I wrote this piece with my friend Denis Chartrand as a companion document for my CEA presentation back in February 2018 (See http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/cea-tigers-den-workshop/) but I now realize that I never published it. So, here it is!
This mouthful title was the title of my presentation today at the Smart Grid Canada conference in Montréal.
As usual, it is written in my somewhat funky style and provocative, but was well received.
Let me know what you think!
On February 21, 2018, I presented at the annual T&D Corporate Sponsors meeting of the Canadian Electricity Association. This year, the formula what similar to the “dragons” TV program, with presenters facing “tigers” from utilities. They asked me to go first, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it went well. Or, at least, the tigers didn’t eat me alive.
The theme was a continuation of my 2017 presentation, this time focusing on what changes utilities need to effect at a time of low-cost renewable energy.
I’ve attached the presentation, which was again largely hand-drawn: CEA 20180221 BMarcoux.
Insight from this post:
Our reliance on historical concepts and dated utility business models has masked the shift in the primary driving force for renewable generation, from policy obligations to least-cost generation. As a result, past forecasts have systematically underestimated the penetration of low-cost wind and solar PV. Yet, 2016 was the first year in which solar and wind net additions worldwide exceeded coal and gas.
Solar power was once so costly it only made economic sense on a spaceship. As costs went down, volumes went up, attracting innovation and driving costs further down, which drove volume further up, which caused more innovation and drove costs further down… and so on. The spaceship has come down and has now landed on Earth — no wonder that this new reality seems alien to many. Close to earth, installed capacity of wind turbine farms is even larger than solar and follows a similar virtuous cyclone, albeit at a more moderate pace, and the latest purchase agreements show that it is still the cost leader (but barely).
Worldwide photovoltaic solar generation (in terawatt-hours) has increased tenfold since 2010, following an exponential growth curve (see Figure 1). Wind increased even more in absolute numbers, almost quadrupling since 2010.
Figure 1 Exponential progression of worldwide electricity generation from wind and solar photovoltaic.
While this growth in renewable capacity is impressive, it masks that renewables are still relatively small. Half of electricity generation worldwide is from coal, oil and natural gas, and another 10% is from nuclear[i]. The share of the electricity generation was in 2017 only about 4.4% for wind and 1.5% for solar. From a small base, those percentages are, however, increasing quite rapidly: 2016 was the first year in which the net capacity additions of solar and wind net exceeded coal and gas.[ii]
While residential solar PV has attracted a lot of attention, utility-scale solar generation is far larger. In the United States, utility-scale solar PV represented 60% of the installed capacity and 69% of the electricity generation in 2017.[iii] In Ontario, 80% of the solar PV capacity resides in MW-scale systems, while residential capacity (from MicroFIT contracts) is only 8% and commercial capacity (from FIT contracts) is another 12%.[iv]
The existence of a virtuous cycle driven by innovation and industry investments rather than government policies has not always been recognized, but it is becoming clearer. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) publishes a yearly World Energy Outlook (WEO), forecasting, among other things, electricity generation for the next 20 or 30 years. The Outlooks implicitly assume that government policies are the main drivers of the evolving generation mix in the Outlooks. For example, WEO2010 states that the “future of renewables hinges critically on strong government” and that “the scale of government support [for renewables] is set to expand as their contribution to the global energy mix increases.”[v] Policies certainly have had a major influence in the European Union and in other areas, like Ontario, that subsidized renewables with instruments such as favorable feed-in tariffs. However, the IEA assumption that policies are the driving force may have contributed to a lag in recognizing the rise of technology and business innovation and the resulting cost reductions as the new driving forces, like what we are seeing now in renewables. As a result, past IEA generation Outlooks broadly diverged from actual wind and solar PV generation (see Figure 2). Until 2010, IEA wind Outlooks and actual generation diverged steeply. Starting with WEO2010, as wind generation reached 300-400 TWh, IEA Outlooks got less inaccurate. As for solar PV, WEO2017 still shows some divergence. However, solar generation is now at the same level as wind was in 2010 – perhaps this is a sign that the current solar PV outlook is getting more realistic.
Figure 2 IEA World Energy Outlooks consistently underestimated the future energy generation from wind and Solar PV.
The IEA is not alone in having poorly forecast the rise of wind and solar generation:
- In the USA, the solar industry met the 2020 utility-scale solar cost target set by the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative – in 2017.[vi]
- The French Environment and Energy Management Agency estimated in 2015 that the cost of utility-scale solar would reach €6c per kWh only in 2050.[vii] Solar PV costs are already well below this.
- Canada’s National Energy Board published a report entitled “Canada’s Energy Future 2017”. This report has a figure showing historical solar, wind and biomass renewable capacity and NEB’s own forecasts. Actual growth up to 2016 is exponential, while the projection to 2040 is linear at a sharply lower initial rate, with a distinct kink in the trend.[viii] Somehow, I am doubtful that this NEB forecast will ever happen.
Traditional wisdom is a poor guide in forecasting during a technology shift, as the case now with wind and solar power. Forecasters relying on historical policies and industry practices remain oblivious to the confluence of performance improvements, supply chain efficiencies and business innovations that arise during a technology shift. They assume that the latest deviation from past trends is just an exception and they are surprised when costs fall quickly and volume increase faster than expected.
It is not to say that policies are not important. In fact, policies have been the driving force behind the renewable growth in pioneering European countries (see Figure 3) at a time when wind and solar PV were considerably more expensive than coal and nuclear generation (more on costs of wind and solar PV later). However, the USA also saw significant growth without consistent policies at the federal level.
Government policies may also dictate the types of renewable plants being built. For instance, public tenders will tend to favor large corporations and cement the market power of oligopolies, while feed-in tariffs favor private investors, energy cooperatives and small businesses.[ix] However, while public tenders may be justified on the basis that utility-scale plants are currently more cost-effective than distributed systems, such a policy could decrease public support and ultimately slow down adoption of renewable generation in the long run.
Furthermore, some governments have policies, including direct and indirect subsidies, regarding generation from fossil sources, and those policies are delaying the tipping point when renewables become cost effective in those jurisdictions.
[i] International Energy Agency, World energy Outlook 2017, New Policies Scenario, p.650.
[ii] International Energy Agency, World energy Outlook 2017, Figure 6.1, p.231.
[iii] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short Term Energy Outlook, table 8b, U.S. Renewable Electricity Generation and Capacity.
[iv] IESO Contracts and Contract Capacity, Progress Report on Contracted Electricity Supply: Q3-2017, Table 6.
[v] International Energy Agency, World energy Outlook 2010, p.51.
[vi] U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System Cost Benchmark: Q1 2017, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, p. viii.
[vii] Vers un mix électrique 100% renouvelable en 2050, Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Énergie, Figure 7 p. 16.
[viii] Canada’s Energy Future 2017, Energy supply and Demand Projections to 2040, National Energy Board, 2017, page 49.
[ix] Hans-Josef Fell, “The shift from feed-in-tariffs to tenders is hindering the transformation of the global energy supply to renewable energies“, Policy paper for IRENA, July 2017.
I have worked in the telecom industry as head of marketing, in customer care and as a business consultant — I saw what happened there. More recently, I have also seen some of the best and the worst of stakeholder communications at electric utilities — including while I directed a large smart meter deployment, a very challenging activity for customer relationships. Beyond the obvious like using social media, online self-support, and efficient call center operations, There is one thing that electric utilities should do to improve their chances to maintain healthy customer relationships as the industry is transforming: lead the change.
“Someone’s going to cannibalize our business — it may as well be us. Someone’s going to eat our lunch. They’re lining up to do it.”
That was Alectra Utilities CEO, Brian Bentz, speaking at the Energy Storage North America in 2017.[i]
Utilities have a choice: lead change or have change done to them. The latter might hurt customer satisfaction more than the former.
Like telephone companies of the past, electric utilities could try to forestall the coming change, or even to reverse it, hoping to get back to the good old days. In fact, this is rather easy, as there is a lot of inertia built in a utility, often for good reasons: public and worker safety, lifelong employment culture, good-paying unionized jobs, prudency of the regulated investment process, long-lasting assets, highly customized equipment and systems, public procurement process, dividends to maintain for shareholders, etc. For utility executives, effecting change is never easy.
In the end, however, resisting change is futile. Customers are able to start bypassing utilities by installing solar panels and storage behind meters, keeping the utility connection as a last resort. It is just a matter of time before the economics become good enough for many industrial, commercial and residential customers, with or without net metering. Customers will do it, grudgingly, but they’ll do it. This will also leave fewer customers to pay for the grid, sending costs up and stranding assets, therefore increasing rates for customer unable to soften the blow by having their own generation, further antagonizing the public… A death spiral of customer satisfaction.
So, what should utilities do? Here are three examples of utilities that have embraced change and made it easy for their customers to adopt change:
- Green Mountain Power (GMP) in Vermont helps customers go off the grid. Combining solar and battery storage, the Off-Grid package provides GMP customers with the option to generate and store clean power for their home that would otherwise come from the grid. The Off-Grid package is customized for each customer and includes: an energy efficiency audit, solar array, battery storage, home automation controls, and a generator for backup. Customers pay a flat monthly fee for their energy.[ii]
- GMP is also deploying up to 2,000 Tesla Powerwall batteries to homeowners. Homeowners who receive a Powerwall receive backup power to their home for US$15 a month or a US$1,500 one-time fee, which is significantly less expensive the US$7,000 cost of the device with the installation. In return, GMP uses the energy in the pack to support its grid, dispatching energy when it is needed most.[iii] Not surprisingly, results of a recent GMP customer satisfaction survey showed that customer satisfaction continues to rise.[iv]
- ENMAX proposed to use performance-based regulation to the Alberta Utility Commission (AUC). The AUC set the regime in 2009. performance-based regulation has since then been expanded to other Alberta utilities. ENMAX stated that a number of efficiency improvements and cost-minimizing measures were realized as a result of its transition to a regulatory regime with stronger efficiency incentives. ENMAX indicated that it would not have undertaken these productivity initiatives under a traditional cost of service regulation.[v]
- PG&E selected EDF Renewable Energy for behind-the-meter energy storage. The contract allows EDF RE to assist selected PG&E customers to lower their utility bills by reducing demand charges, maximizing consumption during off-peak hours, and collecting revenue from wholesale market participation. [vi]
[i] As reported by UtilityDIVE, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/alectra-utilities-ceo-someones-going-to-cannibalize-our-business-it-ma/504934/, accessed 20180102.
[iii] See https://www.tesla.com/blog/next-step-in-energy-storage-aggregation, retrieved 20171230.
[v] Performance Based Regulation, A Review of Design Options as Background for the Review of PBR for Hydro-Québec Distribution and Transmission Divisions, Elenchus Research Associates, Inc., January 2015, page A-25.
[vi] See http://www.energystoragenetworks.com/pge-selects-edf-behind-meter-energy-storage-contract/, retrieved 20171230.
With low-cost renewables, many customers become power producers, and it will transform the relationship of utilities with them.
You saw that in media and telecom. My grandchildren loves to watch amateur baby video on YouTube. This one has been viewed 178 million times.
Every time, there is an ad and the daddy or mommy who produced the video gets a bit of money. Overall, videos that people put on YouTube generate $15 billion a year in advertising revenue.
In the electric utility industry, low cost solar means that many customers will generate power, with or without incentives or net metering. It will just make sense. They may just take the free electrons when they can, and wasting them if they can’t neither use nor sell them.
And by the way, we have cut down on our cable TV subscription. Customer-owned generation will have a similar effect on utilities. Many will have solar panels and they will buy less from utilities.
In essence, for the first time, utilities will see competition from their own customers.
In 1977, I worked as an electric meter reader, before going to university to earn my Electrical Engineering degrees at Polytechnique Montréal. In 2012, I was directing the largest smart meter deployment in Canada, replacing some of the same meters that I had read three and a half decades earlier. In between, I worked for 20 years in telecoms, living the Internet and wireless revolutions, and then mostly with electric utilities for the last 15 years.
As this year gets to a close, I would like to reflect on the changes that technology has brought – or could bring – to utilities and what it may mean for the future.
In 1987, telephone and electric utilities were both in the wire business – perhaps 20 AWG for telephone and 4/0 for electric, but mostly copper hanging on wood poles and serviced by a fleet of bucket trucks. Telecom companies were then telephone companies, just experimenting with wireless (the first cellular call in Canada had occurred just 2 years earlier) and the Internet was still primarily a military research technology (commercial service only started in 1989). Phone and electric utilities were highly regarded companies, imbued with a duty for public service and providing lifelong employment to their loyal employees.
By 1997, I owned a cell phone and I was running what was then the largest Internet telephony network (but tiny in comparison to today), competing with international telephone carriers. However, phone companies were in denial on the Internet, seeing us as a temporary nuisance, and trying to control user experience on cellular phones, like they had been doing for a century with rotary phones on landlines.
In 2007 the iPhone was launched. Not only did it merged the Internet and wireless phone, but it profoundly changed the business of the telecom companies. Before the iPhone, the wireless carriers were subsidizing cheap handsets to get customers to lock in for 3-year contracts and using the carrier’s proprietary and closed services. But the iPhone upsets that balance of power. Apple kept control on the user interface, given choice to consumers to buy the best apps from developers. However, by fostering more innovation, the carriers’ networks got more (not less) valuable through this change. People spent – or wasted – more time on their smart phones, generating more revenue for carriers and hardware manufacturers as network capacity expanded through successive generations of technology.
In the meantime, not that much has changed in the electricity business – my father, who worked as a dispatcher at Hydro-Québec until the 1970s, would probably recognize the network today, although he would certainly envy dispatchers using electronic maps rather than the paper ones he used.
However, 2017 has seen the rise of inexpensive solar energy and energy storage. Could 2018 have an “iPhone moment” for electric utilities? After all, the Internet brought us on-demand access to information, like energy storage is bringing us on-demand power. Wireless phones allowed us to cut the cord, and so may be distributed solar energy, at least to some extent. The parallel is striking.
Now who will be the next Steve Jobs? Elon Musk, perhaps?
All my best wishes for 2018!
Low-cost renewable energy and energy storage are reshaping the Canadian electricity industry (see http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/canadas-electricity-industry-in-2030/). Along the way, new regulatory frameworks, energy choice, and competition from new energy service providers will transform the relationships between utilities and their customers. If what happened in other industries that went through similar transformations is any indication, such as airlines and telecoms, those relationships could be strained. Utilities should learn and apply lessons from those industries, hopefully not making the same mistakes again.
Twenty years ago, an Angus-Reid survey put Bell Canada #2 among most admired corporations in Canada. In 2017, Bell Canada ranked #291 in a University of Victoria brand trust survey. People love their Apple or Samsung phones, are addicted to Facebook to stay in touch with friends, and use Microsoft Skype to see remote family members, but they mostly hate their phone company.
The transformation of the telephone industry in Canada really started in the 1980s with businesses being able to lease high-capacity dedicated lines from other providers, such as CNCP Communications. Businesses were clamoring for more, and the Canadian regulator, the CRTC, allowed resale of telephone companies services, first dedicated lines and then local phone services. Canadian long-distance market developed slowly until 1992, when Canada unbundled local and long-distance telephone services and allowing competitor entry into long-distance services. When cellular service became more popular around the year 2000, it also offered an alternative to local services. However, if competition in residential long-distance services is seen as a milestone, the fact is that it all started with businesses leasing high-capacity lines from competitive providers — businesses were already resenting being coerced by phone companies. Later, when residential customers got choice, they too got dissatisfied.
It is still early, but we may be seeing the same unfortunate trend with electric utilities. When listening to renewable energy developers or commercial businesses, you already hear an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, although the reality is that there is not much they can do. With low-cost renewable energy, energy storage and microgrids, businesses will start to see alternatives. Eventually, the same will happen with residential customers. Unbundling of the wire business from energy retail will bring more choices. You can readily see a parallel with telecoms .
This is a very real risk for utilities: in 2030, there will be many more potential friction points between utilities and customers than there are now. In addition to traditional transactions such as new connects, outage reporting, energy efficiency and bill payment, there will be multiple demand response schemes, EV charging and energy sales, bringing new expectations along. Even if customer satisfaction surveys are good now, they may not stay that way.
I have worked in the telecom industry as head of marketing, in customer care and as a business consultant — I have seen what happened there. I have also seen some of the best and the worst of stakeholder communications at electric utilities — including while I directed a large smart meter deployment, a very challenging activity for customer relationships. Beyond the obvious like using social media, online self-support, and efficient call center operations, here is what I have to offer to electric utilities in improving their chances to maintain healthy customer relationships as the industry is transforming:
- Lead the change. Customers want solar panels on their roofs and go off-grid? Make it easy for them! Green Mountain Power (VT) does it. Regulation will be performance-based? Propose it now! ENMAX (AB) did it. Customers want behind the meter energy storage? Install it for them! PG&E does it.
- Show what you do. The electricity business is complex and not appreciated well enough. For instance, grid upgrades should be media events — see this FPL (FL) video, “crews will be installing automated switches”: https://youtu.be/cs-lMREscpY. The electricity business is highly technical and sometimes dangerous — it deserves more attention in plain words.
- Understand changing customer expectations. With increasing dependence on reliable power for our vehicles and electronic devices, plus distributed generation earning revenue for customers, outage frequency will become a more and more important factor for customer satisfaction.
- Partner with community leaders. Mayors and other community leaders, acting locally on a short feedback loop from their constituents, view the challenges of clean energy and climate change on a daily basis — it is about their people getting sick, having clean water, being warm or cool, holding productive jobs, commuting efficiently, and surviving disasters. Yet, few electric utilities work with cities on resiliency and sustainability challenges.
Even with all the talk from consultants about customers wanting more participation, the fact is that electricity will never have the emotional content of communicating with friends and family, would it be telephone or Facebook. This only makes it harder to ensure that electric utilities can maintain healthy customer relationship. Still, it can be done.
Are you up to the challenge?
The cost of solar and wind energy and energy storage have been coming down at double-digit rate per year for many years. Every year. Double-digit percentages. Again. It continues. Tirelessly. No end in sight. Capitalism and innovation at their best. No government regulation nor corporate ego will stop it. And it will reshape – no, it is reshaping – the power industry in Canada.
By 2030, renewables will be so inexpensive that they will have upended the traditional economics of the industry. But we can see this transformation to its logical conclusions, based on how the power industry is evolving elsewhere in the world and how other industries went through similar transformations.
If ever lower-cost renewables and energy storage triggered the reshaping of the electricity industry, other factors tint how industry stakeholders: the impacts of climate change, our increased dependence on reliable electricity, and the higher cybersecurity threats. Each of these factors helps define how utilities, customers, regulators, policy makers and product and service vendors react to or take advantage of the situation, sometimes trying to accelerate change, sometimes attempting to slow down. However, if broad conclusions can be drawn, we need to be mindful that local specificities in resource availability, cost structure and ownership will mean that the end game will not exactly be the same everywhere.
Wind, solar and storage are not only becoming increasingly cost effective, but doing so at a much smaller size than traditional generation. By 2030, customers will be installing solar panels on their side of the electricity meter, on rooftops and backyard, even in absence of incentives or net metering, taking whatever “free electrons” they can and wasting what they will not be able to use or sell. If wasting electricity seems heresy, think about the iPhone in your pocket: it has more computing power than a supercomputer of a generation ago, and yet it is idling most of the time, its vast computing power wasted. Yet, the iPhone has transformed our daily relationship to computing. Similarly, inexpensive renewables and storage will transform our relationship to electricity.
Even with this abundance of distributed generation, grid defection will be the exception, as customers keep the utility connection as a last resort and because space constraints and the low energy intensity of solar and energy storage make it impractical to generate all the energy needed in urban areas. Nevertheless, abundance will cause energy (kWh) price to plummet, especially since electricity consumption has plateaued in Canada, taking traditional utility revenue along.
Commercial and industrial customers, as well as some residential customers, will take this a step further by having energy storage as well. By adding storage, customers can arbitrage time-of-day rates or peak demand charges, shifting consumption at other times to reduce costs. Having local generation and storage also turns a customer site into a microgrid able to maintain power during grid disturbance or outage, maintaining production for businesses and food stuff cold for consumers. Some smart communities and campuses will also become microgrids regrouping multiple customers and utility-scale resources for better resiliency and efficiency.
Given how low-cost renewables and storage are advancing, by 2030, if not before, the traditional, centralized grid will have been transformed into a digital grid of microgrids integrated to distributed renewable energy resources. This will have repercussions across the industry, transforming competition, energy markets, regulation, grid architecture and utility operations.
Retail Unbundling and Competition
Having so much customer-owned distributed generation will put pressure on policy makers and regulators to allow retail competition, so that distributed generators may sell surpluses on open markets. With retail competition, customers have more choices in what energy they use, what energy they sell, and how they use it, including sophisticated demand response programs to support energy balancing on the grid.
The retail arm of utilities and the wire business will be unbundled (as it is already the case in Alberta), allowing energy service providers to compete in energy retail, perhaps along with utilities’ unregulated subsidiaries. This will also expose the capacity-driven cost of the distribution grid, now charged separately. This is similar to long-distance telephone service unbundling in the 1990s. With competition forcing energy market players to keep price low, energy price regulation will be lightened, just like telephone regulations are much lighter now than they were 25 years ago.
Renewed Energy Markets
Today’s energy markets were not designed for the large number of players distributed across the grid with varying capabilities that we will have in 2030. Energy markets will evolve to improve the way electricity is priced, scheduled and procured in order to ensure reliability, transparency, efficiency and at the lowest cost. Through the energy market, distributed energy storage systems will accumulate electricity when the sun is shining or the wind blowing, releasing it at time of use. Demand management will shape the load curve to better match availability of inexpensive renewable resources. Electric vehicles will be charged during the day, and give power back to the grid if needed.
New transactional technologies, such as blockchain, may be required to deal with the sheer volume of automated transactions. Market intermediaries to act on behalf of distributed asset owners, simplifying the process and offering financing.
In the traditional Canadian rate-of-return regulatory framework, electric utilities earn a return on investments based on the depreciated cost of past capital expenditures approved by the regulator. This model will no longer be suitable in 2030 to regulate the wire business of utilities because of its “capital bias”, its insensitivity toward grid reliability, its inhibition of innovation, and its short-termism. The regulatory regime will evolve to incentivize lower total costs (including incentives to use non-wire alternatives such as third-party energy storage) and better reliability (to avoid momentary service interruptions that trip distributed generators offline), with utilities freed to implement innovative solutions without regulators and interveners second-guessing investment in technology. Multi-year incentive plans will allow utilities to plan ahead better. Similar approaches already exist, as in Great Britain, where the regulator developed its RIIO (Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs) 8-year model.
High-Availability Distribution Grid?
By 2030, we will obviously not have replaced all poles, conduits and wires that make up the legacy grid – nor should we try to. Utilities, however, will have transformed this critical infrastructure to make it resilient (especially against the impacts of climate change) and reliable (to keep now-essential distributed energy resources online).
We will more storm-proofing of critical feeders, including undergrounding of mainlines, with intelligent protection devices on laterals, near customers and distributed energy resources to minimize disturbance while faults are being cleared on overhead lines. Protection devices, switches and sensors will be automated to the best extent possible and remotely operated, from a control room or from a truck, freeing operators and crew to better manage and repair outages. Remote control will allow protection settings to be more sensitive to limit the risk of forest fires caused by the electrical grid.
New Operating Model in Distribution
In a technology-intensive environment in constant innovation and with ever-increasing cybersecurity threats, utilities will develop new skills and will learn to leverage partnerships with vendors. This is very different than traditional distribution grid operation, still largely relying on physical work and manual switching.
In their new high-tech and fast-changing environment, utilities will implement new business process and organizational structures to take advantage of the latest technology innovations. At the same, new skills technology skills are required, including cybersecurity. Rather than doing things internally, as they are often used to, utilities will partner with technology vendors that have the scale and the expertise to provide better products and professional services at a lower cost. Essentially, utilities will follow the path already taken by telecom network operators.
New business models in the industry
New businesses will cater to energy customers, distributed generators and microgrid owners, removing complexity and turning energy into services.
Energy customers, distributed generators, and microgrid owners will be supported by an ecosystem of third-party vendors and unregulated utility subsidiaries. Vendors will support customers with low-cost financing and technology to optimize the use of distributed assets on energy markets, lowering costs. For utilities, this is a clear growth opportunity, not limited to traditional territories. With transportation electrification, the electric industry will essentially replace the petroleum industry, with new businesses supporting public charging of electric vehicles – a welcome development as it could prevent further reduction in electricity consumption.
This new, distributed and digital-enabled electrical grid will be more resilient and sustainable. Its resiliency is based on multiple and alternate energy local sources and paths, with reduced reliance on large infrastructure. This new resilience is welcomed given the growing importance of electricity in energy use, as residential and industrial customers are dependent on electricity to power our modern life in smart communities and with the advent of electrical transportation. The new grid will also be more sustainable, reducing the environmental impact of communities and improving quality of life – while being financially affordable.
Preparing for the future is essential for Canadian electric utilities and new players. In an industry traditionally defined by centralized generation and rigid geographic boundaries between utilities, new linkages need to occur: utilities and customers, vendors and entrepreneurs, cities and businesses, ensuring that all see the opportunities that didn’t exist before and have the support they need to get their ideas to market quickly. The structure of the industry will emerge transformed, with Canadian-owned service providers offering novel energy solutions in Canada, backed by a web of hardware, software, and professional service vendors. Realizing this vision will increase opportunities for Canadians to export their energy, their expertise, and the fruit of their labor.
On September 27, 2017, I presented at the Utilities Technology Council of Canada. I have attached the presentation, and here is the abstract.
Abstract: The telecom industry has seen tremendous changes, replacing in just a few short years the Plain Old Telephone System that took over a century to build with the Internet and cellular networks. Since telecom and electric utilities have a lot in common, like linear assets, large customer base and territory, and technology-driven culture, what can we learn from the transformation of telecom to better manage the ongoing technological changes in electric utilities?
Now is a time of innovation in the electric industry, like no other since Thomas Edison.
Now is the time when wealth can be created as we use our resources and our brains to ensure a resilient and sustainable energy future for all.
Potential wealth creation stems from the fundamental changes occurring in the electricity sector:
- Globally, electricity and heat production are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Canada is blessed with abundant carbon-free hydroelectric generation, but our energy sector as a whole is a major emitter of climate-changing GHG.
- In response, major investments have been made across the world in designing and implementing renewable sources and energy storage, including wind and solar. The price of those sources is decreasing at double-digit rates per year and they are getting increasingly competitive with traditional sources.
- Wind and solar generation are not only becoming cost effective, but doing so at a much smaller scale than traditional generation. Distributed generation is being installed deep in the electrical grid, at its edges or even behind the meters. The traditional and centralized grid designed by Edison is being transformed into a digital grid of microgrids integrated to local energy resources.
- The new, distributed and digital-enabled electrical grid is more resilient because it relies on multiple and alternate energy sources and paths. The electrical grid then becomes more resilient to extreme weather events that, unfortunately, become more frequent with climate change.
- Residential and industrial customers benefit from improved reliability as they are increasingly dependent on electricity to power our modern life in smart communities and with the advent of electrical transportation.
Innovation and wealth creation opportunities are everywhere in this context. Technical innovation is what drives the decreasing costs of renewable sources for energy users. Vendors need to invent new commercial solutions to balance the new distributed grid and ensure that customers stay powered up. Increasing energy efficiency means that we can do more with less. Utilities and entrepreneurs adopt new business models to better serve customer segments. In particular, utilities, previously defined by their geographic territories, are morphing into energy service providers, often competing with offerings from new entrants, or even competing with each other like never before, driving cost down for Canadian consumers and businesses. The digitalization of the electrical grid creates large quantities of data that new software applications can leverage to increase efficiency and create commercial opportunities. Canadian customers, now with the power of choice, can no longer be taken for granted and demand more.
What is even more dramatic is that the changes affecting the electric industry are shaking a pillar of the Canadian economy. The electric industry touches every home and business in Canada and reliable power is an essential ingredient for the competitiveness of our economy. Electric power generation, transmission and distribution utilities contribute almost $30 billion to the Canadian economy, with electrical equipment manufacturers contributing another $4 billion. This industry employs over 100,000 Canadians, but the Conference Board has estimated that 156,000 workers will be needed to carry out the renewal of Canada’s electricity infrastructure. Canada’s net exports of electricity and electrical products amount to billions of dollars every year. The Canadian electricity system is in need of massive infrastructure renewal. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that by 2030, close to $350 billion in new investment will be required just to maintain existing electricity capacity, with most of Canada’s non-hydro assets needing renewal or replacement by 2050. The importance of the electric industry scales up the potential of wealth creation, but also underlines the perils that we are facing: should the Canadian electric industry fail to renew itself for the challenges of the 21st century, the entire economy of Canada would suffer, with foreign service providers taking control and energy exports dwindling.
In conclusion, accelerating the transformation of the Canadian electric industry is essential. In an industry traditionally defined by centralized generation and rigid geographic boundaries between utilities, new linkages need to occur: utilities and customers, vendors and entrepreneurs, cities and businesses, ensuring that all see the opportunities that didn’t exist before and have the support they need to get their ideas to market quickly. The transformation of the electric industry will ensure that Canadians benefit from the billions of dollars to be invested in the electricity system. The structure of the industry will emerge transformed, with Canadian-owned service providers offering novel energy solutions, backed by a web of hardware, software, and professional service vendors. This will increase the opportunities for Canadians to export their energy, their expertise, and the fruit of their labor.
I recently presented at the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA) on the future of the industry. What would happen to the power industry if the cost to generate solar electricity reached 1¢/kWh? What could be the impact of a carbon tax? What are the business opportunities arising from the need for reliable power? While electric utilities have seen tremendous transitions during the 125-year history of the CEA, the current rate of development is unprecedented. To paraphrase a famous quote by Wayne Gretzky, utilities need to “skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” This presentation tried to provide power utilities with some insights into the future direction of the puck! See the presentation here: The Sun for a Penny 20170225a
The Old Grid used to be relatively simple, with generation following load:
It is now a lot more complicated:
The grid is transforming and getting more complicated.
- We are decommissioning fossil plants to reduce GHG emission and nuclear plants because of safety concerns.
- There is only so many rivers, so the solution of building new hydro plants is not sufficient.
- We are then replacing fossil and nuclear base load plants with renewables that are intermittent.
- To compound the problem of balancing the grid, loads are also becoming peakier, with reduced load factor. Interestingly, many energy conservation initiatives actually increase power peaks.
- To connect the new renewable generation, we then need to build more transmission. The transmission network also allows network operators to spread generation and load over more customers – geographic spread helps smooth out generation and load.
- Building new transmission lines face local opposition and takes a decade. The only other alternatives to balance the grid are storage … and Demand Management.
- Another issue is that we are far more dependent on the grid that we used to be. With electrical cars, an outage during the night may mean that you can’t go to work in the morning. So, we see more and more attention to resiliency, with faster distribution restoration using networked distribution feeders as well as microgrids for critical loads during sustained outages.
- Renewable generation and storage can more effectively be distributed to the distribution network, although small scale generation and storage are much more expansive than community generation and storage.
- With distributed generation, distributed storage and a networked distribution grid, energy flow on the distribution grid becomes two-way. This requires additional investments into the distribution grid and a new attention to electrical protection (remember the screwdriver).
All of this costs money and forces the utilities to adopt new technologies at a pace that has not been seen in a hundred years. The new technology is expensive, and renewable generation, combined with the cost of storage, increases energy costs. There is increasing attention to reduction of operating costs and optimization of assets.
I presented this to senior managers of Canadian utilities attending the 24 February Distribution Council of the Canadian Electricity Association. It can be found on SlideShare at http://www.slideshare.net/bmarcoux/resilient-power-for-sustainable-cities.
The cost of disasters has been increasing exponentially since the 1970s – and cities are mostly affected, which is not surprising since cities produce 80% of the world gross domestic product (GDP). Since the majority of disasters are related to climate events, cities are also part of the root cause, since they generate 75% of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Mayors, acting locally on a short feedback loop, view the challenges they face on a daily basis – it is about their constituents getting sick, having clean water, being warm or cool, holding productive jobs, commuting efficiently, surviving disasters. They see that a smart city needs, first and foremost, to be both resilient to face increasing disasters and sustainable to reduce its environmental impact and to improve quality of life – while being financially affordable
Cities can’t function without electricity. It moves subways and trains. It cools, heats and lights our homes and businesses. It pumps our water and keeps fresh the food we eat. And it powers the technologies that are the foundation of a smart city. By implementing smart grid technologies such as microgrids and distribution automation, electric utilities play a key role in making cities both resilient and sustainable. Yet, many electric utilities do not partner with mayors to work on cities’ resiliency and sustainability challenges. A better approach is to see city policy makers as major stakeholders and a driving force in modernizing the grid.
Have you talked to your mayor(s) lately?
The players described in the previous post have vastly different characteristics. The most striking difference is the level of rivalry.
Distributors operate in a defined territory, often corresponding to a city, a state or a province, where they are the sole provider – thankfully, as there would otherwise be multiple lines of poles along roads. Given this monopoly, distributors are subjected to price regulation, meaning that the price they charge for the use of their infrastructure (poles, conductors, cables, transformers, switches, etc.) is set, typically equal to their costs plus an allowed return on their investment. This is done by filing tariffs that are approved by the regulatory body following a rate hearing.
Retail is often a competitive industry, as there is no structural barrier to having multiple players. However, some distributors are also given the retail monopoly over their territory. Some may also provide retail services in competition with other retailers. In those cases, the distributor-owned retailer is also regulated and has to seek approval of its rates, but other retailers typically do not, although they may have to file their rate plans.
It is possible to have multiple transmission companies operating in the same territory, each owing one or a few transmission lines. However, because those transmission lines are not perfect substitutes (they do not necessarily have the same end-points in the network) and because transmission capacity is scarce, electricity transmitter typically have regulated rates, although they may compete for new constructions.
System operators are monopolies over a territory, and they have to maintain independence. They are, in effect, monopolies, although system operators are often government- or industry-owned. Their costs are recharged to the customer base, directly or indirectly.
Large generators are in a competitive business, competing in an open market, although distributed generators, which are much smaller, usually benefits from rates set by a regulator or a government.
I will be making a conference to investors later this year and I will also be training some people internally at my employer. The topics will touch on the electricity industry structure and I am preparing some material for it.
The industry can be quite complex in some jurisdictions. I boiled the complexity down to just this:
Traditional large-scale generator own and maintain coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar plants connected to transmission lines. Those are large plants – typically hundreds of megawatts.
Transmitters own and maintain transmission lines – the large steel towers seen going from large generators to cities. Those typically run at 120,000 volts and more, up to over 1,000,000 volts in some cases.
Distributors own and maintain the local infrastructure of poles and conduits going to customer sites. Those typically run at 1,200 to 70,000 volts, usually stepped down to 600 volts. 480 volts, 240 volts or 120 volts for connection to customers.
Most customers are connected to distributors, although some large industrial facilities (such as aluminum smelters) are directly connected to transmission lines.
While customers are connected to distributors, they purchase electricity from an independent retailer or from the retail arm of a distributor.
With customer installing distributed generation on their premises, they sell back power to the market, often through aggregators.
Retailers buy electricity from generators in an energy market – like a stock exchange, but for electricity.
By definition, the energy produced at any instant must be equal to the energy taken by customers, accounting for a small percentage of losses in transmission and distribution. (We are starting to see large-scale storage operators, which may act as both consumer and generator, depending they are charging or releasing electricity in the network.) This critical balance is maintained by the system operator that direct generators to produce more ore less to match load; in some case, the system operator will also direct distributors to shed load (customers) if generation or transmission is insufficient to meet the demand.
The next post will deal with energy and money flows in the market.