Navigant Research Blog

Utilities Will Rely on Vendor Ecosystems to Support the Energy Transition

— November 10, 2017

Until recently, I often introduced presentations or blog posts with a warning that the utility industry was about to enter the most disruptive decade in its century-long existence. That is no longer true, because I believe the industry has now entered that decade. Okay, the timing for different countries may vary, as will the length of the period of disruption. In fact, some countries—Germany and Denmark in particular—have experienced significant disruption already. But for most markets, the rumblings, threats, omens, and rumors have only recently turned into action.

Navigant Research has a significant volume of commentary on future energy markets, all based around its concept of the Energy Cloud—where energy becomes more distributed, clean, intelligent, and mobile. The old business model of centralized generation will shift to a decentralized, customer-centric value chain, where energy services become far more important than energy supply. Navigant Research also identified an additional $1 trillion of new value created in the Energy Cloud by 2030.

There Will Be No Energy Transition without a Digital Transformation

It is important to note that the energy transition is as much a digital revolution as it is an energy revolution. The $1 trillion of new value identified by Navigant Research will likely be created through the provision of digital energy services, from automated demand response to transactive energy. None of this value will be delivered without access to vast quantities of data from an enormous and heterogeneous array of devices. None of this value can be delivered without a robust IT infrastructure to support digital energy services.

As part of thought leadership, Navigant Research has identified seven platforms that are critical to the delivery of digital services within the Energy Cloud. Additional white papers are on the roadmap to discuss these platforms in further detail. Next up is a white paper on the neural grid platform, which describes—among other things—the devices, communications, and analytics that will underpin all other digital services in the Energy Cloud.

Vendor Ecosystems Will Help Manage the Complexity of the Energy Cloud

Navigant Research’s upcoming Neural Grid white paper will shine a light on the sheer complexity of the IT infrastructure required. There will not be any plug and play platform for the foreseeable future. The market is new, moving rapidly, and different utilities have different requirements. As a result, over the next decades individual utilities will deploy many platforms that rely on many datasets created by many devices communicated over many networks using many protocols stored in many locations supplied by many, many different vendors.

It is critical for the success of the Energy Cloud that vendors cooperate within official and unofficial partnerships and work toward their customers’ common goals. Join us on November 14 at 2:00 p.m. EST for an Intel-sponsored Navigant Research webinar. We’ll explore in more detail how the energy transition and associated digital transformation requires strong vendor ecosystems and gain some insights from Intel, which sits at the heart of one of the largest smart grid ecosystems.

 

Innovation Aplenty at the European Utility Week

— October 10, 2017

From October 3 to 5, the European energy industry converged on Amsterdam for European Utility Week, an event I have attended off and on since 2009. In a conservative, slow-moving industry, previous events have felt a little like the utility technology equivalent of Groundhog Day. This year’s event was far from it.

The 2017 exhibition is an excellent barometer for the current speed of industry change. And how things have changed. In 2009, the event was known as Metering, Billing/CRM Europe. This far from catchy title was somewhat misleading because metering and other electrical hardware companies ruled the exhibition floor, with a handful of billing vendors and nary a mention of CRM. Virtually all the exhibitors had many decades’ experience in the utilities industry.

Back to the Future

Fast forward to 2017. The exhibition is now 4 or 5 times larger and the focus has shifted from hardware to software. The hardware vendors of old have expanded their focus to offer a suite of products from the traditional metering business to communications, data, and analytics platforms into services. There is now a profusion of software vendors that would have looked out of place at the event of 2009. This reinforces the message that the energy transition is not just about a shift to smarter, cleaner generation, but a shift toward software that will manage future networks and enable new business models.

However, the most marked difference between this exhibition and those of previous years was the existence of many small booths for startups and several EU-funded Horizon 2020 demonstration projects. Nine years ago, startups in the energy industry were few and far between. Innovation was typically led by a utility that would develop solutions with a long-term partner that would, in turn, create products around these innovations and bring them to market. But how things have changed. Innovation does not have to occur with a utility’s blessing. The shift to software means entry costs are significantly lower, and startups are developing products that can just as easily compete directly with a utility as be adopted by them.

Disruption at the Edge

If this exhibition-as-bellwether idea runs true, utilities should raise their competitive threat levels a notch or two. Disruption at the edge is a key indicator of future disruption at the core, yet most companies fail to closely monitor startups chipping away at non-core parts of their business. The industry has entered the most disruptive decade in its century-long existence. Many utilities are planning for a more distributed, competitive future. Those that don’t run a real risk of becoming irrelevant in the not too distant future.

 

Trust in Blockchain

— October 3, 2017

Trust. You can’t touch it or smell it, but it’s a vital ingredient in every commercial transaction. It exists between companies and their staff, suppliers, and customers. The entire worldwide monetary system is based on the principle of trust. One could argue that trust, above all else, is what binds the modern world together. However, trust is not blind: mistrust will also exist between the parties of financial transactions. Consequently, it is hard to build trust, but it can turn to dust in a matter of seconds.

Part of the attraction of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, is that trust is placed in its consensus mechanism and not between a transaction’s counterparties. Anonymous users exchange Bitcoin without the need to measure a counterparty’s trustworthiness. Blockchain technology creates trust across the entire Bitcoin network through its distributed ledger and consensus-based transaction verification. While Bitcoin receives a great deal of media attention, blockchain technology is coming out of Bitcoin’s shadow as a potential game changer for transactions. Many industries are investigating blockchain’s potential to remove the requirement of central market functions, speed up transaction processing, and reduce overall costs. In addition, there are other use cases outside of transaction management. However, there are many issues with the technology that must be resolved before it becomes a mainstream technology.

Ironically, Trust Could Be Blockchain’s Undoing

Few technologies as immature as blockchain receive comparable media interest. Despite any current large enterprisewide deployments, blockchain evangelists have touted it as a technology panacea. It will likely be years before blockchain applications move into the mainstream. Blockchain startups have attracted billions in investment, yet these companies are exactly that: startups. In some cases, little more than a handful of enthusiasts with a good idea and some seed capital.

And therein lies the problem: blockchain could suffer from a huge trust issue. Not in the creation of trustless networks, but trust in the technology itself. The expectation of blockchain’s potential—driven by an unrelenting hype machine—far exceeds its current ability to deliver. It will likely be 4 or 5 years before we see any large-scale blockchain deployments. In the interim, some startups will run out of capital and close, others’ products will fail to deliver on their promises. What is certain is that blockchain developers will come across many issues converting blockchain from an open source software into something that is enterprise ready, scalable, and able to provide viable alternatives to existing technologies.

Expectations Could Be Set Too High

The problem is that 4 or 5 years is a long time to wait. The hype around blockchain is such that expectations can be set unrealistically high. I expect a great deal of negative press if too many startups fail or if too many projects become encumbered by too many unforeseen technology problems. The industry will lose its trust in the entire blockchain industry. A dollar value can be attributed to companies’ trust in blockchain—it’s currently the total amount pouring into trials and proofs of concept. A breakdown in trust will mean an end to project funding and the end of the road for blockchain.

Blockchain has some unique features that could benefit many organizations in the future. But it is not a panacea. It needs time to overcome its teething problems and to demonstrate its value. The hype surrounding the technology could well be its undoing.

Companies investigating blockchain should do so with the full knowledge that it is an emerging technology. It will take time, patience, and investment to adapt blockchain for enterprise-class deployments.

 

The United Kingdom Takes Giant Steps toward Market Transformation

— August 29, 2017

Coauthored by Marc Bartlett

In July 2017, the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and energy regulator Ofgem published their Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan. This document outlines the United Kingdom’s next phase in its transition to a low carbon future. It is the result of a long consultation period launched in November 2016 with many different stakeholders. The United Kingdom is making significant progress toward a more flexible energy system by removing barriers, encouraging innovation, and placing the customer at the center of the energy market. The plan is bolder than many other countries’ energy policies and sets a foundation for business model innovation. For example, the United Kingdom could well be the first to introduce a residential transactive energy market.

However, publishing a plan is far easier than implementing one. BEIS and Ofgem must work closely with the industry to ensure the UK energy market transition remains on track, they manage the different aspirations of stakeholders, and consumer protection remains at the top of the agenda. The Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan focuses on three areas: removing barriers to smart technologies—with a strong emphasis on storage—enabling smart homes and businesses, and making markets work for flexibility.

Regulations Adapt to Incorporate Storage

Storage is considered an increasingly important technology for the UK energy market. However, the country’s regulatory environment had not adapted quickly enough to address the specific requirements of storage. For example, since the United Kingdom had no clear definition of storage, its regulatory status was unclear. This uncertainty led to the charging of final consumption levies on storage, despite it not being a final consumer. The Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan also incorporates improved planning and licensing processes for storage, encouraging the colocation of storage with renewable generation and providing more streamlined processes to connect storage.

As regulated, unbundled monopolies, UK distribution network operators (DNOs) will not be permitted to directly own storage. BEIS and Ofgem believe that storage services should be tendered in a competitive market and that if a DNO were to own storage, it could hinder innovation and market developments. Yet, there is also an argument for DNOs to become suppliers of last resort. In this case, they would be permitted to provide and own storage where open markets fail to attract investment. BEIS and Ofgem have yet to finalize their plans for storage and will publish further guidance on unbundling storage services from DNO operations.

Smart Households to Play a More Active Role in the Future Energy Market

Demand-side response (DSR) will play a significant role in future UK system flexibility. At present, there is no technology to support residential DSR. However, the nationwide smart meter rollout will provide this foundation. Smart metering will allow half-hourly settlement, enabling the creation of time-of-use and other tariffs that shift peak demand. Household appliances and EV smart charging points will be the primary loads targeted in residential DSR programs. The government has stated its intention to work with industry, appliance manufacturers, and other countries to develop a common standard to ease the incorporation of these loads into DSR programs.

Barriers to New Business Models Will Be Removed

The plan acknowledges the need to evolve existing roles and responsibilities so networks are efficiently managed and barriers to new technologies or business models are removed. It specifies regulated monopolies’ need to plan, engage with new businesses, and explore the use of markets to solve issues. The days of the asset-focused DNO are numbered. These businesses will transform into system orchestrators that create platforms to interact more closely with service providers, system operators, and transmission network operators.

 

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