Navigant Research Blog

Cautiously, Private Utilities Dip Toes into Microgrid Pool

— December 16, 2014

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory statistics show that 80% to 90% of all grid failures begin at the distribution level of electricity service.  While utilities can resolve these issues through a variety of technologies, their historic bias against the concept of intentional islanding – or cutting off certain systems from the wider grid – has precluded them from considering microgrids in the past.

That has changed over the last 3 years.  The extreme storms that pounded the East Coast beginning in 2011 have led the states of Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey to all initiate resiliency programs that promote microgrids as a key element of their strategy.

Unfortunately, the concept of community resiliency or public purpose microgrids often violates utility franchise rules, since power would have to be sent over public rights of ways.  Connecting, for example, a gas station to a high school serving as an emergency shelter and a hospital could get the operator of this impromptu microgrid in trouble.

So, by way of necessity, utilities clearly have to play a role in these kinds of microgrids.  Furthermore, the hype about the utility death spiral is prompting many utilities to examine new regulatory structures and business models to accommodate the growth in third-party distributed energy resources (DER).

The Revolution Will Be Distributed

As a result, Navigant Research has issued a new report, Utility Distribution Microgrids (or UDMs).  While public power UDMs – both grid-tied and remote – are a larger market today and are expected to be in the future than systems deployed by investor-owned utilities (IOUs), the most interesting segment are these latter private systems, due to the regulatory issues they raise and because these large companies tend to move markets.

In conversations with utilities, the messages I’ve heard have changed dramatically.  When I initially researched this topic more than 2 years ago, the biggest concern about microgrids revolved around technology and intentional islanding, a concept that was anathema to utilities whose grid codes were designed to prevent customers from sealing themselves off from the larger distribution grids.  Worker safety, loss of customer load, and stranded investments in centralized generation also came up.

Today, many utilities cite these same issues, but growing numbers realize the DER revolution is picking up momentum and that microgrids that are owned or controlled by utilities could help them fulfill their mission to provide low-cost, reliable power.

Convincing the Regulators

The IOUs exploring microgrids include Arizona Public Service, Consolidated Edison, Duke Energy, NRG Energy, and San Diego Gas & Electric.  The primary challenge for an IOU today in implementing a UDM is justifying a microgrid under traditional rate-based regulation.  How can the utility convince state regulators that investing ratepayer funds into a project that directly benefits a small subset of customers will also benefit the wider customer base?  Even if a valid business case can be made, the typical 3-year rate case state regulatory proceeding business model may retard near-term innovation.

This IOU UDM segment offers the largest potential growth of any UDM segment, since it helps address the need for new technology solutions to address explosive growth in DER.  But it also faces the largest regulatory question marks.

 

CPower Reemerges as a Demand Response Player

— December 15, 2014

In October, I wrote about the announcement that Comverge and Constellation would combine their commercial and industrial demand response (DR) businesses into a standalone entity.  The question was: What would the new company be called?  Would they take one of the existing names?  Combine the two names?  Come up with something new?  Instead, they brought back a familiar brand: CPower, the name of the DR provider that Constellation bought 4 years ago.

But this is not your mother’s CPower, according to Chris Cantone,  the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.  The C in CPower carries multiple meanings aside from the lingering brand recognition: the combination of Comverge and Constellation, customer engagement, and curtailment services.  “The market has been excited about the announcement, and our channel partners have been waiting for an independent DR provider,” Cantone told me in a phone interview.  The company is still in a little bit of stealth mode as the behind-the-scenes business combination unfurls, but expect a media splash in the near future.

Divide and Succeed

What value does this new structure bring to the parties involved? Cantone says that the future of DR will entail greater technical requirements, which were hard to fulfill under a larger organization like Constellation.  CPower can be more strategic and proactive on its own, while maintaining a preferred provider relationship with Constellation for its customers.  From Comverge’s perspective, there was a lack of synergy between its utility-focused residential business and its market-focused commercial and industrial business, so it made sense to split them up and allow them to build to their own strengths.

So was Constellation’s purchase of the original CPower 4 years ago a mistake?  No, asserts Cantone.  It was an invaluable experience for the old CPower DR experts to get immersed in the energy markets and learn how DR fits into the bigger picture on the wholesale side with generation and the retail side with customers’ energy procurement strategies.   Additionally, the 2011 deal was the move that set in motion the trend of larger energy entities investing in the DR realm, as Johnson Controls bought Energy Connect, Siemens bought Site Controls, Schneider bought Energy Pool (in Europe), and NRG bought Energy Curtailment Specialists.  Will those combinations survive?  Cantone thinks they will have to deal with the same issues that Constellation did, and we will have to see who can find internal solutions and who sets the DR free.

The Real Threat

Regarding business strategy, the initial intent is to focus on the existing markets in the United States, like PJM, ERCOT, NYISO, ISO-NE, and California.  An expansion into utility programs could be the next growth step, followed by selective entry into the burgeoning international arena.

I contacted executives at EnerNOC to get their take on what looks to be their strongest competition, but they declined to comment .  In the meantime, EnerNOC and CPower may find common ground to combat the potential disruption from the court drama over FERC 745 to remove DR from the wholesale markets, which could affect them more than any amount of friendly competition could.

 

Warily, Utilities Go Digital

— December 10, 2014

Utility customers are changing their behavior rapidly, increasingly viewing the utility much in the same manner they would their bank, cellular provider, or – even worse – preferred online retailer.  J.D. Power affirmed this in July with the publication of its 2014 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.  Consumer engagement technologies are also detailed in Navigant Research’s white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond.  These other types of providers, the banks and the cellular providers, have at least one thing in common: they’ve completely rearranged their strategy and operating model around a growing digital environment.  But utilities by and large are behind in developing effective and user-friendly digital presences, and I would argue that this is largely due to not having approached digitization as a firmwide strategy.

What is digitization?  It’s a broad topic, including everything from advanced gathering and analysis of data to social media.  The slowest movers have been government and public service organizations, such as utilities, simply because they’ve had more or less inelastic demand and monopoly status.  But now deregulation and growing expectations are forcing utilities to improve their public image and provide services in a more competitive manner by enhancing historically low/declining customer satisfaction.  These changes include the ability to easily monitor all activity and make services changes online, incorporate services such as prepay and prosumer options, and develop specific and targeted web/mobile-based marketing campaigns.

Resistance in the C-Suite

A couple of barriers are keeping utilities from becoming better digital organizations.  Probably the greatest barrier has been the resistance of utility executives.  It’s no longer possible to assign an intern to maintain a Facebook page and call that a digital strategy – digitization needs to involve all parts of the firm, and will probably change the business model altogether.  Utilities are not only characteristically slow adopters of change, but also traditionally siloed both functionally and informationally.

At the heart of a digital strategy is the information that is gathered to guide it.  The utility must consolidate comprehensive internal and external information from distributed sources like smart meters, customer information systems, intelligent electronic devices located on the grid, social media, and weather reports, just to name a few.   If this information is located within different parts of the utility and structured differently than other types of data, it can be nearly impossible to analyze in one place, and utilities will only see a half-formed image of demand patterns and customer preferences.

Beyond the Web Site

Once this information is in place, however, the utility still faces a second and even greater challenge of determining if and how to restructure its offerings in order to provide services in a different manner.  This can trigger investments in reorganization efforts, such as human capital investment, cross-functional collaboration, IT purchases, and outsourcing.

It comes as no surprise that many utilities are reluctant to consider these sorts of reorganizations, as they already operate with relatively low margins and typically have restricted investment budgets.  In those cases, managed services can ease the cost of digitization through highly focused products and outsourcing.

Managed services companies can assist utilities in developing firmwide digital strategies and provide resources that allow them to do so at a lower cost (with less risk of faulty investing) than integrating internally.  Until recently, the majority of these companies’ services have been adopted for very specific programs and needs, but more competitors are ramping up to offer enterprise service models where customer-facing digitization only scratches the surface.   In our report, Smart Grid as a Service, Navigant Research provides an in-depth assessment of the utility IT services market globally.  It will be worth watching how this market forms as more utilities ease, or are shoved, into the full transition to digital.

 

Utilities Could Accelerate the E-Truck Market

— December 9, 2014

In November, a group of 70 U.S. utilities announced a major commitment to buying plug-in vehicles (PEVs), an initiative that could have a major impact on the plug-in truck market in the United States.  At a White House ceremony, a group of investor-owned utility executives committed to spending 5% of their annual fleet budgets on PEVs.  This reportedly will total around $50 million annually spent on PEVs.

It’s no surprise that utilities support the use of PEVs in their fleets, since it allows them to shift fuel budgets from petroleum to their own power.  But the reality of utility adoption of PEVs is that, while a handful of very forward-looking utilities, such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Florida Power & Light, have been fairly aggressive about integrating PEVs into their fleets, many others have tried one or two or have been looking to see the results of trials from the first movers.

Trucks, Not Cars

With this joint commitment, utilities can have a much bigger impact on the U.S. market for PEVs. But the best way to spend the money to really move the market for PEVs forward will be to spend it on trucks, not on passenger cars.  Passenger cars offer more bang for the buck, and create fewer headaches since passenger car PEVs have already been proven in the consumer market.  But for that reason, there is considerably less need for utility purchases to push the market.  $50 million would buy around 1,700 Nissan LEAFs, for example.  That is less than 2.0% of the total PEVs that Navigant Research projects to be sold in the United States in 2014 in its report, Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts.

If utilities invest in electric trucks, they could have a much bigger impact.  Plug-in trucks are still in the pilot, demonstration or very early commercial stage, as discussed in Navigant Research’s report, Hybrid and Electric Trucks.  This market suffers from low overall volumes and a splintered market, with many small niches to fill, including urban delivery vans, bucket trucks, service vehicles, and suburban or long-distance delivery.  One reason so many e-truck companies come and go is the challenge of achieving sufficient volume to bring down costs through economies of scale.  If utilities team up to place larger orders for plug-in trucks, they can have a real impact on the market.

Market Maker

For example, $50 million could buy around 250 plug-in bucket trucks with electric power takeoff, one of the more promising applications for plug-in trucks.  While that number may seem small, companies targeting this space are currently seeing orders in the tens – and these are still largely supported by government funding.  Whatever the application, a combined effort to place larger orders for plug-in trucks could have a major impact on this still-struggling market – and  could pay off for utilities that will benefit from using more fuel efficient trucks should this market succeed.

 

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