Navigant Research Blog

Where Are All the Meter Manufacturers in Transactive Energy Projects?

— December 7, 2017

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself recently. The answer seems to be “nowhere.” In the 110 or so trials of utility industry-related blockchain and transactive energy (TE) Navigant Research has identified, meter vendors are at best the silent, invisible partners of other companies. When asking leading blockchain and TE startups about the meter hardware in their trials, the stock response has been “nothing is available that supports our requirements, so we built our own.” So, why aren’t meter vendors making more noise about a potentially significant growth opportunity?

Blockchain is the hottest, most hyped technology in the energy industry, and TE is its hottest use case. If current TE trials prove successful, I expect rapid adoption, particularly in countries with high penetration of solar, supported by ratepayer-funded incentive mechanisms. TE’s market-based incentives could replace subsidies. Large-scale, fully automated TE platforms have a number of requirements, as discussed in Navigant Research’s Blockchain for Transactive Energy Platforms report:

  • TE pricing requires visibility into local network conditions, including network assets and distributed energy resources.
  • Smart contracts—which determine when transactions are opened and closed—must be hosted locally and fed with market data.
  • Meters measure and record all TE power supplied and consumed.
  • Communication networks will transport data to interested parties.
  • Transactions must be recorded to the blockchain.
  • Significant distributed compute power will support automation of the TE platform.

Meter Vendors Can Support Many TE Functional Requirements

TE markets will have to be settled in much the same way as wholesale power markets are today, in accordance with strict market regulations and technology standards. This is a complex system, where a lot of trust will be placed on the technology platform. Meter vendors have many capabilities that could put them in a commanding position to lead the TE space:

  • Smart meters already provide visibility at the point of consumption.
  • Advanced metering infrastructure communications could provide the data networks on which TE runs.
  • Smart meter data concentrators could be used as nodes for the blockchain, store smart contracts, provide compute power for localized pricing calculations, and so on.

There is another feature that meter vendors have so far overlooked: it is difficult to amend records already committed to the blockchain. Consequently, it is vital to ensure that transaction data is correct before it is recorded. This will be a difficult task in a largely automated TE platform. While smart meter accuracy is generally high—between 99.5% and 99.9%—a validation algorithm is run regularly to estimate missing or erroneous meter readings. In TE, a similar algorithm must run on transaction data. However, it is likely that validation will be distributed alongside the ledger, rather than a centralized batch process. Most meter vendors also offer a meter data management system with an associated validation algorithm.

Despite meter vendors’ requisite hardware and software, they are nowhere to be seen in the TE world. There are many reasons: ongoing major smart meter rollouts command a lot of attention, and there is little money to be made in TE right now. However, I would have expected at least one vendor to have taken the leap into the world of TE. The biggest risk is that meter vendors are trapped in the old utility world, where metering innovation was driven by utilities—with whom meter vendors have decades-old relationships—and adoption of new metering technologies was slow and incremental.

TE adoption will be different. It is driven by startups that have no previous relationship with meter vendors. These startups could develop their own validation algorithms; they could choose to use public 5G networks for data communications; or they may decide to deploy their own distributed compute. If this happens, meter vendors will miss out on potentially billions of dollars of value created by TE. Meter vendors must wake up to the reality of TE and the opportunities and threats the market presents.

 

Is Finland Europe’s Best Hope for Microgrids?

— December 7, 2017

While Europe is considered a global leader in moving toward a low carbon energy future, the tightly regulated EU markets have several features that severely limit the development of microgrids:

  • The focus has been on large-scale renewable energy development such as offshore wind, which requires massive investment in transmission infrastructure.
  • Deployment of distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar PV has primarily been based on feed-in tariffs, a business model precluding the key defining feature of a microgrid—the ability to seal off resources from the larger grid via islanding.
  • EU markets are tightly interwoven and methods to address the variability of renewables such as wind and solar lean toward cross-border trading, not localized microgrids.

As the forthcoming update to Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker demonstrates, Europe represents approximately 9% of the global microgrid market. The vast majority of microgrids deployed in Europe are actually on islands in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, or projects such as Bornholm or the Faroe Islands of Denmark.

I recently attended the International Symposium on Microgrids in Newcastle, Australia at the CSIRO Energy Centre. One could argue that Australia is the current global hotspot for commercialization of the Energy Cloud ecosystem. I have certainly made that argument in the past.

Fortune in Finland?

Perhaps the most surprising revelation at the conference was this: a unique confluence of factors make Finland the best opportunity for microgrids in Europe. Finland is not only the global leader on smart meter deployments, with 99% of its 3.5 million customers having access to this technology, but it also has a deregulated wholesale and retail market that features 83 distribution system operators (DSOs), with the largest distribution networks composed of 200,000 customers.

Unlike its neighbors Sweden and Norway, Finland lacks massive hydroelectric resources. What hydro it has tends to be run-of-the-river systems, and some of the smaller scale systems are microgrid-friendly. Most importantly, Finland is a country that does not fully share the stellar reliability associated with the EU grid. During blackouts in 2011 and 2012, as many as 570,000 customers lost power for an extended period of time. This outage raised the issue of the vulnerability of the Finland grid to winter storms due to overhead lines running through the country’s deeply forested regions that can sag from snow.

Pro-Consumer Policy Changes

In a quick response to these power outages, new regulations have been put in place that limit power outages to 6 hours annually for urban residents and 36 hours for rural customers by 2028. In a policy that would likely scare utilities in the US, DSOs are required to compensate customers for power outages. If a power outage lasts longer than 12 hours, the DSO must pay the customer 10% of its annual distribution fee, and compensation goes up gradually to a maximum of 200% with interruptions longer than 288 hours.

The first option of most DSOs to respond to these new reliability regulations is to place distribution lines underground. However, that can be expensive, especially given the low density of some DSO customer bases. According to research performed by Lappeeranta University of Technology (LUT), the lowest cost option for 10%‒40% of the medium voltage branch lines would be low voltage direct current microgrids. One such LVDC microgrid project, developed by LUT in collaboration with DSO Suur-Savon Sähkö, was developed in 2012, incorporating solar PV and batteries. Though only one other microgrid currently is operating, Finland represents an ideal market for utility distribution microgrids.

 

Telcos Aggressively Expanding Smart City Services

— December 7, 2017

Among the essential building blocks for the smart cities market are communication networks that connect the sensors, controllers, cameras, and other hardware infrastructure capturing valuable data from the city environment. The need for urban connectivity is creating new opportunities for the telcos responsible for providing public wired or wireless communication services to government, consumers, and businesses. Telcos are increasingly making strategic acquisitions and extending their footprint into solutions and services for smart cities and Internet of Thing (IoT) application areas. Whether through established technology such as 3G/4G or potential disruptors like 5G and narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT), cellular providers are aiming to become the leading suppliers of connectivity for smart cities.

Significant Acquisitions and Service Offerings in North America

In recent years, a number of telcos have made bold expansions into the smart cities market. Verizon, for example, has been working to expand its presence in that industry. It made a major move to extend its footprint with the acquisition of smart street lighting and sensor network provider Sensity Systems in late 2016. Verizon is supporting a wide range of smart city applications, including transportation, public safety, city management, and smart buildings.

AT&T has also significantly increased its visibility in the market since its initial smart cities launch in 2015—notably through its role in the Atlanta and San Diego IoT platform deployment projects. It is supplying Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for short-range connectivity, plus fiber and LTE for backhaul to the cloud.

In early 2017, AT&T obtained exclusive rights to distribute the sensor nodes from Current powered by GE through a reseller agreement in the US and Mexico. AT&T will be the commercial lead on future smart cities projects, with Current as its technology provider.

Significant Global Acquisitions and Offerings

Telefónica, the Spanish-based global telecom provider, has also been targeting smart city opportunities. It was lead commercial partner in the SmartSantander project, which involved deployment of over 20,000 devices in Santander and the surrounding area (including sensors, repeaters, gateways, etc.).

French carrier and service provider Orange is leveraging its expertise in 4G, fiber, LoRa, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth to install a network of connected sensors for Romania’s Alba Lulia Smart City 2018 project. Telefónica and Orange Group are key players in the development of FIWARE standards—an open source initiative that aims to establish a standard for smart cities based on the FIWARE platform.

Most recently, Telestra, an Australian telecom company, acquired fleet management systems provider MTData and created a partnership with Melbourne-based Smart Parking. The company has already won contracts to install Smart Parking’s sensors in five Australian council regions.

Telco Expansion Challenges Non-Cellular Connectivity Providers

The aggressive telco expansion into the smart cities market should serve as a warning shot to other providers of urban connectivity such as RF mesh and Wi-Fi players. These providers should quickly move to protect market share by emphasizing their relative advantages over cellular (e.g., private networks, lower operating costs) and developing more vertical solution partnerships and connectivity capabilities.

While most cities are likely to have multiple providers and types of connectivity for different use cases, cellular providers are making a clear push to capture the high bandwidth segment of the smart city communication networks value chain. There is evidence that resistance to public cellular is declining in the utility sector. With the deployment of new cellular technologies such as NB-IoT and 5G on the horizon, the same is likely true for cities.

 

Is HVAC Disruption Possible?

— December 7, 2017

HVAC is ripe for disruption in global buildings of all kinds. Why? It is one of the highest energy consuming components installed in any building. Additionally, the chemical substances that HVAC equipment uses to cool a space are highly polluting and even dangerous to handle. Space heating and cooling, along with water heating, are estimated to account for nearly 60% of global energy consumption in buildings. The global building stock accounts for over one-third of final energy consumption, with an equally large amount of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the space. Reducing the energy consumption and emissions of buildings is a necessity, or at least a significant opportunity, if the world hopes to meet its sustainability and emissions goals.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It?

So why is disruption of the heating and air cooling of buildings necessary? It’s not. Using today’s technologies, buildings can achieve net zero energy consumption. But this requires the implementation of renewable generation sources to offset consumption demand from heating, cooling, and other electrical loads. Demand can be reduced through the use of intelligent building management software and efficient technologies such as high performance insulation and building envelope materials, high performance windows, proper building siting, efficient lighting, and others. Even HVAC has improved in efficiency over time with advanced controls, ductless systems, variable refrigerant flow, and outside air handlers, for example. Intelligent building management tools such as building energy management systems tie these components together to optimize energy demand and consumption.

The above are optimizations of existing technologies, but they are not truly disruptive. Disruptive technologies make existing technologies irrelevant, changing the model of how a technology or process is used. Companies that fail to recognize the market adoption of the new disruptive technology will be left behind.

If It Ain’t Broke … Disrupt It!

Let’s look at a few examples. Smartphones existed before the iPhone, but Apple created a transition in how people use these devices. Trains reduced the time necessary to travel west from weeks or months to several days. SpaceX reduced the cost of access to space by a factor of 10 through reusability. Elon Musk’s new company, Boring, will reduce the cost of digging subterranean tunnels by around the same factor. In all these instances, the efficiency gained is measured in factors, not increments. If the HVAC operational model can be disrupted by similar factors, the global building stock drag on energy demand and emissions will be reduced significantly.

So let’s disrupt HVAC! That’s always easier said than done. It may be impossible to disrupt this industry if governed by, for example, the immutable laws of thermodynamics. But it is an area ripe for disruption mainly due to the significance of savings that can be achieved. Are there technologies that exist or that are being researched that can achieve this disruption, like solid-state heating and cooling? Maybe so. Disruptive technologies sometimes hide in plain sight for long periods of time.

Other headwinds to HVAC disruption also exist. Large incumbent HVAC vendors have the resources to maintain their market positions. There are high barriers to entry and large capital costs in this industry, making it more difficult for startups to innovate. It is a highly regulated industry. However, it is also in high and increasing demand in certain parts of the world, and building tenants are requiring more and more with regard to air quality, comfort, and individualized space conditioning.

The thing about disruption is that the naysayers win until they don’t. That was the case with the iPhone. In the case of HVAC, let’s hope someone’s collective vision gets blurred enough to capitalize on this huge opportunity.

 

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