Navigant Research Blog

Which Voice to Rule Them All? New Google Device Enters Virtual Home Assistant Fray

— June 3, 2016

Computer and TabletWith Google’s recent announcement of its Home product, a voice-activated virtual assistant for your home to control devices, provide information, and manage energy might be closer than you think. The device will compete directly with Amazon’s popular Echo, and consumers are likely winners.

Home won’t be available until later this year, and its cost has not been revealed, though it’s expect to sell for around $180 to match the Echo’s price point. If the Echo’s history is a guide, I anticipate Home will be a hit with consumers, gaining relatively wide and quick adoption. Amazon has sold an estimated 3 million Echo units since its launch in November 2014.

Home will answer questions and hold two-way conversations in addition to executing tasks like playing music or controlling connected smart home devices, such as a Nest thermostat or LED lights. Essentially, it will do what Amazon’s Echo does.

A Step Forward for Voice Activation

So why is this a big deal? Because Home represents another step toward mass adoption of voice-activated interfaces in homes. Instead of pulling out a smartphone or a tablet, firing up an app and using fingers on a touchscreen to control something in a home, using one’s voice is a more natural and simple process. For instance, while cooking in a kitchen with your hands occupied, calling out to Home or Echo to set a timer is quite convenient, as is commanding a TV to mute itself from across the room as you answer a call. Seemingly small applications like these are the future.

From a utility company perspective, the Home device and other smart home (i.e., Internet of Things [IoT]) products represent a small revolution. Nearly half of utility industry executives say the smart home will revolutionize the industry, according to a survey by public relations firm Antenna. The PR firm does note a separate study about current barriers to adoption among consumers, namely the cost to purchase the equipment and the complexity of installing and configuring smart home systems. Those barriers, however, are likely to fall in the near- to mid-term as production volumes build (thus driving down costs) and competing manufacturers reduce the installation complexities. (For a detailed forecast of residential IoT device shipments and revenue, see Navigant Research’s latest report, Market Data: IoT for Residential Energy Customers.)

No Shortage of Competitors

And don’t count out other prominent companies still on the sidelines in this regard. One is Apple; the masterminds from Cupertino are not to be underestimated, as a former colleague says. “Underestimating Apple in this space or even Siri in this space would be fundamentally wrong,” says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with iMore.com and a former Apple marketing director. I concur. The other is Microsoft, which has yet to launch a virtual assistant product specifically for the home, but could easily do so with Cortana. There is no shortage of competitors in the space.

Given its influence, Google’s entry into this particular market is likely to be significant, going head-to-head with Amazon. For consumers, the competition should drive prices lower, and a flurry of new applications for both product platforms should be just over the horizon. Voice, it seems, is the new touchscreen for homes.

 

Do Microgrids Disrupt Traditional Utility Business Models?

— June 2, 2016

GeneratorThe classic storyline surrounding microgrids is that they challenge electric utility monopolies in multiple ways. Up until recently, the vast majority of these systems deployed in North America, currently a global hotspot for microgrids, were developed by third parties. Not only that, they were designed primarily to offer economic and resiliency benefits to consumers, with the interests of the incumbent utilities almost an afterthought.

That simpleminded view of the world is being challenged by the utility distribution microgrid (UDM), a concept first put forward by Navigant Research in 2012. Since that time, the number of utilities exploring opportunities in the microgrid space has grown dramatically.

Microgrids and the Utility

One could argue that microgrids sprung up as a response to customers not getting what they needed from traditional utility service. UDMs turn this premise on its head. They can help utilities manage recent distributed energy resources (DER) employment trends to their advantage. Microgrids owned or operated by utilities can first and foremost serve the distribution, as well as be a platform for new services for customers.

In terms of architecture, UDMs tend to be on the utility side of the meter; the classic prototypes are the installations is being proposed by Commonwealth Edison in Illinois. Yet there are many hybrids under development, some of which aggregate and optimize customer-owned assets that are located behind the meter. Among the examples of the latter are projects by utilities such as Oncor and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

Perhaps one of the most interesting trends when it comes to UDMs is how the roles of investor-owned utilities (IOU) and publicly-owned utilities (POU) flip-flop over the next decade, especially in the United States. As the chart below illustrates, IOU projects are expected to lead the market until 2021. This is largely because of larger projects; the classic example is San Diego Gas and Electric’s (SDG&E) Borrego Springs microgrid, which now represents 31 MW peak capacity. If measured by sheer numbers, I believe public power microgrids will outnumber their IOU counterparts much sooner.

Fewer Obstacles but a Smaller Scale

Municipal utilities have fewer regulatory obstacles and internal conflicts in pursuing microgrids than IOUs. That said, the scale of their projects will tend to be smaller. Take the case of Alameda Municipal Power, which is in the process designing a microgrid at an abandoned Navy facility located within its service territory and whose initial capacity will likely fall in the 5 to 7 MW range.

Annual UDM Capacity and Revenue, United States: 2015-2024

Peter Microgrid Blog Graph

(Source: Navigant Research)

Keeping pace with the fast and continuously growing microgrid market is no small task. As of April 2016, the Microgrid Deployment Tracker has identified 1,568 projects across the globe representing a cumulative 15,599.7 MW of capacity. These numbers represent microgrids from 119 countries across all seven continents. North America represents over half of the new projects entered, while the utility distribution and remote segments account for almost three-quarters of the new capacity.

Whether examining remote or grid tied microgrids, the role of utility in their deployments and operation will only continue to grow the next decade.

 

 

How to Select a Winning Solar Provider

— June 2, 2016

Rooftop SolarWith the extension of the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) through 2021, Navigant’s forecast indicates that annually installed commercial and industrial (C&I) solar PV capacity will continue to grow year-over-year through 2022. Because of this, it is especially important to provide resources for the C&I sector to facilitate the decision to go solar. Navigant Consulting has been working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Better Buildings Alliance (BBA) for 2 years to promote solar PV for commercial buildings.

Most recently, Navigant supported the development of the 7 Steps to Selecting a Solar Provider guide, which outlines the process of procuring solar PV by issuing a request for proposal (RFP). Learning about solar is the first step, and the BBA’s On-Site Commercial Solar PV Decision Guide provides direction on the key aspects of a commercial solar installation. Defining project goals and provider selection criteria are the next two crucial (and often overlooked) steps that are required in developing an RFP to procure a custom project. If project goals are not clearly defined, solar provider bids will not be able to develop customized proposals, making it very difficult to compare offers. Clearly defining project goals feeds directly into developing a detailed and a well-written RFP. Consistently applying these defined selection criteria to shortlist providers and select an awardee is a key sign of a well-thought-out procurement process.

Solar Provider Selection Process

AndreaBlogImage

(Source: Navigant)

To facilitate issuing a well-written RFP, the BBA released the following templates:

Navigant will be soliciting feedback over the course of the next 6 months from solar PV developers and BBA members for this suite of resources. If you have comments regarding how the resources can be expanded or improved upon, please email andrea.romano@navigant.com.

 

Pending Blackouts Highlight Benefits of Energy Storage

— June 2, 2016

Production Plant - NightConsequences of the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history continue to be felt across Southern California. The leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, California had a major impact on the local environment, forcing thousands of residents to abandon their homes and releasing the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas pollution of 572,000 cars. While the leak has been stopped, the facility is now out of commission and the region faces a major shortage of natural gas, which could lead to 14 days of blackouts this summer and potentially 9 more in the coming winter unless action is taken.  The situation highlights the danger of relying too heavily on any one source of energy and is accelerating plans to transition to a system based on renewable energy.

What the Grid Needs

The potential blackouts this summer result in part from the shortage of gas supplies to fuel peaking power plants needed when demand spikes on hot summer days. In order to avoid widespread outages, the peak demand on the system needs to be reduced. Reducing the overall peak demand has been a focus of grid operators for year, and a number of solutions, including energy efficiency programs, demand response and energy storage systems, are being employed to meet this challenge. While these solutions all have their downsides (such as a low reliability or high upfront costs), the current situation in Southern California highlights the benefits of distributed energy storage systems in particular.

California is already a leader in the distributed storage market, and the threat of numerous blackouts may result in increased demand for these systems. As explored in Navigant Research’s Solar PV plus Energy Storage Nanogrids report, distributed storage systems can provide backup power during an outage (perhaps indefinitely when paired with solar PV) in addition to reducing electricity bills. While backup power is one of the main drivers of interest in distributed storage, these systems can provide much greater value to the grid as a whole. Storage systems aggregated into a virtual power plant can allow grid operators to reduce demand on the system at peak times, shifting energy usage to maximize the use of solar PV and limiting the need for gas-fired generation.

Central vs. Distributed?

As grid operators in California consider how storage can reduce the risk of blackouts, they are examining one of the key debates in the energy storage industry: Is it better to deploy centralized or distributed storage systems? While some of the issues facing the grid can be solved with centralized storage, distributed systems are being installed in increasing numbers without any action from utilities. Centralized storage systems won’t keep the lights on for customers in the event of a major outage and can take much longer to develop, an important consideration given the immediate need for new resources. Overall, it seems distributed storage systems are in the best interest of the California grid. While some customers get improved resilience, everyone benefits from the improved reliability that comes with these flexible assets on the grid.

 

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