As 2016 draws to a close, it’s difficult to identify which events of a tumultuous year will affect the energy industry the most. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election will certainly top most lists for significant events in 2016. However, no one yet knows the extent to which either will affect the industry. I would like to remember 2016 for other events that gained less airplay than Brexit and Trump but still demonstrate the significant disruption that is occurring to traditional energy business models.
For many years, I have discussed the hypothetical risk of competitive disintermediation caused by the future convergence of electricity and telecommunications markets. Until this year, I relied on a handful of small-scale projects and strategies that amounted to little substance to make this point. However, events in 2016 show that the risk is no longer hypothetical, nor will convergence happen in the future: major utilities are planning large-scale telecommunications projects now, while telcoms are entering the mass market for electricity.
The Spread of Smart Grid
Enel is Italy’s largest utility and has led the charge into smart grid technology adoption. Italy was the first country to adopt smart meters, and it also has one of the most advanced distribution automation projects in Europe. However, Enel’s ambitions extend well beyond the utility industry. It is targeting the Italian broadband market, aiming to provide 250 towns and cities with broadband, and the company’s recent Metroweb acquisition sets Enel on this path. Enel has also discussed plans to deliver broadband to its international customers through wholly owned electricity subsidiaries in Spain, Romania, and South America.
SoftBank is Japan’s third largest company and provides fixed and mobile telephony, Internet, and digital TV services. When the Japanese market liberalized in early 2016, SoftBank recognized an opportunity to expand its services into electricity supply. It has partnered with TEPCO—the former Tokyo Electric Power Company—to deliver power products to its telecommunications customer base of 60 million. In a bold statement that highlights SoftBank’s ambitions in Internet of Things (IoT), the company also acquired leading chip manufacturer ARM for $31 billion.
Finally, 2016 saw a profusion of announcements of transactive energy proofs of concept. From North America through Europe, across Asia and into Australia, utilities are investigating ways that customers can start trading power between themselves. Again, transactive energy has been something the industry has discussed for several years, but has seen very little activity. The combination of solar PV, storage, and transactive energy platforms threatens to turn the old centralized business model on its head. The three technologies are complementary and each contributes to the accelerated deployment of the others: solar PV provides the opportunity to self-generate; storage enables the use of electricity at other times of the day; and transactive energy allows the owner to sell power to whomever they choose, at an optimal price.
Utilities face innumerable risks. There are threats from new entrants encroaching on the mass supply market, and massive changes in consumer behavior bring their own share of uncertainties. How each utility reacts will depend on market conditions and their appetite for change. Some will do their utmost to force regulators to protect their current businesses, and others will procrastinate their way to extinction. The likely winners will be those that recognize where future value lies and innovate their way to future success.
Tags: Energy Business Models, Telecommunications, Transactive Energy, Utility Transformations
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