Navigant Research Blog

US Utility Customers Remain Satisfied, but Always Room for Improvement

— August 3, 2017

Not often are electric utilities painted in a positive light in the public sphere. But the latest survey from J.D. Power suggests many US utilities are doing things right, and it has a 6-year upward trend in residential customer satisfaction scores to back that up.

Where Do the Positives Come From?

Utility managers pay close attention to these J.D. Power surveys, so it is worth noting what the new survey results reveal:

  • Overall satisfaction averages jumped 39 points this year compared to 2016, rising from 680 to 719 points (on a 1,000-point scale).
  • Utilities showed a 48-point increase for price factor, increasing from 611 points in 2016 to 659 points in 2017. Note: price factor satisfaction tends to rise as customers rate their utility higher for ease of understanding pricing, total monthly cost, and pricing fairness.
  • A 7-point increase (66% vs. 59% in 2016) in the number of customers receiving critical information during power outages—such as the cause, number of customers affected, and estimates when power will be restored.

Among the factors driving the improving satisfaction scores in 2017 is the notion that utilities are investing in infrastructure to increase safety and grid reliability (68% of respondents compared with 63% in 2016). DTE Energy is just one of many utilities that have made this kind of an infrastructure investment in recent years that can pay off in terms of customers having a more upbeat impression of their utility.

Another finding from the survey is an increase in electronic bill paying, with 20% of respondents saying this is how they pay their bill compared to 17% in last year’s survey. This trend is welcome news to many utilities (for example, ComEd) that have been encouraging customers to move away from paper bills as a way to lower utility costs for some time.

Alignment of Mobility and Satisfaction

Increasingly, customers access utility websites from mobile devices. More than a third of the respondents (35%) say they visit their utility’s website from a mobile device, which is a 15% increase from 2016. SRP in Arizona is one such utility that has scored highly in satisfaction with its website, ranking number one in a different J.D. Power survey.

Utilities take plenty of abuse from customers when the power is out, the bill is wrong, or a rate increase seems unwarranted. Nonetheless, the 6-year upward satisfaction trend is hard to argue with, and given the increasing pressure to simultaneously modernize the grid and keep bad cyber actors at bay, utilities do a good job overall. Yes, one’s utility can seem large and impersonal at times, but for most of us, these companies and their people deserve credit for keeping the lights on and providing power at reasonable prices. They are not perfect. There is continual room for improvement on many levels and when they mess up, customers should complain and have issues resolved quickly. By and large, though, utilities get the job done.

 

Key Hurdle Stifling Smart Home Adoption Starts to Crumble

— July 11, 2017

New signs for the potential of enhanced harmony and interoperability among smart Internet of things (IoT) devices and platforms have emerged. If true, a key hurdle slowing smart home adoption would begin to crumble.

Alphabet, Apple, and Amazon

At the heart of the interoperability movement are two important market players—Alphabet’s Nest and Apple. Both actions and words indicate a willingness to make it easier for disparate devices to work together. First, Apple recently announced it will no longer require a chip called MFi to be installed in a device for the device to work with Apple’s HomeKit platform. Then, Nest followed up by telling the website 9TO5Mac that it is at least considering support for HomeKit in the wake of Apple’s newly announced iOS 11 features (that makes supporting HomeKit easier) and the fact that Apple is dropping the MFi chip requirement.

Though it is not a done deal between these two tech giants, it looks like interoperability is closer than we expected. This could help unleash a market growth phase, as buyers will not have to choose only devices that work on a single platform, but will be able to more easily mix and match from multiple vendors.

Meanwhile, a competing IoT platform, the Amazon Echo (Alexa), keeps adding important device manufacturers willing to integrate with the leading voice-activated assistant. Bosch and Kenmore have announced some products will work with Alexa. Bosch will soon sell Alexa-enabled major appliances, and a new line of Kenmore Wi-Fi-ready smart air conditioners will work with Alexa, as well.

The Future of Interoperability

The need for enhanced interoperability has been a constant theme in Navigant Research’s IoT market reports, including the one titled Market Data: IoT Devices for Energy Management, which noted the issue. These interoperability steps by key market players are encouraging, and stakeholders should take note if they want to reap benefits from a widening market.

Nonetheless, consumers have some ways to go before committing to IoT smart home technology. A recent survey among American respondents shows 85% would prefer products from a single brand, indicating they understand the problems associated with a lack of products from diverse vendors that do not interoperate. The survey, sponsored by the UK brand Hive, also highlighted two other barriers: higher prices for products and the difficulty involved when it comes to installing the latest gear that leads to the potential need for professionals to lend a hand.

As my colleague Paige Leuschner pointed out in a recent blog, the need is evident for interoperability among products from the same vendor. Manufacturers need to keep this notion in mind as people integrate older versions of devices by making the devices backwardly compatible when at all possible.

Despite the market friction, there is reason for optimism given these signs of greater IoT or smart home product interoperability. For several years, I’ve been saying devices and systems need to play nicer together, and the message seems to be sinking in, at least among some product vendors. However, market stakeholders need to pay attention to consumer thinking. The Hive survey tells us many potential buyers are not convinced the technology is ready and affordable for them to adopt—and that’s a problem.

 

New Cyberweapons Heighten Grid Concerns

— July 6, 2017

The threat level against grid assets and Internet of Things (IoT) devices keeps rising—or at least we are witnessing a heightened sense of potential disasters. The latest eye opening news was the revelation, or perhaps better put, the confirmation that Russia has developed a cyberweapon that can disrupt power grids—which is not all that surprising considering the suspicious blackout reported last year against the grid in Ukraine.

CrashOveride

Researchers say the Russian malware—known as CrashOveride—is a cyberweapon that could be modified and then deployed against the US electrical grid or the grids of other Russian adversaries. One cybersecurity expert called the latest news a game-changer, while another expert says the latest information connects to an ongoing Russian effort that at one point targeted US industrial control systems in 2014.

The potential threat to the US grid has reached the highest levels of the government. President Trump met recently with leaders from the energy sector and experts in the field of cybersecurity to address the issue and to reiterate his plea for improving the cooperative work between the public and private sectors to protect critical infrastructure like the grid. The meeting followed the president’s May executive order, which in part called for an assessment of how prepared the country is should a significant cyber attack cause prolonged power outages.

Little Known Nuclear Site Intrusion

While the Russian cyberweapon story captured headlines, a lesser known threat against US nuclear power generation sites has surfaced. Officials are investigating a cyber intrusion affecting several nuclear power sites, according to E&E News. Details are few, but officials have confirmed they are unpacking a secretive cyber event code-named Nuclear 17. There is no evidence nuclear energy assets were compromised, but such a cybersecurity breach at closely guarded nuclear reactors would appear to indicate an escalation of hackers’ abilities to probe such sensitive infrastructure.

In the IoT world, no new major attacks have been reported, but the threat against connected devices remains relatively high. One noted expert believes the situation is worse than most people think. We are “one disaster away from government doing something,” says Bruce Schneier, CTO of IBM Resilient, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center and a board member of Electronic Frontier Foundation. He argues that IoT industry stakeholders need to help shape smart regulations or run the risk of operating under stupid government rules. His point is well taken, and aligns with what I’ve said in a previous blog about stakeholders focusing on strong security measures. It’s a way to keep systems and people safe and to shape best practices that regulators could view as a framework for reasonable or smart IoT regulations.

Pay Attention, Don’t Panic

Given where we are with cyber attacks, whether against grid assets or IoT devices, we should be concerned, but I see no need for panic. As bad actors with increasingly powerful tools come to light, there is a clear need for stepped up action by grid operators, technology vendors, and regulators. Presumably, important action is taking place behind the scenes. But it would be comforting to know with more certainty that government and industry stakeholders are cooperating and pushing real measures to minimize the risks to the grid and to people.

 

Zero Emissions from a Fossil Fuel Plant … Really?

— June 6, 2017

The claim of zero emissions from a fossil fuel plant sounds too good to be true. I was skeptical when I first read the headline, “Goodbye Smokestacks: Startup Invents Zero-Emission Fossil Fuel Power,” on the Science website. But on second glance, this does appear to be a big deal in the carbon capture realm.

Oxymoron or Innovation?

Author Robert Service notes: “Zero emissions fossil fuel power sounds like an oxymoron.” And indeed, it does. But the people behind startup NET Power believe its technology makes this possible. The company is backing a 25 MW demonstration plant in the Houston area that will be activated later this year. Basically, the plant will burn natural gas in a pure oxygen combustor. By using mostly pure, high pressure CO2, the plant can avoid the phase changes of traditional steam cycles. And instead of driving a steam cycle and losing heat up a smokestack, the NET Power plant retains heat within the system, resulting in less fuel used for a turbine to reach the necessary temperature.

The result, the company claims, is a stream of nearly pure CO2 that is then piped away and stored underground, or that can be shot into sapped oil reservoirs to recover what oil remains. This latter process is called enhanced oil recovery. In either case, the CO2 is kept out of the atmosphere. The system is based on work done by Rodney Allam, a retired British engineer, and is called the Allam Cycle. The key to Allam’s idea is the recycling of the CO2 in a loop.

A Fossil-Fueled Game Changer

NET Power says it can produce emissions-free power at about $0.06/kWh, which is about the same as the cost from a state of the art, natural gas-fired plant. And lower than most renewable energy. If the demonstration meets expectations, the company intends to move to a full-scale, 300 MW version that could be operational in 2021 at a cost of about $300 million. Such a power plant could supply more 200,000 homes. One expert, John Thompson from the Clean Air Task Force, says the breakthrough plant would be “a game-changer if they achieve 100% of their goals.”

We shall see. The NET Power facility could fail to reach its goal; as carbon capture expert Howard Herzog says, “There are only a million things that can go wrong.” But if successful, the zero emissions plant could be a bridge to a cleaner environment, and could drive more aggressive use of renewable sources. So, what’s not to like about this kind of audacious engineering that aims to solve a problem in a practical way? Failure is a possibility, but success is, too.

 

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