Navigant Research Blog

Thinking Outside the Box about Microgrid Technology

— November 28, 2017

When one hears the word technology, most think of a hardware gadget, something tangible that can be touched and is a literal tool. However, some prominent thought leaders take a much broader view.

Jayant Kumar, global digital grids director for GE Grid Solutions, points to better microgrid master planning tools as a technology vital to bringing the microgrid platform into full commercial viability. In a recent interview, he asked “What we are trying to do is to create a utility in a box. But how do you do that at the right economic scale? What is the right business case?” He explained that with sophisticated planning tools, the assets can be matched up with the right market landscape to reach necessary internal rate of returns to make projects pencil out.

Investments in Microgrid Tech to Rise

Navigant Research will soon be publishing a report on the topic of microgrid enabling technologies (MET). The focus will be on the distributed energy resources—hardware assets—that get wrapped into microgrids. Preliminary findings show combined heat and power (CHP) capturing the largest market share today, but by 2026, the leader is solar PV (with energy storage coming in second place). All told, the hardware assets (biomass, CHP, diesel, energy storage, fuel cells, hydro, solar PV, and wind) will represent approximately $90 billion in cumulative investment over the next decade.

While these numbers are staggering and may make certain investors drool, the key to unlocking the value sometimes hidden in these hardware assets is more nebulous since they delve into the realms of telecommunications, finance, and software technologies—the value of which is more difficult to count and quantify.

Mobile Phones as a Microgrid Enabling Technology

In the developing world, there is an acute need for financial products to pave the way for microgrids linked to energy access initiatives. In these markets, it is the proliferation of mobile phones—and the infrastructure required to enable communications (i.e., cell phone towers)—that could also be considered MET. Mobile phones create the infrastructure to enable payment for energy services on an as used incremental basis that is driving growth in smaller scale microgrid systems.

For example, Simpa Networks is one of many innovators bringing energy access through microgrids to developing world markets via the pay-as-you-go model. It installs solar PV systems in households or small businesses and customers pay for the electricity consumed, like prepaid mobile phone plans. The payments count toward the purchase price of the solar PV system so customers will eventually own the system.

Controllers: The Magic Sauce

The other MET to be sized in my forthcoming report is microgrid controls spending. This is the linchpin software enabling technology that remains the bottleneck to full-scale commercial viability (just ask Duke Energy). The US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Institute of Electrical Energy Engineers (IEEE) are playing critical roles in taking a bit of the mystery out of what is now the magic sauce that makes a microgrid work (or not.)

Perhaps the most interesting initiative was launched by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in what is being described as a shootout under a controller-in-the-loop test pitting controller against controller. Stage 1 involved five vendors in a Microgrid Innovation Challenge where all five vendors competed in managing a simulated highly complex microgrid. The companies competed for 100 minutes on seven performance parameters. Next, NREL will pit two finalists in a real-world hardware environment in December 2017. The winner will be selected as the controller to be used at NREL’s microgrid testing facility.

 

Delay of HomePod Shows Signs of Weakness in Emerging Smart Home Market

— November 21, 2017

Apple has made big news this week—but not in a good way. On Friday, the company stated that it would be delaying the release of HomePod from a non-specific date in December to the even more ambiguous “early 2018.” The delay is a blow to the tech giant, which will miss the relatively high sales volume that comes with the holiday season. The new release date also means Amazon, Google, and Sonos remain largely unchallenged in the connected speaker market and will continue to gain the hearts and minds of consumers with their devices, some of which have been available for years. What may be worse for Apple is that the HomePod will be released at a price of $349, which appears obscenely high against the two rival speakers from Amazon and Google (which are currently in a price-cutting battle and peddling the miniature versions of their signature devices at approximately $34 for Black Friday). Though Apple is focused on offering a high quality speaker with advanced sound technology, this high tech move may not be enough to win consumers over and help the company gain market share in the young connected speaker market.

This type of delay is nothing new for Apple. The company regularly sets ambiguous release dates and delays product shipments, from the original Apple Watch to Apple AirPods to HomeKit-compatible devices. It is also known for entering an already developed market and disrupting it, which occurred with the release of the iPhone. This means the delay of HomePod could be nothing but a small hiccup in holiday sales for Apple and that it could still emerge as a major player in the connected speaker industry.

Time to Get Serious

However, the larger implication of this delay is that Apple is losing out on its spot in the smart home. The smart home is becoming an increasingly competitive space, with large tech incumbents, service providers, utilities, and startups all getting involved and vying for market share. The ability to own the smart home opens up a world of opportunities for companies, including new service-based revenue streams and more personalized engagement with consumers. The connected speaker has become a pivotal part of the smart home’s development by acting as a centralized hub and fostering interaction through voice activation. To lose out on this opportunity could be devastating to Apple, especially since the company already has a trusted device in people’s pockets that is a key tool for controlling the smart home. The smart home market is progressing with or without Apple, and it’s time for the company to get serious about becoming a major player in this market or letting Amazon and Google take the lead.

 

Cities Looking to Automated Vehicles to Solve Congestion and Emissions Challenges

— November 21, 2017

Around the world, major cities have been setting targets to combat the negative effects of local transport on public health, local pollution, noise levels, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Cities are looking increasingly at the potential of automated vehicles (AVs) to help solve these problems through improved traffic flow, the near elimination of collisions, increased productivity, and reduced pollution and GHG emissions.

 Moving toward Full Automation

The concept of automated or self-driving cars has shifted from the realm of science fiction into reality, as showcased by some of the latest developments in cities around the world:

 Key Challenges Remain

Partial automation is becoming commonplace in all road vehicle classes. Full driving automation is starting to be piloted in numerous cities globally with regular commercial deployments expected in the next 2 to 3 years. Before AVs can become ubiquitous in city streets, new infrastructure investments, communication network upgrades, the need for fleets to operate in varied conditions, and concerns about cybersecurity need to be addressed. Cities also need to develop frameworks to integrate and coordinate AV mobility services with existing transit services to optimize the use of road infrastructure and avoid increased congestion. Although the AV was not at fault for the accident, the recent Las Vegas automated shuttle collision shows why vehicle-to-vehicle communications will also be crucial to the success of AVs.

If AVs are managed properly, highly integrated with public transport, and coordinated as part of a multimodal transportation ecosystem, the shift to self-driving vehicles could lead to reduced traffic congestion in cities, lowered demand for parking spaces, and highly beneficial energy and environmental effects. For more information on the potential effects of AVs in cities, see Navigant Research’s recent white paper on Redefining Mobility Services in Cities.

 

Organizations Work to Combat Security and Interoperability Concerns Surrounding IoT

— November 21, 2017

According to Navigant Research’s new IoT for Lighting report, global market revenue for Internet of Things (IoT) lighting is expected to grow from $651.1 million in 2017 to $4.5 billion in 2026. With the growing number of connected devices and plethora of continual new data generation, data security is a top concern. It is seen as a barrier to adoption for IoT lighting and other IoT technologies within the commercial building space. However, despite the challenges surrounding security, there are organizations that are working to improve security and address other key concerns, such as interoperability.

Addressing Security Concerns

A non-profit, the IoT Security Foundation (IoTSF) aims to make it secure to connect the growing number of connected devices so the benefits of IoT can be realized. In September 2017, IoTSF announced a Smart Buildings Working Group. The key function of the group will be to establish comprehensive guidelines to help each supply chain participant specify, procure, install, integrate, operate, and maintain IoT security in buildings. Intelligent building equipment and controls such as lighting, HVAC, fire, building security, and audiovisual will be included.

The Smart Buildings Working Group, though in its infancy, has already received positive feedback and responses to partnership requests from technology firms. Lighting vendors are starting to express interest, as well. The growing list of partners and participants includes Oracle, Honeywell, and global engineering firm Norman Disney & Young.

Fighting Interoperability

Many IoT lighting systems and lighting control systems are proprietary or modified versions of standards, such as ZigBee. Some customers prefer proprietary systems, as this can simplify discussion over a responsible party for any possible system malfunctions. However, for many, this leads to confusion around which systems to purchase and to fear that components or an entire system might become obsolete. Additionally, this limits coordinated controls within a smart building and can limit the idea of holistic operations within a building.

There are groups, such as the IoT Ready Alliance and the DesignLights Consortium (DLC), working to address interoperability for IoT lighting and other IoT devices. The vision of the IoT Ready Alliance is interoperability and future-proofing of lighting products and services. By helping to expand the number of products that are IoT ready, consumers are not required to make the decision right away. This essentially helps in future-proofing lighting in a time where continued technology advancements can make the decision to upgrade to an advanced lighting system difficult.

The DLC is also helping to drive the widespread adoption networked lighting controls through its Networked Lighting Controls Specification program by providing tools and resources for utilities, energy efficiency programs, and the lighting industry.

Marching Forward

While there are organizations to address these barriers to widespread adoption, the fight to combat security and interoperability concerns within the commercial lighting market and the broader IoT space has just begun. Organizations such as IoTSF, DLC, and IoT Ready Alliance, while making progress, cannot combat these issues alone.

Industry players from lighting manufacturers to startups to tech firms will need to provide support and partnerships for these organizations in order to achieve an optimal outcome. Although initial feedback to these organizations and their work is reassuring and a step in the right direction, time will determine the full support and true success of these programs.

 

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