Navigant Research Blog

Massive Outage Highlights Bangladesh Grid’s Fragility

— November 11, 2014

On November 1, the Bangladesh power grid suffered a massive, country-wide blackout, which took well over a day to restore.  Only the most critical or prepared institutions and government agencies that had adequate diesel generation backup power had electricity, while the rest of the 160 million people in the country were totally in the dark.  The power outage brought much of normal life to a standstill, forced hospitals to rely on back-up generators, and even plunged the prime minister’s official residence into darkness.  Meanwhile, the garment industry and other manufacturers that represent 80% of Bangladesh’s exports were idled.

Initial reports suggested that the outage occurred when protective relays tripped at the interconnect substations between the India transmission grid and the Bangladesh transmission grid, where much of Bangladesh’s power is supplied.  While Power Grid of India, the India transmission grid operator, reported that its high-voltage transmission grid was operating normally, the Bangladesh Power Grid on the other side of the substation was down.  This sounds remarkably like the 2003 situation in United States, where much of the Eastern grid suffered an outage.

In the Dark

In my recent research, I have been looking into next-generation technologies and wide-area situational and visualization tools that transmission grid network operators are beginning to deploy to better anticipate and detect critical disturbances of the sort that likely led to this massive outage.  The Bangladesh outage was likely the largest on the Subcontinent since the Indian blackout in 2012, where two severe power outages affected most of northern and eastern India.  The July 31, 2012, India blackout was the largest power outage in world history, reportedly affecting over 620 million people — about 9% of the world’s population.  More than 32 GWof generating capacity went offline during this outage.

In the wake of that failure, the latest 10-year transmission plans in India call for the installation of over 1,300 synchrophasor phasor measurement units (PMUs) and associated analytics installed on India’s high-voltage transmission grid to manage sub-second disturbances.

The scope of the Bangladesh outage is yet to be determined, and it will require extensive transmission grid and generation forensic analysis, using available monitored information from the hours and minutes prior to the outage.  One can only wonder whether these next generation of PMU and synchrophasor analytics technologies, implemented on the Bangladesh side of the interconnected transmission network, could have prevented this crisis.


Energy Storage Enjoys a Breakthrough Day

— November 5, 2014

While most Americans were paying attention to election results, news emerged out of California that truly heralds a new era for the energy storage industry.  Southern California Edison (SCE) announced that it will acquire 2,221 MW of new generation assets, of which 250 MW will be energy storage systems.  This is the end result of the lowest-cost resource request for proposal (RFP) that is designed to eventually replace the generation provided by the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant.

While the sheer scale of the announcement is staggering (no utility has ever purchased 250 MW of non-pumped hydro energy storage before), the details of the announcement are even more impactful.  SCE was expected to use some of this bid for energy storage (it listed energy storage as a preferred resource on the RFP), and Navigant Research assumed the energy storage part of the purchase would be about 50 MW.  By ordering 5 times that amount of energy storage, SCE is making a very loud statement about how highly it values energy storage as a grid management tool.

The Land Rush Begins

Another important aspect of this move is that it was done on a completely level playing field.  SCE decided to purchase 250 MW of energy storage because it felt it had a higher value than any other generation asset (including natural gas, wind and solar).  That in itself is an extremely important positive note for the energy storage industry.

Even more important for the industry is that SCE’s big vote of confidence for energy storage happened just before the launch of three big RFPs that were designed as part of the energy storage mandate that California is forcing on the big utilities.  By December 1, 2014, all three of the large investor-owned utilities in the state will introduce a total of more than 200 MW of energy storage purchases.  It’s the energy storage industry’s equivalent of the Oklahoma land rush.

Other Big Deals

A couple of other important nuggets regarding the SCE announcement:

  • AES Energy Storage will be building a 100 MW battery plant that will dwarf all existing battery power plants.  Over the last few years, AES Energy Storage has discussed how such a plant might work, but now it will have a chance to actually implement a battery peaking plant.  If this project is successful, it will open up a completely new business model for the energy storage industry that could, in the long run, be the largest segment of the stationary storage market.
  • San Francisco-based startup STEM won an 84 MW contract that will make up hundreds (if not thousands) of distributed battery packs working on the customer side of the meter.  Like many other behind-the-meter energy storage system integrators, STEM has preached the concept of distributed battery packs that, in aggregation, work like a virtual power plant (see Navigant Research’s report, Virtual Power Plants).  STEM will be the first company to implement such an idea at scale in the real world.  If it succeeds, then other players like Coda Energy and GreenCharge Networks will also benefit.

Whatever your politics, for the energy storage industry it is morning in America.


Tug of War Over Utility Customers Intensifies

— November 5, 2014

In the last few years residential demand response (DR) has become a thriving market.  Recently, Constellation and Honeywell rolled out a service for all customers in areas that the companies serve designed to encourage consumers to purchase Honeywell thermostats and network them into Constellation’s platform.  Initially introduced only to Startex customers (a Texas subsidiary of Constellation) earlier this year, this service highlights the rising competition for energy customers.

Constellation claims that the program has the potential to shave upwards of $128 annually from customers’ electric bills.  Such services could help utilities reach energy efficiency targets as well as assemble an effective pool for residential DR programs.

There’s only one problem here, and it’s exacerbating tensions between utilities, energy service companies, and regulators.  The problem is that this type of program, also referred to as a hybrid DR model, blurs the lines around who exactly “owns” the customer, as well as who is providing the resource.

The New Disruptors

It seems natural for utilities to be receptive to the continued expansion in resources used to target electric customers for energy efficiency and DR programs.  But many utilities, particularly those in regulated markets, see this as encroaching on an established model in which the utility acts as the face of the service in all cases (regardless of who’s actually providing the service).  As utilities shift from vertical producers and deliverers of kilowatt-hours to being providers of electric services (the Utility 2.0 model), the general consensus is that they want to maintain their statutory ownership of their customer base.  Having already given up so much, it’s likely that utilities will put up a fight in holding onto at least this little bit of status quo and margin.

But that’s not how the many disruptive participants, which have evolved within the energy and utility industry or entered from the broadband and IT spheres, want to play.  They want the customer too, either to expand their business and gain more margin, or because they already own the customer through their primary business (think broadband providers).

Not Letting Go

Looking at it from an economic perspective, some argue that allowing non-regulated service vendors to compete will eventually favor the customer.  Others point out that, while an electric services model does have the characteristics of a highly competitive market, the fact remains that delivering electricity requires substantial and expensive infrastructure, therefore limiting the number of competitors, which could disfavor the end user.  Regulators have been understandably reluctant to institute any sort of rapid overhaul.

I’d argue that regulators and utilities are highly aware that they must change the way they do business in order to facilitate the transition of the energy industry to a lower-carbon state.  But it’s not surprising that they still want to defend their end-user relationships.  Customers like having a single point of contact for their energy services – not separate contacts and bills for delivery and energy efficiency.  Furthermore, as utilities lose revenue associated with dismantled vertical business models, energy efficiency and DR are among the few areas where they have the ability to supplement losses.  As hybrid DR models spread, it’s unlikely that incumbents will let their customer relationships go easily.


Residential Solar Market Roiled by Proposed Rate-Basing Scheme

— November 3, 2014

There is a growing debate about the financing and subsidies of residential solar PV systems.  How this turns out could have a significant impact on the market’s future.  At the center of the discussion are Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tucson Electric Power (TEP), two regulated utilities that have proposed new rate-based solar programs for residential customers.  Such a move threatens private solar installation-financing companies such as SolarCity and Sunrun, which currently lead the growing market by offering no-money-down leasing schemes that have attracted thousands of new customers.

The private solar companies argue that allowing the utilities to sell rate-based solar systems would create an uneven playing field.  They believe the regulated utilities should set up their own separate, unregulated companies and compete for rooftop solar business with the independent installer-financing companies.  That’s precisely what electricity providers operating in other states have done.  For instance, NRG and Edison International have entered the rooftop solar market by establishing unregulated business units that operate in the Northeast and California, thus avoiding the controversy.

Keeping the Playing Field Level

This is a thorny question for Arizona, and both sides have convincing arguments, as my colleague Taylor Embury pointed in a recent blog post.   The solar installers argue that permitting the Arizona utilities to go ahead with their rate-basing plans would set up unfair competition because of their monopoly status.  The utilities say they just want to expand into solar because of customer demand for distributed generation (DG), and because it helps the utilities meet mandated goals for DG.  But the solar installers and their financiers have advantages they can leverage as well, in the form of the 30% income tax credit and a depreciation method called Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) that can make the investments quite attractive.  A decision on whether to allow the utilities to move forward with their solar programs is pending before Arizona’s utility regulator, and a ruling is expected before the end of the year.

This topic is certain to be part of the upcoming discussion during Navigant Research’s “The Home as Micro Power Plant” webinar, which takes place on November 11.  Besides the rooftop solar issue, panel members will examine the potential for residential energy storage, how plug-in electric vehicles could be used as grid assets, and whether residential combined heat and power can gain market traction.  To register for the webinar, click here.


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