Navigant Research Blog

It Takes a Lot of Energy to Catch ‘Em All

— July 29, 2016

Cloud ComputingPokémon GO has taken over the world. For those who have not yet played the game, it’s an augmented reality smartphone app where players walk around collecting Pokémon, battling in gyms, and generally having a good time. It’s also on the forefront of technological innovation, combining mapping data from Google with a narrative from the longstanding franchise. Niantic Labs, the developers of the game, have risen to the forefront of the technology world. Nintendo, one owner of the Pokémon franchise, became the most traded company by value of shares swapped on the Tokyo stock market this century. However, shortly after this rise, the stocks plummeted. Nintendo is not, after all, directly responsible for the development of the popular game and only owns a 32% stake in The Pokémon Company.

However, there is, as they say, a Butterfree in the ointment. The immense popularity of Pokémon GO has caused overrun servers and overheating data centers, making the free app crash every few hours. In addition, players are expressing frustration with the app’s  intense battery draining ability. A typical smartphone battery can drain in as few as 40 minutes of gameplay. The game is based entirely around GPS capabilities, which are notorious battery hogs. While GPS is running, a mobile device cannot enter a sleep state. In addition, communications channels with GPS satellites are very slow, and mapping software is processor-intensive, further compounding the energy intensity of such applications.

The intense data and energy use of the game has caused Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, to offer Niantic assistance in operating its servers. This intense usage of GPS capabilities, smartphone data, and server capacity promises to bring Pokémon GO to the top spot in smartphone application energy usage. According to SimilarWeb, in its first 4 days of use, the number of Pokemon GO users nearly surpassed Twitter users in the United States.

 Daily Active Users: Pokémon GO vs. Twitter

PokemonBlog

 (Source: SimilarWeb)

In terms of average time users spend using the app, Pokémon GO has surpassed social media sites WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger. The average player uses the app for 43 minutes a day. What’s more, Niantic plans to launch the app in over 200 countries as soon as servers are bolstered. With the current bulk of Pokémon trainers in the United States, a global phenomenon could have a large carbon footprint.

Pikachu-Powered Data Centers?

There’s little information available on the data centers that Niantic is using for the app, but the company is presumably using Google cloud data centers or something similar. Niantic was a part of Google until April 2015, when the two split. Google has always been known for its environmental stewardship in big data. The company’s data centers are reported to use 50% less energy than most in the industry, and it uses renewable energy to power over 35% of its operations. So while no data is available on Niantic’s end, it can be assumed that the company is using industry best practices in its data centers.

Niantic has not released any sort of impact statement on the app’s actual energy use, though it is almost certainly astronomical. Niantic is already hard at work developing improvements to the game, such as limiting the amount of personal data the app could access. The energy use could be measured to assess the app for potential energy improvements. A new tool called EnergyBox, developed by Ekhiotz Jon Vergara from Swedish Linkoping University, measures the energy consumption of mobile devices due to data communication. This tool finds that the way apps are designed helps to curb the energy used to send and receive large amounts of data. Niantic should take note of its app’s energy consumption before rolling it out globally, lest we be trapped in a Diglett-infested desert due to GO-related global warming.

 

Australia Is Emerging as Ground Zero for Governments Seeking Microgrid Role Models

— July 29, 2016

BiofuelNavigant Research has long argued that North America—and especially the United States—is the global hotspot for microgrids. I’ve argued that if one includes remote microgrids into consideration, it could be said that Alaska is the microgrid capital of the world. However, recent trends point to explosive growth in microgrids of all sizes, shapes, and applications (including both grid-tied and remote) in the Asia Pacific region. And it appears Alaska has some stiff competition in Australia.

Most of the innovation in the Asia Pacific region has been focused on private sector business models. But what about carving out a new role for utilities owned by the government? Certainly, microgrids challenge and may disrupt typical utility business models within the context of systems that intentionally island in order to derive economic benefits within a distribution grid. But what about utilities that operate and manage off-grid, remote systems?

Horizon Power a Standout Model

This is a space in the microgrid market where few have ventured, with the single notable exception of Horizon Power in Western Australia. Horizon Power services the biggest area with the least amount of customers in the world—a service area of approximately 2.3 million square kilometers, or an average of one customer for every 53.5 square kilometers of terrain. Its microgrids are exposed to intense heat and cyclonic conditions in the north and severe storms in the south.

Australia has long been a leader in wind-diesel hybrid microgrids provided by vendors such as Powercorp (now ABB) and Optimal Power Solutions, the latter a company which ranked third in last year’s Navigant Research Leaderboard Report on microgrid developers/integrators offering their own controls platform.

Horizon Power is more focused on providing operational efficiencies and value creation for the much maligned government-owned utilities. Its creativity may well spill over into other Asia Pacific markets that also focus on how to bring an enterprise management acumen to remote systems. Such remote systems traditionally have suffered from poor operations and management systems, contributing to the eroding financial status of utilities.

Asia Pacific Innovation

Australia is, like Alaska, a unique setting in which to test drive new and innovative business models, as well as robust technologies that must withstand extreme weather and logistical challenges. Innovators in nearby New Zealand (such as Infratec, an entity that is a spin-off from a publicly owned electricity distribution company) are showing that not all good ideas come from the private sector. Infratec recently entered into a strategic alliance with Perth-based company EMC to bring a wider range of product offerings to New Zealand and the Pacific. Already, Infratec and EMC jointly deployed the country’s first grid-connected, commercial-scale battery energy storage system in South Canterbury.

As the most recent Microgrid Deployment Tracker shows, the Asia Pacific region is rapidly catching up to North America in terms of total identified microgrid capacity. One could argue today that Australia is today’s global leader in terms of exploring synergies possible with enterprise optimization of remote microgrids, a topic that has yet to be tackled in any comprehensive way anywhere else in the world. A decade from now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Australia and New Zealand among the top countries in the world when it comes to microgrid innovation.

 

Washington Utility Tests New Path to Integrating EVs

— July 27, 2016

EV RefuelingEastern Washington isn’t an especially well-known plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) market, given most PEV sales in the state are concentrated in Seattle and along the Pacific coast. However, the utility serving a large portion of eastern Washington, Avista, has made an ambitious and refreshingly unique move in preparation for the emerging technology. On July 27, Avista announced it will develop a pilot to demonstrate vehicle-grid integration (VGI) technologies in partnership with Greenlots across 200 Level 2 chargers and seven direct current (DC) fast chargers at residential, workplace, and public charging sites.

The purpose of the pilot is to determine how much PEV load can be shifted from peak load times to off-peak times without using time-of-use (TOU) rates. The hope is that the pilot will show that PEV load may be managed in a manner that reduces grid operating costs and increases grid reliability, thus optimizing potential benefits of PEVs to both utilities and ratepayers.

A Unique Approach

What makes Avista’s pilot unique is its holistic approach encompassing all forms of charging and the use of more nuanced demand-side management mechanisms than TOU rates. Including residential, workplace, and public charging within the pilot enables Avista to collect data on the uninfluenced charging behavior of program participants and then assess how demand response (DR) signals sent to PEV owners changes charging behavior across the charging network. The use of DR signals rather than TOU rates prevents new peak creation at the beginning of off-peak periods and maintains higher levels of revenue per kWh consumed by PEVs than would a TOU rate while still providing energy savings to PEV owners.

The pilot kicks off this August and will run for 2 years. Single-family and multi-unit dwelling residences will have 120 chargers installed, while the remaining 80 chargers will be placed at select workplaces or public locations alongside the seven aforementioned DC fast chargers. The chargers will be integrated into Greenlots’ SKY charge management platform, which is also being leveraged in a similar pilot for Southern California Edison that looks specifically at workplace charging.

Fast Growing Customer Base

Avista’s pilot comes in response to the strong possibility that its PEV population is going to increase dramatically. Washington’s Electric Vehicle Action Plan seeks to ensure 50,000 PEVs are on the state’s roads by 2020, up from the 12,000 registered in early 2015. As of the writing of the action plan, only a few hundred of these registrations were in counties served by Avista. Yet, the market for PEVs is anticipated to increase significantly in the next 3 years as 200-mile range battery EVs (BEVs) at under $40,000 are introduced.

On behalf of mass market long-range BEVs, Navigant Research forecasts in its Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts report that Washington will meet its 2020 goal sometime in 2018, with sales expanding into suburban and rural markets. If the PEV market lives up to this forecast, then PEV populations in eastern Washington counties are expected to be at least 7 times greater than current levels by the end of 2020.

PEVs in Use in Eastern Washington Counties: 2016-2020

Washington PEV

(Source: Navigant Research)

 

In the Energy Cloud, Software Is King

— July 27, 2016

Energy CloudDistributed energy storage systems (ESSs) may present the most challenges and opportunities for both distributed energy resources (DER) developers and grid operators. Recent industry partnerships and product developments are highlighting the growing role that ESSs can play in the emerging Energy Cloud. These new partnerships seek to provide a solution that can make distributed ESSs much more attractive to utilities as an asset, rather than a new challenge to deal with.

The proliferation of DER presents challenges to utilities, which typically have limited visibility and control over the edges of their network. Distributed ESSs can provide the backbone of a highly dynamic and two-way power grid, acting as flexible sources of both load and generation to match intermittent generation with fluctuating demand. However, ESSs on their own can only provide minimal value to the grid; the key is in the advancing software platforms that enable distributed storage to act as the microchip of the Energy Cloud.

Emerging Alliances

While many leading distributed storage vendors have developed their own software platforms to manage an aggregated fleet of systems, several new partnerships are taking software offerings to the next level by bridging the gap between these independent resources and utility control rooms. Distributed storage provider sonnen and grid software provider Enbala Power Networks recently announced an agreement to jointly offer a distributed energy aggregation and control platform to utilities. The companies see utilities benefiting from this offering through an enhanced ability to handle the unpredictability of distributed renewables being deployed on their network. Their solution will also allow for the creation of virtual power plants (VPPs) to help improve overall grid stability and resiliency.

A similar partnership was recently announced by storage vendor Advanced Microgrid Solutions and software provider Opus One. Through the coordination of distributed storage systems and real-time grid level energy management, the companies will offer utilities a greater degree of distribution grid visibility, control, and optimization. This partnership allows each company to focus on its core competencies while offering utilities a solution that solves several of their issues and enables the grid to handle greater amounts of DER.

Software Is Key

These new industry tie-ups support the emerging trend that both energy storage management software and coordinated grid management software will be crucial to establishing a network saturated with DER. As these diverse and often unpredictable resources continue to be installed, it becomes increasingly important for grid operators to have visibility and control over what’s happening at each level of their network. Both utilities and DER vendors recognize that the optimal integration of these new grid assets will require collaboration among various stakeholders.

 

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