Navigant Research Blog

Sunrun: The Large Solar Provider Dilemma

— September 19, 2017

On August 24, Sunrun—the last of the large independent US solar providers—announced an agreement with Comcast, a leading cable provider in the country. The two companies plan to launch a strategic partnership to offer Sunrun’s services to Comcast’s clients.

Sunrun was founded in 2007 and found success innovating new ways to finance residential solar installations such as solar leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs). It created the solar as a service (SOaaS) business model, which became the foundation for the growth of the sector between 2010 and 2015. Until 2014, it seemed that solar leases and PPAs—grouped as third-party ownership in California’s Interconnection Applications Data Set—were going to be the winning business model in the SOaaS industry. These leases allowed large players to both increase the market size and displace local installers.

Changing Solar Market

In 2015, the market share of solar leases and PPAs in California—which itself represents around 60% of the US market—plunged to under 50% from 75% in 2013. Data for 1H 2017 shows third-party ownership at close to 30%.

Third-Party Ownership Market Share, California: 2005-1H 2017

(Sources: Navigant Research; California Distributed Generation Statistics)

The collapse of third-party ownership has weakened large solar providers compared to local installers. Large solar providers relied on their access to cheaper capital backed by significant margins in their leases to run large business development teams and finance the installations. As residential solar customers moved into cash or loan buys, local installers became competitive again, reducing the profit margin per installation in the industry. This left large solar providers like Sunrun with high customer acquisition costs relative to profit per installation.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Sunrun is looking for new and cheaper ways to attract customers. Even if this partnership with Comcast costs Sunrun its independent status, it may be worthwhile if the strategy is successful.

What Is in It for Comcast?

Comcast has shown interest in the energy sector in the past, and its Xfinity Home service includes a smart thermostat as one of the offerings. However, scaling it into a full-fledged energy solution would be costly, as Comcast would need to build a new team from the ground.

For Comcast, this partnership offers a relatively cheap entry into the solar and energy markets in which it can rely on its core skills (customer acquisition and management) without having to invest significantly in a new product. If successful, Comcast can push a more aggressive strategy into the energy sector either through Sunrun or with its own product.

Benefits and Potential

Customers of Comcast and Sunrun could also benefit from this partnership. The companies can put together a convincing solution for home automation by tapping on their offerings on the two main services around home automation—security and energy.

The success of this partnership will depend of Comcast’s ability to cross-sell energy services to its current customer base. Comcast operates in a market with limited competition and high barriers to entry, which is different from the solar market. The sales process of solar is also different from that of cable. Solar is a long-term investment (even leases and PPAs require long-term contracts). Therefore, customers take long before making a final decision and, in some cases, it will require home visits before the deal is closed. This means that Comcast cannot simply add solar to its bundles. It will have to invest in training its sales force if it wants to sell solar services effectively. It won’t be easy, but if Comcast succeeds, it may signal a new era for energy.

 

Market Solutions for Transit Deserts

— September 14, 2017

When discussing new disruptive mobility solutions, comments on their effects on public transportation are often not far behind. Many believe that public transportation cannot compete with the convenient, on-demand, door-to-door service offered by transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Lyft and Uber. Some see TNCs and other mobility services as poaching transit riders. Others view these solutions as complementary to public transportation as they provide services to unaddressed transit deserts or other underserved communities.

Two areas that provide opportunity for growth for TNCs—and an opportunity to support public transit operations—are transit desert services and first and last mile (a term used to describe the portion of a commuter’s trip between their place of origin and where they connect with a mode of public transportation). A few pilot programs demonstrate their potential and provide insight into how best to execute these services.

Centennial/Lyft Pilot Program

The Regional Transportation District (RTD) of Denver has had great success in providing public transit services throughout the region. RTD has launched three rail lines and one bus rapid transit line in the past 2 years and is expecting to open a fourth rail line before the end of 2017.

To provide a solution to a lack of connectivity and decrease single occupancy vehicle trips, the City of Centennial partnered with Lyft for a 6-month pilot program that provided Lyft Line rides free of charge to and from the Dry Creek light rail station within the existing RTD Call-n-Ride service area. Centennial subsidized these rides and service was exclusively offered through Lyft. While the program duration was short and had underwhelming ridership, results suggest that mobility solutions provided by companies may work as a supplement to existing transit services.

Lyft Shuttle and Ford Chariot

Recognizing that many of the rides given between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. are for work commutes, Lyft now offers a new pilot service in Chicago called Lyft Shuttle. Looking at trip data, Lyft identified common travel routes that exist in transit deserts, then created fixed routes where riders could reserve a seat via the app and walk to designated pick-up locations to catch a shared ride at a reduced cost compared to a Lyft or Lyft Line.

In 2016, Ford acquired the San Francisco-based startup Chariot. Chariot offers a service similar to Lyft Shuttle. Riders can reserve a seat on a Chariot shuttle via the Chariot app and travel along fixed routes in transit deserts in select cities. Chariot’s business model is unique in that any community can crowdsource interest in a Chariot route by having 50 individuals express interest in using a route if it was offered by the app.

Automated Transit Networks

Automated transit network (ATN) is a catchall term for self-driving shuttles, and there are several existing electric ATN pilot programs around the world. These automated services run on predetermined routes and carry anywhere from 4 to 24 passengers at a time. Notable ATN systems include 2getthere, Vectus, Modutram, and Ultra.

ATNs can provide users with an automated, high frequency mobility solution along fixed routes. Existing ATNs provide services for universities, hospitals, business parks, and airports, but other services have been speculated, such as replacing costly public transit infrastructure or filling in gaps in transit services.

Several factors are creating opportunities for a shift in the classic paradigm of private automobile ownership. As increasing urban density and traffic congestion drive consumers to look for new alternatives, companies are racing to provide them with new mobility services. The services mentioned above are just some of the market disruptors responding to this shift.

 

Harvey and Irma Highlight the Need for Advanced Outage Communications

— September 14, 2017

The impacts are devastating. Across Houston and larger parts of the Southeast, citizens are reeling from the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Meanwhile, across the gulf, Florida was just hit by Irma—one of the strongest hurricanes on record.

For utilities, the wave of powerful storms not only means a rush to restore power as quickly as possible, and to as many customers as possible, but also highlights a measurable need for sophisticated outage communication and response capabilities—both before and after the storm.

Harvey Hit Hard While Irma Approached

As of Monday, September 4, roughly 280,000 customers across Texas were still without power, and utilities including CenterPoint Energy, AEP Texas, and Entergy were exhausting all possible resources to get the lights back on. And because service restoration could take weeks or months in some parts of Texas, outage communications are critical.

For example, in advance of Harvey, CenterPoint was marketing its Power Alert Service. With this free opt-in tool, customers automatically receive notifications via text message, email, or phone call whenever a power outage or other power problem is detected at or near their address. This advanced outage communications capability is enabled by the over 2.4 million smart meters installed in CenterPoint’s service territory.

Meanwhile, following Irma’s landfall in Florida, crews at Florida Power & Light (FPL) are coordinating with other state utilities to secure sufficient workforces and are commencing a military-like operation to restore power to at least 5 million affected residents. This is familiar territory for FPL, which has invested more than $3 billion toward grid modernization and storm preparedness since 2006, including the installation of 4.9 million smart meters and 83,000 intelligent devices that can help predict, reduce, and prevent power outages, and restore power faster when outages occur.

FPL customers should benefit from a multipronged outage communications system, allowing them to receive outage notifications via email, voice, or text, or view/report outages via an outage map tied to FPL’s website. The company also offers a mobile application where customers can access information about their account or local outages.

Outage Communications Best Practices

While there is no standard for outage communications across the industry, best practices include maintaining some form of basic outbound communications, including outage notification, restoration time estimates, and outage cause information. The use of web-based outage maps has grown in popularity in recent years, though the deployment process can often be resource-intensive. These tools can provide customers with a convenient and efficient means of disseminating and reporting outage information, while also preserving call center resources.

Spokane, Washington-based Avista Utilities chose to upgrade its outage communications capabilities in October 2015. Avista employed iFactor (now owned by KUBRA) to develop a new power outage map, an outage reporting and status tool, and proactive outage messaging by email and SMS text. Following the brutal windstorm that swept across the region in November 2015, the tool proved its worth.

The outage map was visited 837,500 times, registered more than 13,000 contacts to receive outage alerts, and sent and received a total of more than 228,500 messages.

More Can Be Done

Looking to Avista and others as an example, there is certainly more that can be done with regards to outage communications. For utilities in the Southeast and across the United States, the importance of this capability becomes clearer as customer expectations grow and the frequency and intensity of natural disasters continues to rise.

While basic outbound communications are now seen as commonplace, investing in advanced capabilities around proactive and personalized notifications and outage map development can further enhance outage communications and provide customers what they truly need—information and awareness in times of confusion and chaos.

 

Energy Market Participation for DER Continues Taking Shape

— September 12, 2017

Distributed energy resources (DER) are often touted as having the potential to disrupt traditional energy markets by providing both reserve capacity and ancillary services. However, to date, there have been limited actual opportunities for this diverse set of technologies to provide these services. Regulatory efforts and collaborations between utilities and technology providers are actively working to change this dynamic in global markets. Likely one of the more innovative programs to bring DER into wholesale energy markets has been California’s Demand Response Auction Mechanism (DRAM).

DRAM is a pay-as-bid solicitation program through which utilities are seeking monthly demand response (DR) system capacity, local capacity, and flexibility capacity from DER. This innovative program aims to allow multiple DER technologies to compete on a relatively level playing field providing load reduction services on-demand for utilities. Contracts for load reduction through the DRAM have been awarded to companies providing DR from both commercial and industrial and residential customers, EV charging providers, and distributed energy storage/solar PV providers. Last month, the DRAM program closed its latest round of awards, with utilities requesting approval for 200 MW worth of contracts.

Tip of the Iceberg

DR is emerging as the primary entry point for DER to participate in competitive energy markets. Many DER, namely distributed energy storage systems, are highly flexible resources capable of providing a range of services, including DR/load reduction, ancillary services, and the ability to absorb excess energy during periods of low demand. Despite the variety of benefits DER can offer, the markets for providing and being compensated for these services are not yet in place in many areas. While existing DR markets only utilize one of the services that DER can provide, they are likely the most viable point of entry into competitive markets. The required integration with utility systems has been effective for decades, and grid operators are comfortable with these programs.

For most DER providers, a DR-type program is not the end goal for grid integration and energy market participation. However, it is a great opportunity to prove both the value and reliability of DER to help solve grid challenges. With California pioneering new programs, and other opportunities taking shape around the world, the evolution of DER participating in energy markets will evolve quickly.

 

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