Navigant Research Blog

Putting Blockchain in Its Proper Context

— November 10, 2017

Coauthored by Stuart Ravens

If blockchain evangelists are to be believed, it is going to be big. The so-called Internet of Value will disrupt and decentralize our financial system, healthcare, and electric grids. The massive, centralized powers-that-be will not make it out of this transformation intact.

The truth? There is something out there with significant potential to decentralize much, but not all, of our societal infrastructure. Is blockchain the magic ingredient used in decentralization? No, not really. As Bitcoin expert Andreas Antonopoulos notes, claiming that blockchain is the factor that creates decentralization is like claiming that wings alone are responsible for aviation … but put wings on a building and it still won’t fly.

What Guarantees Trustless, Immutable Decentralization?

Released in 2009, the Bitcoin platform revolutionized decentralization by making every transaction 100% verifiable by every participant without having to rely on anything beyond the software it runs on. It also prevents anyone from meaningfully gaming the system. Andreas Antonopoulos spells out four key pieces of Bitcoin that—only in combination—lead to a fully decentralized and immutable application:

  1. A blockchain ledger that is distributed throughout the system and can be validated by any participant.
  2. A consensus algorithm that is open and subject to precise and consistent rules.
  3. A reward of real value for properly validating the next block, (importantly) paid in bitcoin.
  4. A competition that determines who gets to validate the next block and receive the reward. Critically, each competitor must pay a significant cost in computing energy as an entry fee.

Similar levels of decentralization are critical to proving asset, identity, or land ownership. However, there are many instances when decentralization or immutability need not be so strict, including when:

  • Only partial decentralization is needed.
  • Specific actors can be trusted.
  • Access to the ledger should be closed.
  • The ledger may require (limited) editing.
  • There are no rewards for validation.

Given individual application requirements and significant practical issues with implementing Bitcoin (e.g., mining costs, limited transaction throughput, and validation latency), blockchain solutions have been developed that rely on different structures and consensus mechanisms. Their properties fall within a wide range of decentralization and immutability.

Blockchain Does Not Guarantee Bitcoin Superpowers

Although blockchain is an underlying technology of Bitcoin, it is wrong to equate all blockchain-based solutions with Bitcoin—yet, this happens frequently. There is a risk that such misinterpretation will confuse and disappoint potential customers, and wasted resources will lead to negative press.

Utilities keen to investigate blockchain must ensure they get the right qualities, and enough of these qualities, to satisfy their requirements. They must also understand that each custom combination of consensus, trust, risk, and reward remains unproven until it has been tested at scale.

As the common component of many distributed data and/or asset systems, blockchain is becoming the de facto term for trustless, immutable decentralization. However, this is often not the case. Unfortunately, there is presently no competing term that covers the range of features and characteristics of products that include blockchain.

Navigant Research believes the industry must be more circumspect about blockchain. While there are some attractive use cases for the technology within the utility industry, there are many issues that must be resolved. Potential users should add a caveat emptor to their optimism. Navigant Research will publish a series of blockchain reports in the near future that will investigate the consequences of these issues in greater detail.

 

Utilities Must Take a Pragmatic Approach to the Energy Transformation

— July 27, 2017

Few will dispute the fact that the industry is undergoing significant change. The shift to clean and distributed energy sources and the adoption of EVs will force significant changes to the way distribution companies run their businesses. However, much of what is written on business transformation can be high level. If everything that is written on the subject is to be believed, then there are huge utility transformation projects occurring across the world. While there is certainly a lot of activity, projects are typically targeted at specific areas rather than businesswide.

Transform Business Models via Planning

As discussed in Navigant Research’s Distribution Utility Transformation Strategies report, which highlights some of the leading examples of business model transformation within distribution networks, transformation does not happen overnight. Rather, it is a decade-long process that requires careful planning and a staged approach. There are many different drivers for transformation, including increasing competition, business process efficiency improvements, a renewed focus on customer experience, new product and service development, and the incorporation of distributed energy resources (DER). These drivers will affect utilities in different ways; the most striking difference is between competitive and monopoly markets.

Create a Vision for the Future

One key takeaway is that as with any large-scale project, utilities must set out a vision for their future businesses and a roadmap detailing how to achieve this goal. Companies cannot do everything all at once, so they must place their bets wisely and invest in projects that deliver the biggest returns. In addition, organizations cannot underestimate the contribution a strong stakeholder engagement program can make to a project’s success.

Develop an Actionable Roadmap

As a result, each utility’s transformation will be different and will happen at different times—and at different rates. Digital Utility Transformation Best Practices builds on some of the recommendations provided in Navigant Consulting’s “Energy Cloud Playbook” to offer best practices for creating an actionable roadmap for transformation. Most utilities will not be able to avoid the inevitable forever. Therefore, they must plan now for their future businesses. The right strategy will help utilities navigate political uncertainty; manage market-specific regulatory policies; access project finance from skeptical and conservative shareholders; and confront legacy issues such as corporate culture, a lack of skills, and outdated technologies.

The latest reports published in Navigant Research’s Digital Utility Strategies Research Service provide specific details on different utilities’ transformation projects. They discuss and compare initiatives in California, New York, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Australia while also providing some practical advice to organizations embarking on their own transformation projects.

 

Natural Gas Demand Response – Not Just for Electricity Any More: Part 2

— May 17, 2017

Coauthored by Brett Feldman

What Is Holding Back Natural Gas Demand Response?

As we discussed in our earlier blog, demand response (DR) in the electricity sector has been a common practice for decades for utilities and grid operators. Historically, DR has been less prevalent in the natural gas industry, but changing market factors have increased interest in the practice.

In this blog, we discuss the opportunities for DR in the natural gas sector and describe some of the major challenges. A key area of opportunity for natural gas DR lies in alleviating pipeline capacity constraints during periods of peak usage, which are typical spikes in demand driven by extreme weather or logistical issues.

Natural gas DR is alluring because it is theoretically less expensive than expanding existing infrastructure or constructing new pipeline and it incentivizes consumers of natural gas to defer or forego demand during periods of peak usage in exchange for compensation. Before we can determine the price of deferred natural gas consumption, however, we must establish its value.

What Is the Value of Natural Gas DR?

One of the reasons electric DR has been successful is that it reduces electric demand. Perhaps most importantly, it also has a clear, established value: the wholesale, retail capacity, and energy price that an electric DR provider typically receives for each negawatt of reduced demand that other market participants—like generators—are paid for each megawatt of delivered power.

There is no equivalent price for a nega-molecule of methane in natural gas markets. The price value of gas DR would have to be a negotiation due to an absent market structure. To provide an incentive for natural gas DR, the price would need to be equal to or less than the price paid for consuming the gas. A key challenge to determining the value of DR is that although natural gas prices can demonstrate significant volatility during periods of increased demand, many consumers of natural gas do not pay these high prices—at least not directly.

How Do We Develop a Price Signal?

Residential consumers, for example, purchase their natural gas supply and transportation through their local distribution company (LDC). The LDCs, in turn, typically rely on a variety of gas transportation and commodity supply plans with varying terms and prices. As part of their obligation to serve, the LDCs are required to build gas supply plans that mitigate the exposure of customers to volatility in prices. During a period of extreme increases in demand, the LDC may need to procure additional supply during certain days throughout the year, but these purchases are typically a small fraction of the overall daily demand. Most LDCs charge customers monthly, which causes the extreme price increases to become a small component of the overall bill.

Many commercial and industrial (C&I) customers, including power generators, purchase natural gas supply from a LDC. Larger C&I customers arrange transportation through an interstate or intrastate pipeline company to obtain their commodity via a marketer. Although the physical delivery arrangements are different compared to the residential sector, the economics are similar and the barriers to the development of a price signal for deferred consumption remain the same.

The absence of a clear price signal is a significant impediment to the adoption of natural gas DR despite the promise of providing a potentially less expensive means of alleviating pipeline constraints. Regardless of these challenges, natural gas DR offers a viable method to shift gas consumption during periods of peak demand.

Part 3 of our blog series will explore what utilities have tried for natural gas DR in the past and what new concepts could develop in the future.

 

Microsoft Pushes IoT as a Service as Competition Heats Up

— May 12, 2017

In a quiet way, many different businesses are helping to establish a stronger foothold for the Internet of Things (IoT), moving beyond the hype and delivering on the buzzy promises from several years back. As evidence, Microsoft recently launched IoT Central, an IoT as a service (IoTaaS) offering that enables companies to deploy IoT technologies without having to do so from scratch using in-house resources.

Early Adopters

IoT Central’s goal is to help companies rapidly design, build, and deliver smart products and integrate them with enterprise-scale systems. So far, early adopting companies of IoT Central—thyssenkrupp Elevator, Rolls-Royce, and Sandvik Coromant, according to reports—are in the manufacturing and engineering sectors. IoT Central is part of a suite of IoT-related products from Microsoft, including Azure Suite IoT (a platform as a service [PaaS] offering for developing backend applications) and Azure IoT Hub, which acts as the messaging infrastructure for distributed device communications.

But Microsoft is not alone in helping to establish a stronger corporate foothold for the IoT. Competitors like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Oracle, to name a few, offer several IoT-related services for business clients. And recently the head of AWS, Andy Jassy, said, “Of all the buzzwords everybody has talked about, the one that has delivered fastest on its promises is IoT and connected devices.” That’s a strong validation.

IoT and Utility Patents

IoT has also arrived for utilities. A recent piece by Alec Schibanoff, a vice president at patent broker and consulting services firm IPOfferings LLC, notes the many patents for operational efficiency and security that have been granted over the years form the basis of the modern grid. One was granted as far back as 2002.

Next Steps for IoT

These are all signs of a maturing IoT landscape, one that will underpin Energy Cloud 2.0 as envisioned by Navigant Research and outlined in the free white paper, Navigating the Energy Transformation. But there is much more value to be unleashed from IoT devices and connected systems. We’ve only scratched the surface around data analytics, and future applications and services have yet to materialize. Many companies are starting to explore the possibilities. It won’t be too many years before the IoT will make louder noises as a solid platform for business innovation and efficiency.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Digital Utility Strategies, Electric Vehicles, Energy Technologies, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Transportation Efficiencies, Utility Transformations

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Utility Transformation","path":"\/tag\/utility-transformation","date":"11\/19\/2017"}