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In an Age of Digital Disruption, Cities and Utilities Must Work Closer

Stuart Ravens
Dec 19, 2017

Energy transformation will force the industry to reassess existing value propositions and identify new revenue streams. Until recently, this value lay in single technologies—such as smart meters or solar PV. However, the industry is recognizing value in the convergence of technologies that have historically been treated separately. These technologies might not currently sit within a utilities’ existing area of influence. The potential convergence of EVs, automated driving, smart transportation networks, charging infrastructure, metering, and billing could create huge opportunities for utilities. The industry should keep an eye on disruption in other industries, particularly transportation and smart cities.

Utilities Must Identify Where Value Will Be Created

Kodak is an often cited example of how companies can fail in periods of industry disruption. Kodak developed the first digital camera and owned many patents related to digital photography. Yet, it failed to recognize where the future of digital photography value lay. It believed that digital photos would still be printed on Kodak paper and did not consider a future where users would share digital images online.

There are many lessons that utilities can learn from Kodak, primarily that nothing within business models can be taken for granted. No part of the value chain is immune from the risk of future irrelevance. Every company must consider where the future value will lie in the energy transition. For many, this will focus on helping customers reduce their power consumption, instead of supplying more power. ENGIE UK and the Netherland’s Eneco have both stated their intentions to shift to this service-based approach. The industry has also recognized the growth opportunity in supplying power to EVs and the associated vehicle-to-grid services.

There Is Significantly More Value for Utilities beyond EV Recharging Infrastructure

However, I would posit that utilities have not yet recognized the potential value that lies beyond EV charging infrastructure, supply, and grid services. The automotive industry is undergoing a period of disruption arguably greater than what utilities are experiencing. As city leaders are increasingly concerned about pollution and congestion, cities such as Paris, Athens, Madrid, and Mexico City have announced bans on the most polluting diesel vehicles by 2025. The UK, France, and China have announced bans on the sale of all light duty internal combustion engine vehicles in the next 20 years.

While EVs will play a large part in the shift away from petrol and diesel and offer an opportunity to utilities, there is significant value to be gained by the most ambitious utility. Decarbonization is just one part of automotive disruption, and we are starting to see a shift in trends of car ownership. Increasing numbers of urban residents are turning their backs on car ownership. Singapore has legislated that there will be no net increase in car ownership after 2020. Auto manufacturers are investing millions in automated vehicles, which could hugely disrupt ownership models and, consequently, the taxi and car hire industries.

Utilities Must Work Closer with City Leaders

City leaders—keen to improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion—could be the primary driving force behind a shift to shared ownership and automated models. However, they will need partners to deliver the sophistication of smart transportation services. Utilities have an opportunity to provide the recharging infrastructure for EVs, so it is not inconceivable that they can manage additional infrastructure, such as the metering and billing of automated vehicle use, predictive maintenance of vehicle fleets, fleet asset management services, and more.

Over the past decade, I have witnessed (at least some) utilities’ reluctance to cooperate with smart city programs. However, the concomitant digitization and disruption of electricity and transport create a strong argument for cities and utilities to work closer for their mutual benefit and the benefit of citizens. Navigant Research recently published a list of recommendations for utilities to work closer with city leaders.