The explosion in distributed energy resources (DERs) poses reliability threats to utilities' systems, but the option to avoid change is quickly disappearing.
Change-inducing technologies are exploding into the marketplace. By 2018, the U.S. solar plus storage market is expected to reach $1 billion and the U.S. energy storage market alone will hit $1.5 billion, according to GTM Research. The North American distributed energy resources management systems market will be $110 million and the U.S. demand response market will be $1.5 billion.
These markets are driven by the growth of DERs, but they are also being driven by “the adapting utility,” Grid Edge Director Steve Propper said in kicking off Greentech Media’s Grid Edge Live conference for 2015.
“We are not here to talk about threats to the utility business, but about what the business opportunities are and how utilities are adapting to them," he said, framing the discussions for a nationwide group of utilities and DER companies that came together in San Diego last week.
The most transformative emerging trend perceived by Pacific Gas and Electric Corporate Strategy Officer Elizabeth Brinton, she said following Propper’s presentation, is the recognition that the utility distribution grid represents an opportunity “to make an incredible machine come to life.”
Over the next 15 to 20 years, Brinton expects to see the distribution grid turn into a platform that enables “things we haven’t even imagined yet.”
Such utility insights are informed by three main trends, Propper said. One is changing regulatory structures such as those proposed in New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding and California’s AB 327 proceeding. Another is utilities moving beyond electricity sales and to new revenue opportunities. The third is moving DERs from alternative to core generation status.
California’s three investor-owned utilities (IOUs) are required to file detailed DER plans by July 1, Propper noted. Representatives of two IOUs in the state told Utility Dive those filings are being reviewed with unprecedented attention at the highest levels of management.
“The filings may not have an immediate impact on how the utilities do business but they will likely influence how utilities think about their integrated resource planning,” Propper said. “That will certainly impact DER markets.”
Across the nation, the New York process is “upending” thinking about the regulated utility’s role, he added, and Maine’s Market-based Aggregation Credit initiative could change how market mechanisms impact DERs.
In Hawaii, three separate iniatives are testing the limits of utility performance. The legislature just enacted a 100% renewables by 2045 mandate. The Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the state’s dominant electricity provider, has initiated regulatory proposals for performance-based rates and other new utility compensation models. And ratepayers are pushing local leaders to explore alternative municipal and cooperative utility structures.
Beyond kilowatt-hours: The 'consumerization of everything'
“The most important thing happening in the space is the consumerization of everything,” said NRG Home President/CEO Steve McBee in an exchange with PG&E's Brinton. “The fundamental takeaway is the extent to which technology has destroyed longstanding centralized provider-driven service models and replaced them with decentralized, demand-driven service models that have empowered customers in ways that are totally unprecedented.”
Interviews with Duke, Exelon, APS, PG&E, and other major utilities found them looking at a variety of ways to move “beyond kilowatt-hour sales,” Propper said.
They are studying their customers’ needs and how to provide services to meet them, Propper explained. They are also thinking about how to leverage the things they already do well, like reaching customers and creating relationships with them and serving them.
Utilities are also building new services around their “professional and sector knowledge,” Propper said. They are thinking about how to monetize the wireless and other in-house technology intelligence they have accrued from advanced meter rollouts. They are also consulting with solution providers who have value-added services.
Some utilities are discovering ways to leverage their vehicle fleets and field teams to provide services for their large commercial and industrial customers ranging from building retrofits to landscaping.
Others are beginning to examine ways to monetize physical assets. “Their poles and pipes and wires are there to provide electricity,” Propper said. “But those things could be used for other products and services and regulators are becoming more open to that in some states.”
DERs in the business model
Several new business models that incorporate DERS into utility generation are emerging, Propper said. Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power have announced plans to sell rooftop solar with installer partners. Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power is about to announce a rooftop solar program it will market through an unregulated partner.
Through Duke Energy’s partnership with REC Solar, it will invest $225 million to own and operate DERs on the utility side of the meter in its service territories. Southern California Edison and HECO have programs in which they manage customer-owned behind-the-meter grid-connected DER assets.
“Our analysts believe that as more grid-connected behind-the-meter storage comes online, there is a role for utilities in the space and there will be a lot of action there,” Propper said.
Customers are demanding DERs and the grid delivers their value, explained CPS Energy VP Raiford Smith in the conversation following Propper’s presentation. To manage the complexities of a distribution grid incorporating those DERs requires the deep and instantaneous application of sophisticated data analytics. “This is a virtuous cycle that is connecting customer, grid, utility, and third party providers.”
At least 21 states have a regulatory or legislative initiative proposing rate reform and/or changes to net energy metering, or a value of solar or value of DER tariff, Propper concluded. Those initiatives could significantly change utility compensation, customer engagement in their own energy use, and the utility business model. That, in turn, will affect the dynamics of the markets.
“We expect that over the next couple of years, more of these proceedings will come into the public arena and have a role in shaping what this market looks like,” Propper said.
'The time is now'
“To provide a platform for interconnecting all these energy technologies, utilities will require new ways of looking at planning, operations, marketing, and market transactions,” said Oracle Industries VP Bradley Williams in conversation with the utility leaders. “That starts with we plan our grid going forward to support this exponential growth of grid edge energy technologies.”
“Business as usual for the utility cannot continue,” Brinton said near the end of the conversation. “There is urgency for us to recognize disruption is an opportunity.”
“The energy industry has not been super imaginative in how they deliver products and services over the last hundred years," McBee said.
“We totally agree,” Brinton said. “This is urgent. The time is now.”