovations. Likewise, military bases are following similar pathways forward, eliminating capital costs and financing upgrades through energy efficiency savings. Case in point is the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia, which is the DOD’s first net zero energy military base.

The military microgrid market was viewed as an early adopter before budget issues helped stall the market. While a uniquely US market in terms of adoption for stationary bases, its effect is global since the DOD has sites scattered across the globe. Forward operating bases and mobile tactical microgrids can operate as standalone systems or interconnect with traditional grids and have been featured in recent conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A new report from Navigant Research notes that momentum for DOD microgrids is picking up.

Military Technology – Civilian Implications

The DOD has played a remarkably consistent role in commercializing new technologies that provide tremendous social benefits within the larger civilian realm. The Internet, created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1969, is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the DOD’s contributions to consumer markets. Along with accelerating the commercialization of traditional manufactured products such as aircraft, the DOD has also pushed the envelope on IT. These advances have been vital to all smart grid platforms, including microgrids.

Hurricanes and related rain and wind do pose challenges to all forms of power supply, including microgrids. Yet, developing a distributed and diverse portfolio of resources is always the best bet, whether one is talking about the wholesale or retail delivery system (note that Cuba’s reliance on microgrids limits outages compared to its Caribbean neighbors). While the Trump administration favors traditional energy pathways, the DOD has forged new ground in DER. One option for Puerto Rico could be to carve out a lead role for the DOD in rebuilding its power system, showcasing lessons learned from both domestic bases and remote power bolstering national security, while at the same time delivering the humanitarian services so direly needed by the local population.

 

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