Navigant Research Blog

Uber Expanding into Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

— April 7, 2015

Since Uber’s creation in 2009, the adoption of the company’s mobile app-based transportation service has exploded and the service is now available in 56 countries and over 200 cities worldwide. In fact, it was recently reported that there are now more Uber cars than yellow cabs in New York City. With nearly $3 billion in total funding raised by 2015, Uber is looking to expand its business into the growing electric vehicle (EV) and autonomous vehicle markets.

Offering local customers emissions-free transportation options, Uber has partnered with BYD to provide electric e6 taxis in Chicago. Uber drivers have the option to rent the e6 taxis from the Green Wheels USA dealership for $200 a week, and Uber customers will be able to choose an EV through the smartphone app when booking a vehicle. This new option gives users added flexibility in their riding choices, and more cities around the United States can expect Uber EVs as an option in the near term.

So Long, Driver

Likely to be more disruptive than the introduction of EVs, autonomous vehicles could have a much more notable impact on Uber’s business. In February 2015, Uber announced that it is setting up a laboratory in Pittsburgh to develop self-driving technology. In partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the company will reportedly be developing the core autonomous technology, the vehicles, and associated infrastructure at the Pittsburgh facility. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has stated in the past that he would gladly replace human drivers with a self-driving fleet of vehicles, as Uber drivers reportedly take home about 75% of every fare.

Beyond massive savings on costs for Uber, and potentially its customers, autonomous vehicles would make Uber a much safer service—not just in terms of smoother running vehicles with (likely) fewer accidents, but also in terms of the well-being of the passengers. Uber has come under intense scrutiny as of late, as accusations of assaults on passengers by Uber drivers have come from numerous customers from a variety of countries. While Uber does conduct background checks on its drivers, prosecutors in California are suing the company for alleged exaggeration regarding the rigor of its background checks.

Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, projects that globally, close to half of all new vehicles sold in 2035 will have some form of autonomous driving capability installed. Uber may have autonomous vehicles on the road even sooner, which would go a long way toward ensuring safer driving and safer environments for customers who would no longer have to consider the possibility of a dangerous driver.

 

March Madness—For Clean Energy

— April 7, 2015

This year’s NCAA basketball tournament was more surprising than most, with an estimated 70 million brackets filled out, the series of Big 12 upsets in the first round now referred to as Black Thursday, and our very own James McCray accurately predicting a Badgers/Duke Championship in the Navigant Research pool. What is more surprising than any of this, however, is the Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI’s) renewable energy bracket. RMI filled out a bracket based on the renewable energy portfolio of the utility serving the main campus of each school participating in the tournament, and the results are worth delving into.

Upsets & Underdogs

For starters, this year’s Final Four, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Duke, and Kentucky, did terribly in RMI’s renewable energy bracket. Of the four teams, only two made it past the first round. National champion Duke, with 1.1% renewable energy incorporated in its energy mix, was taken down in the first round by Robert Morris with just 6.2% renewable energy generation. Kentucky, which was favored to win the tournament this year but was taken down by the Badgers, lost in the first round due to a whopping 0.5%. Michigan State made it through the first round with 3.5%, but quickly lost in the second round to Belmont, with 15% renewable energy generation. Wisconsin, which has the most impressive renewable generation of the actual Final Four with 12%, made it past the first round, but quickly lost to Oregon.

This brings up the next revelation in RMI’s bracket—Oregon is the clean energy national champion. The Ducks were picked due to the 95% renewable energy generation of their campus, beating Eastern WA with 87.7%. The surprise is not that Oregon is the greenest school in the tournament, but that the percentage of clean energy powering the Duck’s campus is incredibly high. 95% is a pleasantly surprising number to see alongside other contenders in the bracket, such as RMI’s winners for the Midwest and East, Texas and UC Irvine, with just 14.6% and 21.6%, respectively.

Keep Playing

The message to take away from RMI’s renewable energy bracket is that this year’s March Madness teams, especially the Final Four, may be great at college basketball, but each could use some work on their sustainability practices and renewable energy penetration back on campus. Some schools, like Gonzaga with 56% and San Diego State with 23.6%, are a breath of clean air. But most schools fall somewhere below 10%, including highly ranked Villanova with 6.2% and Arizona with 5.6%.

It’s also important to note that different rankings produce different results. For example, the Sierra Club’s Greenest American Colleges ranking places UC Irvine as the greenest school in the country due to its ambitious energy efficiency and energy reduction goals, but RMI’s bracket has it losing in the Final Four. Rankings also depend upon different factors that can produce different results. For instance, Kentucky actually has a combined heat and power (CHP) program that generates 18% of its annual energy production, but the generator in this CHP system runs on natural gas and coal. As far as rankings go, should this CHP system be included because the school doesn’t waste the thermal heat produced during combustion, or should it be left out because the generators do not use sustainable resources?

To learn more about ways that colleges can increase their renewable energy initiatives and become more sustainable, check out Navigant Research’s report on Zero Energy Buildings.

 

Storage Helps Ease Schools’ Demand Charge Pain

— April 7, 2015

For many businesses, demand charges are like room service delivery charges for travelers, only more painful. Utilities levy demand charges on customers for short duration peak power usage during a month, which can add between 15%–50% to the cost of a utility bill for the entire month. In some cases, this can mean hundreds or thousands of dollars for a few minutes of excessive power use.

Utilities justify these substantial fees because high consumption of power at peak times can strain transmission and distribution assets or cause them to invoke their most costly generation equipment.

No Money Down

In power-constrained California, where demand charges run high, five school districts have turned to batteries to save money by reducing or avoiding demand charges. Energy storage solutions provider Green Charge Networks (GCN) developed energy storage systems using battery packs from Samsung SDI for Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, Oak Park Unified School District, Butte Community College, Peralta Community College District, and California State University, Fullerton.

GCN’s CEO Vic Shao told me that because of the high demand charges (Shao says San Diego Gas and Electric charges $45 per kilowatt), his company can provide the systems for free to the schools. The company can recoup its investment quickly by receiving a share of the savings that the schools receive from avoiding demand charges. For perpetually cash-strapped schools, a no-money-down solution for cutting energy costs can be compelling.

Solar Fee

Since the partnering schools are focused on reducing emissions, GCN also threw in free Level 2 electric vehicle (EV) chargers to incentivize employees and the districts to buy EVs. Shao said that thanks in part to California’s incentive program for storage and other clean energy technologies, the company has done more business aimed at combatting demand charges in the last 2 months than in the previous 3 years. New York City is another attractive market for storage systems, according to Shao.

Similarly, demand for energy storage systems in Arizona could be on the rise thanks to a controversial new demand charge being levied exclusively on solar customers by the Salt River Project utility.

GCN is one of several vendors, along with Stem and CODA Energy, offering storage products aimed at demand charge mitigation, as described in Navigant Research’s report, Community, Residential, and Commercial Energy Storage.

 

Utility Reform Takes Hold in the Rockies

— April 6, 2015

A new bill introduced in the Colorado General Assembly is intended to jump-start the state’s efforts to revise its traditional utility ratemaking models. In effect, the bill would contribute to substantial changes in how Colorado utilities plan, upgrade, and operate their grids. The end goal is to align the utility business model with state objectives to promote an environmentally friendly industry through increased adoption of clean/renewable generation and energy efficiency strategies.

Specifically, the bill would require the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to investigate and report its findings on potential measures to encourage customer energy efficiency and engagement, grid efficiency and reliability, technology innovation, and clean energy development and integration. This would guide the restructuring of the Centennial State’s practices around ratemaking, incentivizing, standards development, and approval processes in order to appropriately balance the good of the public, environmental benefits, and the utility business. It’s a tall order, but other states such as Hawaii, New York, and Massachusetts have already laid the groundwork for revising their energy regulation frameworks around similar goals.

For the Long Term

To date, utilities and other stakeholders both within Colorado and nationally have expressed concerns over the loss of revenue, increased grid instability, and cross-subsidizing that can occur in areas with high penetration rates of distributed generation. Notwithstanding the need to lower the greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional forms of power generation, prices for distributed solar systems are declining, fueling adoption and raising awareness around policies that support growth. So, it’s imperative that regulators enable mechanisms that enable utilities to maintain profitability and provide good service.

One such mechanism that has commonly been discussed is performance-based ratemaking. A somewhat nebulous concept, a performance rate structure essentially rewards utilities based on the level of service they provide to their customers. In theory, utilities are more invested in pursuing long-term improvement strategies instead of squeezing revenue out of their current asset base to meet service requirements.

Past Due

Many observers believe that the traditional regulatory framework is overdue for reform, and I happen to agree. But others see the reform process as potentially over-hasty. This month in Public Utilities Fortnightly, Kenneth W. Costello, principal researcher at the National Regulatory Research Institute, warned readers of the uncertainty around the spread of new technologies and resources in North America. “Decisions that bank on the sureness of the future invite regrettable outcomes,” remarked Costello.

Keeping that in mind, perhaps the slow pace of regulatory reform might actually be a blessing in disguise for Coloradans. Realistically, the state is unlikely to implement any sort of large reform in the near future. HB 1250, the bill under question, was approved by the Energy and Transportation Committee in late March on a party line vote. It still has to pass through financial and appropriations committees before it gets to the GOP-dominated Colorado Senate, which will most likely kill the bill.

Max Tyler, the primary sponsor of the bill, told me that he holds no illusions that this legislation will sail through the Colorado Senate. Nevertheless, he maintains a sense of optimism in regard to state energy reform: “Ideas with big barriers and big changes will take a while.”

 

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