Navigant Research Blog

China Cements Its Role as the Undisputed AMI Leader

— November 30, 2017

In terms of volume, China continues to preserve its status as the undisputed global leader in advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Since 2012, State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) has been deploying smart meters to each of its customers at a feverish clip. SGCC has installed more than 400 million smart meters across China over the past 5 years as part of this unprecedented project.

While utilities in countries like Italy and Sweden have succeeded in converting all their electromechanical meters to smart devices, the scale and execution of China’s nationwide project are truly unmatched. It is worth noting some of the unique characteristics of SGCC’s project and what’s in store for the future of the overall Chinese smart meter market.

How Is This Possible?

When looking at the Chinese market for smart meters, it becomes clear that all meters are not created equal. More often than not, smart meters deployed across China lack the full capabilities of a basic smart meter common in Europe or North America, such as hourly interval measurements or reasonably symmetric two-way communications. Yet, the Chinese meters still provide significant capabilities beyond traditional automated meter reading systems, including very low speed or potential short-range communications.

These limited capabilities are one of the primary drivers behind the radically different price points of Chinese smart meters, which are typically around 50% less than typical US or European prices. In addition, the monopolistic nature of Chinese utilities leads to high volume purchase orders from domestic suppliers, further reducing average meter costs.

What Is Happening on the Ground?

Over the course of 2016, SGCC deployed 70 million new smart meters, with the installed base reaching approximately 400 million devices. SGCC expects full deployment by the end of 2017.

China Southern Power Grid, the country’s other state-owned electric utility, was primarily involved in pilot-scale projects prior to March 2016, at which point the utility began its large-scale commercial deployment. China Southern expects full deployment by 2020, which should account for more than 80 million meters.

Improving Technology Shows Promise for the Market

While initial indications would suggest a significant market downturn in 2017 and 2020 given the rollout conclusions, the emerging second-generation smart meter market should help placate any potential concerns. According to China’s national regulations, meters must be replaced every 5 to 8 years. With the lifespan of SGCC’s deployed meters running between 1 and 5 years, the mega-utility will now begin looking into second-generation upgrade meters, which often carry a higher cost along with increased capabilities.

This emerging second-generation market is expected to help sustain the strong revenue and growth profiles that have characterized the Chinese market for years. As other major markets like Brazil, Egypt, India, and Turkey begin their forays into large-scale smart meter projects, lessons can be learned from the impressive scale and execution of China’s rollouts.

 

Businesses Say Bring On IoT Regulations

— November 28, 2017

Most businesses do not seek new regulations from governments or regulatory agencies. They already have enough rules to play by. But when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), many take a different tack and are quite open to strong regulations since they are acutely aware of the many reported hacks or known vulnerabilities in things like webcams, baby monitors, and cardiac devices.

A new survey underscores this sentiment. 96% of business respondents saying there should be IoT security regulation, according to the study of 1,050 global IT and business decision makers conducted by Gemalto, a global digital security vendor based in the Netherlands.

Not only do business people see the need for enhanced IoT security, consumers do as well. The same Gemalto survey finds that 90% of consumer respondents (out of 10,500) believe there should be IoT security regulation. 65% of the same consumers are concerned about a hacker controlling their IoT devices.

Challenges Businesses Face

The leading challenge for companies trying to secure IoT products or services is the high cost of implementation (44%), according to the survey. That means companies either bite the bullet and invest in greater security for products or services or cut corners. The latter is obviously not a wise approach. It leaves customers too vulnerable to shoddy security in the IoT products or services they purchase. If spending remains a barrier, it could spell trouble for the emerging IoT market as a whole. With no baseline of security, IoT technology buyers will remain leery and unlikely to make purchases.

Another concern the study revealed is that only 6 out of 10 businesses encrypt all the data they capture or store via IoT devices. That means 4 out of 10 (or 40%) businesses do not, a major red flag. Not all data flowing from IoT devices is that valuable; the number of times someone turns on or off a connected light bulb is minor. But health records or personal financial details is another matter altogether.

Energy Sector Relatively Secure, So Far

So far, the energy sector has a fairly good record of thwarting attacks against devices, with some exceptions. Things like smart meters, substations, and other grid assets have remained safe for the most part. But there are many attempts to penetrate the grid, like earlier this year when nuclear facilities came under attack. Those attempts are likely to increase as more things connect to the grid through distributed energy resources and behind-the-meter devices like smart thermostats or EV chargers. Without stronger rules and incentives, the risks will rise significantly.

One can understand the desire for more stringent regulations for the IoT. The number of things connecting to the grid and other systems is growing exponentially, and so too the number of potential threats. A strong set of standards throughout the IoT value chain is needed to keep data, systems, and people safe. Strong rules will force vendors to devote the needed resources and money to make it happen sooner rather than later.

 

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.

 

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