Navigant Research Blog

Itron Steals the Demand Response Spotlight by Acquiring Comverge

— May 9, 2017

Just when all parties in the demand response (DR) industry were waiting for EnerNOC’s quarterly earnings call on Tuesday morning to see if there is an update on its corporate structure, Itron came in and stole the show. The company announced its acquisition of Comverge on Monday for $100 million. Another independent DR/energy efficiency company gets swallowed up by an industry giant.

New Opportunities

From a pure technology product perspective, the move appears to make sense. Itron is a leader in advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) hardware and software for utilities, but it has not succeeded in breaking into the DR space on its own over the last several years. Moving further down the DR and customer value chain does not necessarily play into its strengths of meters, backend systems, and data management. For a company of Itron’s size, it is much easier and quicker to buy the capabilities that Comverge offers as opposed to trying to develop them organically.

Comverge has been operating successfully for the past several years since becoming a privately held company. It obtains long-term contracts from utilities at healthy margins, an attractive combination for a prospective buyer. The DR market as its own target is limited in growth potential, but Itron’s hope is that the combination of AMI and DR solutions will open up new opportunities that don’t exist in each separate market.

Questions and Risks

That’s where the questions and risks come in. Integrating different technology platforms is always easier said than done. AMI has not been successfully implemented for DR purposes at scale to date. If the combination with Comverge’s systems can overcome that obstacle, a huge barrier in the industry will be removed. But will that limit Comverge’s business opportunities to utilities that use Itron’s AMI system, or will it still be able to implement independent DR programs regardless of the meter provider?

In an interview, Comverge’s Senior Vice President of Sales Steve Hambric said, “we are not turning our backs on our core business in any way,” and that existing clients will not be jeopardized. Having Itron’s resources will help the company move into more markets more quickly than before.

You don’t have to look too far back in history to find a similar case. Oracle bought Opower just about a year ago, and there is no evidence of great successes to date. They are probably still in the integration phase, but the internal focus seems to have slowed Opower’s market momentum to some degree. Will Comverge find a similar path of distraction, or will the combined team be able to hit the ground running and get some early wins?

In any case, I look forward to EnerNOC’s earnings call on Tuesday morning for the next dose of excitement in the ever changing DR industry.

 

How Invested Is NY REV in a DER-Centric Energy Future?

— November 10, 2016

Last week, the New York Department of Public Service (DPS) released a report examining the best means of future integration for distributed energy resources (DER). Spoiler alert: it’s not net energy metering.

Instead, under the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding, state policymakers want to see the development of a valuation framework for DER that values resources according to benefits that can be achieved by both the utility and customers. This should be done by establishing the holistic value of DER on the grid in the short term and by enabling the configuration of transactive, distributed markets for DER in the longer term. In the short term, proposed value for DER will be focused on two areas:

  • Distribution grid services, which include offsets and deferment of short-term and long-term investment costs.
  • Aggregated generation resources and ancillary services to be sold to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) through NYISO markets to optimize generation and transmission operations and costs.

The DPS report stated: “The modernization of New York’s electric system will involve a variety of products and services that will be developed and transacted through market initiatives. Products, rules, and entrants will develop in the market over time, and markets will value the attributes and capabilities of all types of technologies. As Distributed System Platform capabilities evolve, procurement of DER attributes will develop as well, from a near-term approach based on requests for proposals and load modifying tariffs, toward a more sophisticated auction approach.”

Though the recommendation does not completely get rid of retail net metering (which it proposes to grandfather in), this is a significant stepping stone in terms of providing a roadmap toward the active restructuring of an energy market around DER integration.

Initiatives at Odds?

Prior to the report, REV introduced two other efforts related to the accurate valuation of DER. The first, the 2015 Benefit Cost Analysis framework, sought to establish a precise structure for evaluating and comparing different types of investment required to establish a distribution-level market for DER (including both distribution infrastructure and grid-connected DER). A corresponding DPS effort includes a proposal to create utility Distribution System Implementation Plans, which “identify [utility] system needs, proposed projects for meeting those needs, potential capital budgets, particular needs that could be met through DER or other alternatives, and plans for soliciting those alternatives in the marketplace.”

But these tasks and initiatives seem to run counter to what the state is actually enabling utilities to invest in. As of now, the only major investment projects in New York seem to be for advanced metering infrastructure (or smart meter) deployments. On the other hand, REV demonstration projects have been single use cases and limited in scope. To take on the task of granular, accurate valuation—one of the most complex technology challenges associated with DER integration—might require a bit more upfront and direct investment.

 

What the Reaction to Toll Road Congestion Pricing Means for the Future of Energy Dynamic Pricing

— November 2, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2In my home state, the Massachusetts Turnpike is moving from manned toll booths to open-road tolling, known as gantries. While this change in itself has the potential to disrupt the status quo, local news investigators discovered some hidden ideas that could be rolled out in the future. These disclosures caused such an uproar that the governor publicly announced that the ideas are not being considered now but may be in the distant future.

One of those ideas, congestion pricing, is that toll prices would be higher during rush hour to encourage people to avoid those times, thereby reducing traffic. Sound familiar to those in the energy industry? Terms like dynamic pricing, time-of-use rates, and critical peak pricing are used to describe such mechanisms. There has been a lot of interest in these concepts since advanced metering infrastructure has made them possible. More people are installing smart thermostats, solar, and energy storage, which give customers a greater ability to respond and take advantage of such rates.

A Cautionary Tale

The reaction to the congestion pricing revelation should prove a somewhat cautionary tale for enthusiasts of dynamic pricing for electricity. In general, people were outraged that the government would consider enacting this type of scheme and assumed there was some ulterior motive. Some people felt that tolls should be lower during rush hour since those drivers are the most frequent travelers and a lot of workers can’t control their work schedules to avoid those times. Other people were just concerned about the government knowing that much about their travel habits and how that type of data could be used.

The point is, despite all the logic that can be used to explain the benefits and economic purity of such designs, human nature is the biggest obstacle to be overcome to ensure mass adoption. Many people will always mistrust the government or utilities trying to enact new structures, assuming that said structures must have some kind of advantage for those entities. Others will feel that it is unfair to charge the biggest users of a resource (electricity, roads) more, since for many other goods and services there are cheaper prices for more consumption. The concern for those who cannot control when they use the resource (those with 9-5 jobs, the elderly, or low-income residents for energy) must be successfully countered, particularly for the political establishment to get onboard. Finally, data privacy concerns must be addressed, although 100% of the users will never be satisfied with solutions in that regard.

Of course, the cases of electric dynamic pricing and automotive congestion pricing aren’t an exact comparison, but energy industry dynamic pricing proponents may face the same fate if they fail to consider the human side of the equation.

 

Meters Are Sensors and Sensors Are Meters—and It’s All IoT

— August 30, 2016

Power Line Test EquipmentOn August 11, Hazelwood, Missouri-based smart metering system vendor Aclara announced it acquired the smart grid business of Tollgrade, a provider of distribution grid sensors and software for monitoring and analytics. The deal comes just 8 months after Aclara acquired GE’s electric metering business, and all of this in the wake of its own sale to Sun Capital Partners in 2014.

It’s no surprise that Aclara is broadening its portfolio horizons. Upside potential for Aclara’s legacy technology—power line carrier (PLC) communications for smart meter data transfer—is on the wane. While still popular with low density utilities such as rural cooperatives, PLC isn’t as strong a platform for some of the newer smart grid applications that utilities want their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) networks to support. Aclara has more than 14 million meters in the field and has been looking for growth opportunities since before its sale to Sun Capital.

Aclara has ventured into software, including solutions in the customer engagement and asset planning realms. It also offers several wireless communications solutions as an alternative to its enhanced Two-Way Automatic Communications System (eTWACS) PLC offering. These include cellular solutions and its Synergize RF point-to-multipoint system for utilities. But with the addition of GE’s meter business and now a leading line sensor/grid monitoring solution provider, Aclara has (or will have, presumably) a far more integrated set of products to offer. That means greater customer retainment.

The LightHouse product line also provides Aclara with an entry into the investor-owned utility (IOU) market where it has concentrated its efforts—Tollgrade has deployed its LightHouse system with DTE, Duke Energy, Toronto Hydro, and Western Power in the United Kingdom. In theory, Aclara can now better promote its various AMI solution sets to electric IOUs while marketing the LightHouse distribution monitoring solution to its sizable installed base of cooperatives and munis. Aclara historically has had a sizeable presence in the IOU marketplace with its gas and water AMI systems, with millions of endpoint systems deployed with customers in states including California and New York.

It’s All About the Smart

What makes a grid smart is the overlay of communications and software solutions that allow formerly manual controls to be automated. While Aclara was offering a piece of that smart equation with its legacy communications system, it now offers a broader array of solutions to smarten up not only the meters at the very edge of the grid, but also feeders throughout a distribution network.

The line sensor market hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm in the last few years, but it has shown promising traction more recently. Where the devices used to be expensive and analytics solutions (from which the return on sensor investments really come) were nascent, today’s costs are lower and the ways that real-time operational data can be used are growing exponentially. Navigant Research expects the global installed base of overhead line monitors to grow from a couple hundred thousand in 2016 to around 1.7 million by 2025.

Installed Base Overhead Line Monitors by Region, Worldwide: 2016-2025

Aclara Smart Meters

(Source: Navigant Research)

Generally, we don’t expect the overhead line monitor business to reach the same levels of penetration as, say, smart meters. They’ll be used on particularly troublesome feeders or where there are high levels of distributed solar wreaking havoc at the grid edge.

The Internet of Energy

What Aclara is doing by consolidating various sensors types—and a meter is just another sensor in the grid—into its product line is demonstrating its commitment to going beyond meter reading and boldly into the broader Internet of Things—or Energy—to make its platform more valuable and deepen its reach with utility decision makers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more announcements from Aclara, perhaps related to software or analytics that leverage the underlying network and devices now incorporated in the company’s stable of products.

 

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