In my last blog post, I discussed seven megatrends that are fundamentally changing how we produce and use power. In this blog, I discuss how customer choice and changing customer demands have become the leading drivers of industry transformation.
Move from “Big Power to Small Energy”
Customer choice is driving a large move from big power to small energy. More and more customers are choosing to install distributed energy resources (DER) on their premises. DER solutions include distributed generation, demand response, energy efficiency, distributed storage, microgrids, and electric vehicles. This year, DER deployments will reach 30 GW in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), central generation net capacity additions (new generation additions minus retirements) are estimated at 19.7 GW in 2016. This means that DER is already growing significantly faster than central generation. On a 5-year basis (2015-2019), DER in the United States is growing almost 3 times faster than central generation (168 GW vs. 57 GW). This trend varies by region because policy approaches, market dynamics, and structures vary. However, the overall move to small power will persist. In other words, the movement toward customer-centric solutions and DER will ultimately become commonplace worldwide.
Annual Installed DER Power Capacity Additions by DER Technology, United States: 2015-2024
(Source: Navigant analysis)
Customer Choice: Everything Is Changing
Customers want to self-generate and sell that power back to the grid. Customers also want new energy management products and services from their utility or other providers. The rise of the prosumer and active consumer movement is being fueled by three things:
- A growing number of customers care about how and where their energy is generated and about the impacts of global warming.
- Unprecedented and rapid technology advances are bringing greener energy choices directly to consumers.
- New and disruptive entrants are rapidly emerging that give customers meaningful energy usage insights and options related to their homes, businesses, and transportation choices.
Where we see this movement picking up pace is in the increased number of commercial and industrial (C&I) customers that are choosing to implement their own more sustainable energy solutions. Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Google, Honda, Walmart, and other large energy users have increased their focus on installing onsite solar. Walmart has 142 MW of solar PV capacity at 348 installations in the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA’s) Solar Means Business 2015: Top U.S. Corporate Solar Users report. The retail company has a 100% renewable energy target, together with 57 others currently as part of RE100. And then there is the “Power Forward” movement, where 215 Fortune 500 companies are pursuing their own investments in local greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, sustainability, or renewable energy initiatives. Power Forward 2.0 states that if incumbent utilities are not proactive (e.g., offer power purchases agreements, financing, rates, or project development), then they will be bypassed in favor of third-party energy providers (including non-regulated subsidiaries of incumbent utilities).
What Is New?
The focus on customer engagement and improving the customer experience is not new. In recent years, utilities have tried to improve the customer experience by introducing broader self-service, multi-channel options, and advanced information on energy products and usage. Such improvements include offering energy management applications like DTE’s Insight app.
What is new (and isn’t getting enough attention) are the actual implications of customer choice. With the increased availability of DER and new energy management technologies, the breadth and diversity of customer needs and interests that the utility will have to deal with are growing exponentially. Meeting diverse and changing customer demands is forcing utilities to rethink their role in the energy value chain. The range of possible services goes well beyond what they currently provide, including building energy management solutions, fast demand response, distributed generation, storage, microgrids, etc. Utilities must understand the full impact of all this on their customer service processes and systems. They must also understand how DER and advanced energy management solutions will affect their strategy, product innovation, business models, and the way they operate the grid. Taking an integrated and holistic approach is key.
Who Else Wants to Play?
Besides the incumbent utility, we see new entrants coming into the market that are focused on meeting the changing demands of large energy users. In the last 6 months, we have seen several announcements of new business models going after this market. Some examples are described below.
- Edison International is launching a business that will help reduce energy costs, improve efficiency, and offer more environmentally friendly options for large energy users. The company’s new subsidiary, Edison Energy, aims to serve commercial buildings, data centers, retail centers, healthcare operations, and educational institutions nationwide.
- Duke Energy’s Commercial portfolio president, Greg Wolf, has said, “In addition to utility-scale solar projects, we’ve also made investments in distributed generation and energy management systems for commercial and industrial companies.” Last year, Duke Renewables bought majority stakes in REC Solar (for commercial businesses) and Phoenix Energy (energy management systems and services for C&I customers).
- “GE Current combines GE’s products and services in energy efficiency, solar, storage, and onsite power with our digital and analytical capabilities to provide customers—hospitals, universities, retail stores, and cities—with more profitable energy solutions,” said Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE). Customers include Walgreens, Simon Property Group, Hilton Worldwide, JPMorgan Chase, Hospital Corporation of America, Intel, and Trane.
What Does All This Mean for the Incumbent Utility?
The incumbent utility (which includes the traditional competitive retailer not offering DER) has to adapt. Customers will look for better, greener, and cheaper alternatives, and more and more of these alternatives are becoming available. What’s more, the fight has started for the business of large C&I customers. If only a small percentage of large C&I customers switch over, the incumbent utilities will be in trouble. This will affect their revenue streams, roles, and the cost versus value of the centralized managed grid.
Facing declining revenue as customers consume less and produce more of their own power, utilities are faced with potential stranded generation (and eventually transmission and distribution) assets. This makes it even harder to make large investments (aimed at improving reliability and resilience) in their current grid while also making it more intelligent. And finally, they have to make investments in developing DER capabilities, offerings, and businesses. Given these challenges, utilities must play both defense and offense.
An updated defensive strategy will entail:
- Engaging with customers to understand their customer choices and changing demands vis-a-vis price and reliability.
- Engaging with regulators to find equitable ways to charge net metering customers for transmission and distribution services that fairly address the cost to serve.
- Improving customer service and grid reliability at the lowest prices possible.
- Developing utility-owned renewable assets to appeal to environmentally conscious customers.
Playing offense is even more important. Utilities must:
- Create new revenue streams through the development of new business models, products, and services.
- Transform their organizations and culture in order to fully integrate sales, customer service, and operations.
- Upgrade the grid and operations to facilitate the integration of DER.
The above objectives can only be accomplished by implementing new business models that include developing, owning, and operating integrated DER such as community solar, customer-sited storage, microgrids, charging stations, building energy management systems, and home energy management systems. These goals also require utilities to provide third-party financing for DER and offer new products and services focused on energy efficiency and demand response.
There is no going back to the old ways of doing business. Utilities must lead—by playing both defense and offense—or they run the risk of being sidelined.
This is the second in a series of posts in which I will discuss each of the power industry megatrends and impacts (“so what?”) in more detail. My next blog will cover the rising number of carbon emissions reduction policies and regulations. Stay tuned.
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