Navigant Research Blog

Not Interested When Telcos Acquire Tech Companies? You Should Be

— April 12, 2017

A recent post on my LinkedIn news feed demonstrates how an emerging trend in the technology industry will affect the pace of utilities’ digital transformation. Crucially, it had little to do with utilities: it was the acquisition of data startup Statiq by Telefonica. Statiq’s specialty is the analysis of geo-locational and other consumer data to assist with online marketing. Telefonica has 300 million customers worldwide and is rapidly building up its advertising business.

On first reading, it seems to have very little impact on the industry: “telco giant buys advertising data business” doesn’t sound like the kind of headline that will grab the attention of many utility CEOs. However, “a network operator—as part of its digitization strategy—has acquired a data and analytics business to help it develop products and services beyond its core supply-based business model” sounds a lot closer to home.

Historically, the growth curve of analytics companies would follow a similar path: each company starts with a great idea to tackle a gap in the market, gains initial funding, grows a significant client base, then gets acquired by a tech giant. IBM, SAP, and Oracle have all made analytics-focused acquisitions over the past decade, and the trend shows little sign of abating. But one tech company buying another tech company should have little impact on end users. The technology remains commercially available and, one would hope, being part of a larger organization means that there will be sufficient development resources to improve the product.

Utilities Are Steadily Becoming Tech Companies

However, there has been a significant shift in the types of companies investing in technology startups. Rather than tech giants swallowing up successful startups, utilities are getting in on the act. As we’ve said many times before, utilities are becoming technology companies. My colleague Alexandre Metz has analyzed different utilities’ digitization strategies, and both equity investments in and outright acquisitions of technology companies by utilities are becoming commonplace.

There will be significant implications for the industry should this trend continue: there are finite resources in terms of the number of successful startups, robust technologies, and excellent staff—particularly in the field of data and analytics. As a result, some technology-focused utilities will emerge with significant competitive strength. They will either sell these technologies to other utilities or, if it is to their advantage, keep the technologies for themselves. Does anyone expect Telefonica to share the market insights its Statiq acquisition will bring with its competitors?

Risks Abound When Utilities’ Digitization Strategies Involve Mergers and Acquisitions

So why refer to a telco-based acquisition at all? Telefonica brings into focus the fact that utilities are not the only companies undergoing a digital transformation. The competition for limited investment opportunities is heating up, and it will not be restricted to the utility industry. Utilities will have to compete against tech vendors and other industries to acquire at least some technology companies.

The main challenge for utilities is that they are not used to rapid change, and acquisitions have largely been restricted to other utility companies. There are significant risks involved in technology company acquisitions, to which most utilities have no previous exposure. Thus, technology acquisition will not be for every utility. However, those utilities that want to acquire technology companies must recognize the risks involved, understand how the target acquisition supports their corporate strategy, and ensure they have the requisite skills to succeed. Utilities must choose trusted advisors who understand their overall corporate strategy; have deep knowledge of target markets, companies, and technologies; can help identify important targets; have experience in technology-specific due diligence; and can support the successful integration of the acquisitions within their corporate structure.

 

ComEd Takes Next Step toward Becoming a Utility of the Future

— December 9, 2016

Computer and TabletUtilities have a reputation for being stodgy and slow to change, but not all of them fall into this trap. ComEd in Illinois is among those adopting new technologies and is striving to be a trailblazer in how it conducts its business. Currently, ComEd is roughly halfway finished with a systemwide smart meter deployment, having installed some 2.4 million meters in its territory since September 2013. Beyond smart meters, the utility has taken another step in its aim to be what it calls a utility of the future, having just launched an online website to sell energy management tools so its customers can buy products to help lower their bills and save energy.

Changing Business

Dubbed ComEd Marketplace, the site enables customers to educate themselves about energy management tools and buy related products such as LED light bulbs, smart thermostats, water conservation devices, and connected home products like advanced smoke alarms, smart door locks, and security cameras. The site is powered by Simple Energy, a Colorado-based firm that specializes in customer engagement.

ComEd officials envision their new online marketplace evolving as “a cornerstone of our utility where our customers can transact with us and other parties for a wide range of energy-related products and services,” according to Anne Pramaggiore, president and CEO of ComEd.

The idea for the marketplace sprang from one of the utility’s employee hubs that was designed to foster innovation, and officials envision this platform will enable added products and services in the future. The launch of the marketplace is the latest example of how the utility strives to deliver innovative and convenient customer solutions. Earlier in 2016, ComEd introduced a new method by which customers can report service outages via Twitter, which the utility claims is a first in the industry.

Other Innovators

ComEd is not alone in the effort by utilities to embrace new technologies that offer customers the kind of digital experience they have come to expect in the connected world. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric in California has a pilot program in place with BMW that involves a small sample of EV owners to better understand their habits and needs; the BMW i ChargeForward program also aims to reduce the overall cost of EV ownership. In Vermont, Green Mountain Power has taken a flexible and holistic approach in offering its eHome energy management program, which integrates a variety of new technologies, including smart thermostats, plugs, solar PV, EV charging, and Tesla’s Powerwall. DTE Energy in Michigan is another utility at the technology forefront, having launched its Insight mobile app that can help customers conveniently manage their energy use from a smartphone and lower their energy bills.

These offerings demonstrate that some utilities are willing to embrace and deploy new technologies for the benefit of their customers. It is a wonder more utilities have not taken similar steps to move beyond stodgy.

 

Utilities Need an Innovation Reset

— November 28, 2016

SmartCityUtilities should take a cue from customers: Go ahead and innovate. That is the clear conclusion from a recent study that says consumers want their utilities to be more innovative and expand offerings into the home.

The study, a SmartEnergy IP survey of 1,500 US customers, finds 32% of respondents expect their utilities to adopt technologies that automate energy savings and 20% expect their utilities to build smarter communities. There is a downside in the data, however; nearly 40% of respondents do not view their utilities as innovative, meaning there is room for improvement.

Not all utilities lack for innovation. At Navigant Research, we have chronicled the efforts of utilities willing to pioneer new technologies for customers. For example, Green Mountain Power in Vermont has led the charge with its eHome program, a holistic approach to home energy management that leverages technologies such as heat pumps, solar PV, storage, and EV charging, as noted in our IoT Enabled Managed Services report. Other utilities like Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Oklahoma Gas & Electric, and Kansas City Power & Light are promoting the adoption of smart thermostats as a way of helping customers reduce their bills and promote overall grid efficiency.

Among utilities innovating within their communities, San Diego Gas & Electric stands out for its efforts to create smarter cities from an energy perspective. The Southern California utility, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, has been collaborating with local city governments on projects that leverage smart meters, demand management, and energy efficiency to lessen the impact of changing load patterns. By working together, the utility and local cities have forged an integrated approach for smarter energy use. Similarly, Duke Energy and ComEd are two other broad-thinking utilities that are leveraging ties with the cities of Charlotte, North Carolina and Chicago, Illinois to foster the same type of smarter community.

While these examples are encouraging, the SmartEnergy IP survey indicates customers in many locations have not seen much innovation from their utilities. Nearly a third are saying that it’s okay to step beyond the normal bounds and offer new products and services that help customers save money and use energy more wisely. There is a message here for regulators as well: customers are ready for innovation, and new rules that enable utilities to expand their product and service offerings would be welcome. It’s time for an innovation reset for utilities.

 

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.

 

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