Category Archives: Future of Utilities

Le nouveau système énergétique mondial sera électrifié, local et varié

Le système énergétique mondial est basé sur l’énergie fossile (charbon, pétrole et gaz naturel) depuis deux siècles. Les combustibles fossiles sont les marchandises ultimes («?commodities?» en anglais) : faciles à transporter, faciles à stocker et standardisées. Le système énergétique fossile est ainsi une immense monoculture. Une pompe à essence pompe essentiellement le même produit, qu’elle soit à Québec, Dallas, Paris ou Nairobi. Les grandes pétrolières contribuent d’ailleurs à uniformiser les produits et à propager les meilleures façons de faire mondialement.

Les marchandises fossiles sont fortement exposées aux aléas géopolitiques. Si Poutine décide de fermer le robinet, l’Europe risque de geler. Si des révolutionnaires décident de fermer le golfe d’Aden, les pétroliers doivent emprunter des trajets plus longs et coûteux.

Le système énergétique mondial électrifié est différent. L’électricité ne peut être stockée efficacement pour être transportée : les lignes électriques ont au plus quelques milliers de kilomètres. S’il est possible de stocker l’électricité dans des batteries ou avec de l’hydroélectricité pompée, la période économique de stockage se mesure en heures ou en jours. La production est donc plus locale et rapidement consommée.

Cependant, les sources d’électricité et les besoins d’électrification varient beaucoup d’un endroit à l’autre. Si on peut se climatiser avec du solaire en Australie du Sud, on se chauffe à l’hydroélectricité au Québec. Puis, c’est l’éolien aux Pays-Bas et le nucléaire en France.

La géopolitique sera beaucoup moins importante. Si la Chine ne peut pas nous envoyer de nouveaux panneaux solaires, d’autres le feront et on peut toujours adopter les politiques industrielles pour en faire ici. De plus, les panneaux déjà livrés continueront de produire de l’électricité, alors qu’on serait immobilisé et gèlerait (ou suerait) sans un approvisionnement continu en énergie fossile.

Voici donc une autre caractéristique du système énergétique mondial électrifié : il sera local. Les choix d’électrification des sociétés dépendront des ressources disponibles localement et les solutions varieront en conséquence. Ce qui marche en Californie ne marche pas nécessairement ici.

Cependant, les outils seront les mêmes partout : production renouvelable (centralisée ou distribuée), stockage, transport, distribution, et utilisation efficace. La diffusion des connaissances techniques et des meilleures pratiques d’affaires devra être plus explicite que ce n’était nécessaire avec les grandes pétrolières. Chaque région devra développer une bonne vigie industrielle et technologique pour apprendre des autres, partager ses bons coups, et comparer régulièrement sa performance.

Donc, préparez-vous à votre avenir électrifié : produire et consommer localement tout en vous inspirant d’idées mondiales.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/bmarcoux_the-new-global-energy-system-will-be-electrified-activity-7168314950778646529-rxBt/

The New Global Energy System Will Be Electrified, Local and Varied

The world’s energy system has been based on fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for two centuries. Fossil fuels are the ultimate commodities: easy to transport, easy to store and standardized. The fossil fuel energy system is thus a huge monoculture. A gas pump pumps the essentially same product, whether it’s in Québec City, Dallas, Paris or Nairobi. The big oil companies are also helping to standardize products and propagate best practices globally.

Fossil fuels are highly exposed to geopolitical uncertainties. If Putin decides to turn off the tap, Europe risks freezing. If revolutionaries decide to close the Gulf of Aden, oil tankers must take longer and more expensive routes.

The electrified global energy system is different. Electricity cannot be efficiently stored for transport: power lines have at most a few thousand kilometres. While it is possible to store electricity in batteries or with pumped hydroelectricity, the economic storage period is measured in hours or days. The production is therefore more local and quickly consumed.

However, the sources of electricity and the needs to electrify vary greatly from one place to another. If you can get solar power to stay cool in South Australia, you heat your home with hydroelectricity in Québec. Then there is wind power in the Netherlands and nuclear power in France.

Geopolitics will be much less important. If China can’t send us new solar panels, others will, and we can always adopt the industrial policies to make them here. In addition, the panels already delivered will continue to generate power, while we would be stuck and freezing (or sweating) without a continuous supply of fossil fuels.

So here’s another feature of the electrified global energy system: it will be local. Regional electrification choices will depend on locally available resources and solutions will vary accordingly. What works in California doesn’t necessarily work here.

However, the tools will be the same everywhere: renewable generation (centralized or distributed), storage, transmission, distribution, and efficient use. The dissemination of technical knowledge and business best practices will have to be more explicit than was necessary with the big oil companies. Each region will have to develop a good industrial and technological watch to learn from others, share its successes, and regularly compare its performance.

So, get ready for your electrified future: producing and consuming locally while being inspired by global ideas.

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How Québec’s Electricity Value Chain Compares to the World

polygon

Endowed with abundant hydropower, Québec’s electricity value chain developed in its own way. For comparison, the figure below illustrates the common roles of the various players delivering electricity to the world.

In Europe, the UK, most of the US and in Ontario and Alberta, discrete actors fill each of the boxes in the diagram. Most notably, producers sell electricity on energy markets, bought by independent retailers for resale to end customers. Retailers only sell energy and they do not own the grid connecting producers to customers. Retailers can either be competitive private ventures or not-for-profit public agencies, depending on regions. The flow of electricity from producers to customers is controlled by an independent system operator. The transmission and distribution grids, which are bottleneck facilities, are regulated on price, often with reliability and cost incentives. But, overall, this is the same as you (the customer) having a wired Internet access from a phone or cable company (aka the grid) and then buying media services sold by Netflix or Apple (aka producers).

In Québec, Hydro Québec is the dominant producer, transmitter, and distributor. It has its own internal system operator and uses tenders and negotiated contracts, not a market, to buy from some independent power producers. Electricity retail is bundled with electricity distribution and there are no aggregators for peak management. There is very little grid storage (other than the vast reservoirs) and few Distributed Energy Resources (DER). The provincial regulator no longer approves spending by the utility and the electricity prices, now pegged to the consumer price index, up to 3%.

Unbundling Québec’s electricity value chain, partly or as much as it is in Europe, cannot be done without assessing the pros and cons of this approach. However, we certainly need to look how others have coped with electricity scarcity while we basked in abundance. Because, after all, there will be more scarcity than abundance in the future.

Community Choice Aggregation : une alternative pour l’avenir de l’électricité au Québec??

Avec Hydro-Québec, le Québec est doté de ressources naturelles incomparables, dont un potentiel hydroélectrique et un réseau d’électricité uniques. Son système électrique est également hautement intégré, de la production aux clients. 

D’autres régions, confrontées à des choix énergétiques plus difficiles, ont adopté des structures industrielles différentes. Je veux ici explorer une tendance forte aux États-Unis et voir comment nous pourrions nous en inspirer : Community Choice Aggregation. 

Les agrégateurs communautaires (Community Choice Aggregators ou CCA) sont des organismes publics sans but lucratif qui ont une certaine exclusivité de vente au détail de l’électricité dans une région. Les CCA permettent aux administrations locales (villes et comtés) de se procurer de l’énergie au nom de leurs résidents, de leurs entreprises et de leurs municipalités tout en recevant des services de transport et de distribution de leur compagnie d’électricité locale. En agrégeant la demande, les collectivités obtiennent un effet de levier pour négocier de meilleurs tarifs avec des fournisseurs concurrentiels et choisir des sources d’énergie plus vertes. Étant locales, les CCA peuvent également être mieux placées pour offrir des services et des programmes d’efficacité énergétique adaptés à leurs collectivités. 

Il y a plus de 1200 CCA aux États-Unis desservant 10,6 millions de clients dans 8 états. En 2022, environ 100 térawattheures (TWh) d’électricité ont été achetés par les CCA. Les collectivités qui participent aux programmes de CCA négocient leur source de production d’énergie, utilisent le pouvoir d’achat en vrac pour réduire les coûts de l’énergie, stimulent le développement des ressources locales d’énergie renouvelable et des emplois locaux dans l’énergie propre, assurent la stabilité et la transparence des prix de l’énergie, tout en accélérant la transition vers l’énergie renouvelable avec chaque initiative. Les CCA travaillent en partenariat avec le service public existant de la région. Le CCA achète l’électricité, et le service public continue de la livrer, d’entretenir le réseau et de fournir une facturation consolidée.

Est-ce que cela pourrait être adapté au Québec?? Peut-être, pourquoi pas?? Je ne dis pas que c’est la solution, mais c’est peut-être un outil auquel il faut réfléchir.

Je suis cette tendance depuis quelques années maintenant, alors contactez-moi si vous voulez en discuter. 

Community Choice Aggregation: An Alternative for Québec’s Electricity Future?

With Hydro-Québec, Québec is endowed with incomparable natural resources, including unique hydroelectricity potential and electricity system. Its electricity system is also highly integrated, from generation to customers. 

Other regions, facing more difficult energy choices, adopted different industry structures. I want here to explore a strong trend in the US and see how we could be inspired by it: Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). 

Community Choice Aggregators (CCA) are not-for-profit public agencies having some electricity retail exclusivity in an area. CCAs allow local governments (cities and counties) to procure energy on behalf of their residents, businesses, and municipalities while still receiving transmission and distribution service from their local utility provider. By aggregating demand, communities gain leverage to negotiate better rates with competitive suppliers and choose greener power sources. Being local, CCAs may also be better positioned to offer services and energy efficiency programs tailored to their communities. 

There are over 1200 CCAs in the US serving 10.6 million customers across 8 states. In 2022, approximately 100 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity was procured by CCA communities. Communities that participate in CCA programs negotiate their source of energy generation, use bulk buying power to decrease energy costs, spur the development of local renewable energy resources and local clean energy jobs, ensure energy price stability and transparency, while accelerating the transition to renewable energy with every initiative. CCAs work in partnership with the region’s existing utility. The CCA buys the power, and the utility continues to deliver it, maintain the grid, and provide consolidated billing.

Could this be adapted to Québec? Perhaps, why not? I’m not saying that this is the solution, but it may be a tool to think about.

I have been following this trend for a few years now, so reach out to me if you want to discuss. 

La transition énergétique : un manège cahoteux en 2024 et au-delà

Lorsque les analystes vous montrent des prévisions de la transition énergétique, telles que les pourcentages d’énergie renouvelable, les ventes de véhicules électriques ou le pic de production de pétrole, avez-vous remarqué comme les années à venir sont une courbe lisse tandis que les années passées sont un zigzag?? Pensez-vous vraiment que cela se produira??

Une transition industrielle n’est jamais sans heurts. C’est comme rouler sur des montagnes russes branlantes dans l’obscurité avec des chutes qui lèvent le cœur, des virages serrés, des boucles inattendues et des impasses soudaines.

Ce manège cahoteux nous attend en 2024 et au-delà alors que nous continuons la transition vers l’abandon des combustibles fossiles.

Pour comprendre où nous allons, je suis très attentif à l’évolution du marché pétrolier, car il constitue le fondement de notre système énergétique. À l’heure actuelle, la production mondiale de pétrole brut (et d’autres liquides) est d’environ 102 millions de barils par jour (mb/j), après avoir diminué à 91 mb/j pendant la pandémie. Les carburants routiers sont de loin la plus grande utilisation de pétrole raffiné. Les ventes mondiales de véhicules de tourisme et de camions à combustion ont déjà atteint un sommet, mais il y a encore plus de véhicules qui entrent dans le parc que de véhicules mis au rebut. Par conséquent, la demande mondiale de pétrole devrait augmenter encore d’environ 2 mb/j en 2024. Cependant, la Chine a annoncé que 2023 marque le pic de la demande d’essence en Chine, avec une part de nouveaux véhicules branchables en Chine approchant maintenant les 40%. On peut penser que le parc mondial de véhicules à combustion commencera bientôt à diminuer, ce qui explique le scénario «?politiques annoncées?» de l’Agence internationale de l’énergie (AIE) qui suppose un pic de la demande de pétrole avant 2030. Il devient clair qu’au fil du temps, les véhicules électriques étoufferont progressivement la demande de pétrole. Ensuite, le trajet deviendra vraiment cahoteux.

De nombreux producteurs (pays) pétroliers disent qu’ils continueront à produire tout au long de la transition et au-delà. Ils ne peuvent pas tous être corrects. Historiquement, les pays du cartel de l’OPEP (et de l’OPEP+, créée en réponse à la chute des prix du pétrole entraînée par la production de pétrole de schiste aux États-Unis) ont agi comme des producteurs d’équilibre, réduisant leur production pour maintenir les prix. Mais l’OPEP est maintenant confrontée à une crise. L’Angola est le dernier pays à quitter l’OPEP. Le cartel ne représente plus que 27 millions de barils par jour. De plus, certains producteurs non membres de l’OPEP augmentent leur production, comme le Canada, qui s’attend à produire 5,3 millions de barils par jour d’ici la fin de l’année 2024, contre 4,8 mb/j en 2023. Les États-Unis sont en voie d’atteindre un nouveau record de 13,1 millions de barils par jour en 2024 (ou peut-être jusqu’à 13,35), contre 12,9 millions de barils par jour en 2023.

Comment cela sera-t-il résolu?? Personne ne le sait avec certitude. L’Arabie saoudite est actuellement le producteur pétrolier dont les coûts sont les moindres. Ils peuvent choisir de limiter leur production pour maintenir des prix élevés pendant quelques années de plus, en supposant que les autres pays de l’OPEP et de l’OPEP+ emboîtent le pas. Ou ils peuvent choisir de baisser les prix dans l’espoir que les producteurs américains de pétrole de schiste cesseront de forer de nouveaux puits et réduiront la production. Ou les Saoudiens peuvent décider d’abandonner la Russie, la Russie devenant alors encore plus dépendante de la Chine, avec des implications géopolitiques inconnues. Ou de nouvelles guerres dans les Balkans ou à Taïwan perturberont les chaînes d’approvisionnement mondiales. Ou tout cela, et plus encore, au fil du temps.

En plus des cahots causés par les dangers pétroliers et gaziers, nous pouvons également nous attendre à d’autres cahots dans la chaîne d’approvisionnement de l’énergie propre. Les technologies propres évoluent rapidement, et certains des chouchous d’aujourd’hui échoueront, pour être remplacés par quelque chose de mieux que personne ne sait encore. Certaines nouvelles technologies devront passer par un long processus de maturation avant de réussir, comme nous l’avons vu avec les problèmes initiaux des grandes éoliennes maritimes. Certaines technologies propres prometteuses ne parviendront pas à passer du MW au GW, ce qui les limitera à des applications de niche. De nouveaux produits seront tout simplement mauvais, comme certains des premiers modèles de VE des constructeurs automobiles traditionnels. L’activisme «?pas dans ma cour?» peut retarder la mise en œuvre des projets d’énergie propre ou même conduire à leur annulation. Les chaînes d’approvisionnement des technologies propres sont déjà serrées, les délais d’approvisionnement des transformateurs électriques s’étendant, par exemple, sur des années. Le risque d’une perturbation de l’approvisionnement en minéraux, comme celui du cuivre, est bien réel. Les facteurs géopolitiques augmentent encore l’incertitude, avec une grande partie de la fabrication de batteries, de panneaux solaires et d’éoliennes maintenant concentrée en Chine, ainsi que le traitement des minéraux, y compris pour les terres rares.

J’espère que vous que vous avez encore le cœur bien accroché malgré ces bosses de montagnes russes, parce que la transition en apportera plus encore. Une transition réussie de l’abandon des combustibles fossiles signifiera des gagnants, mais il y aura aussi des perdants : les travailleurs du pétrole dans les pays développés pourraient perdre leur emploi, tandis que les pays en développement dépendants du pétrole pourraient faire face à des déficits budgétaires et à d’éventuels troubles civils, avec des conséquences humanitaires et géopolitiques inconnues. Certains pays en développement pourraient ne pas être en mesure d’obtenir de l’électricité fiable à partir de sources renouvelables en raison de problèmes de chaîne d’approvisionnement. Cependant, il y a une lueur d’espoir ici : la nature distribuée et locale de ces technologies offre l’espoir de réduire la pauvreté énergétique vécue par 1 milliard de personnes qui n’ont pas les moyens d’utiliser des combustibles fossiles.

Donc, nous ne savons pas quelles seront les prochaines bosses, mais à quoi pouvons-nous nous préparer??

Dans l’ensemble, la transition énergétique devrait nuire aux résultats des sociétés pétrolières et gazières, que ce soit en raison de la réduction des volumes ou de la baisse des prix. Ces sociétés paient également une prime de risque plus élevée en raison de la volatilité et de l’incertitude. Les activités pétrolières et gazières en amont, y compris l’exploration et l’extraction, sont devenues de plus en plus risquées et moins rentables. En revanche, les activités du secteur intermédiaire comme le transport, l’entreposage et la vente en gros devraient être moins touchées à court terme. De plus, certains pensent qu’il n’y aura pas de pic dans la production mondiale de pétrole avant 2030 : l’OPEP s’attend à ce que la demande de pétrole continue de croître jusqu’en 2050. Il n’y a pas de consensus ou de certitude concernant cette transition. Néanmoins, si vous travaillez dans le secteur pétrolier et gazier en amont, cherchez des occasions d’appliquer vos compétences en matière d’énergie propre — l’énergie géothermique et l’énergie éolienne maritime viennent à l’esprit. Si vous travaillez en aval, les opportunités peuvent inclure la production d’hydrogène vert (pour remplacer le gris) et les réseaux de recharge de VE (mais attendez-vous à ce que ce soit différent des stations-service).

Bien que les faibles prix du pétrole puissent retarder la transition vers l’énergie propre, ils réduiraient les investissements dans le pétrole et le gaz et libéreraient donc des capitaux pour les investissements dans les technologies propres. De plus, les perturbations de l’approvisionnement en pétrole et en gaz peuvent entraîner des hausses de prix. Ces événements ont également tendance à accroître les investissements dans les technologies propres, comme nous l’avons vu en Europe à la suite de l’invasion de l’Ukraine par la Russie. Pour les entreprises et les pays pétroliers et gaziers, c’est un cas de damné si vous le faites, damné si vous ne le faites pas, indépendamment de leurs actions. Les investissements mondiaux dans l’électrification propre, les carburants à faibles émissions et l’efficacité énergétique sont déjà plus élevés que ceux dans le charbon, le pétrole et le gaz naturel, avec des rendements plus constants pour les projets d’énergie propre. Peu de gens doutent que les investissements dans l’énergie propre continueront généralement d’accélérer (avec des bosses en cours de route, c’est certain). 

Alors que nous nous éloignons des combustibles fossiles, quatre grandes catégories de charges électriques stimulent la croissance du système électrique. Il s’agit du chauffage électrique (à usage résidentiel, commercial et institutionnel), de l’électrification des transports (y compris les véhicules électriques, mais aussi le rail et d’autres moyens de transport), de l’électrification des procédés industriels (y compris le chauffage et le séchage, mais aussi l’électrochimie et éventuellement de nouvelles applications telles que la réduction directe du fer) et de la production d’hydrogène (remplaçant l’hydrogène gris en tant que matière première chimique pour l’ammoniac et le méthanol, pas en tant que vecteur d’énergie). Des billions de dollars seront investis dans les systèmes et les appareils électriques des clients. 

Le réseau électrique doit croître de manière significative afin de répondre aux besoins de ces nouvelles charges électriques. Dépendant du niveau actuel d’électrification, les réseaux dans des régions comme le Québec devront croître de 1,5 ou 2 fois d’ici 2050, tandis que ceux du Nord-Est américain devront croître peut-être 4 fois, et même plus encore dans les pays en développement. Cela signifie des billions d’investissements supplémentaires dans la production, le transport et la distribution d’énergie propre dans les années à venir. Cependant, un taux de croissance aussi élevé avec principalement des sources éoliennes et solaires intermittentes exige que les services publics d’électricité conservateurs adoptent de nouvelles façons de penser et de travailler. Les services publics font face à de nombreux défis : attirer la participation aux programmes de gestion de la demande, de réponse à la demande et d’efficacité énergétique?; intégrer de nouvelles technologies de réseau, comme le stockage?; réduire les retards d’interconnexion pour les projets d’énergie renouvelable ; améliorer la fiabilité du service ; construire de nouvelles infrastructures de production et de transport?; gérer le resserrement du marché du travail?; assurer l’abordabilité, l’équité entre les clients et des investissements prudents?; gérer l’évolution des exigences réglementaires et du marché de l’électricité?; et plus encore. Les gouvernements et les organismes de réglementation devront élaborer des politiques et des concepts de marché bien pensés pour soutenir les services publics pendant la transition énergétique. Malheureusement, les politiques stupides sont encore beaucoup trop courantes, comme c’est le cas actuellement au Texas et en Alberta.

La vérité risque aussi de devenir une autre victime de la transition. Les rebondissements des montagnes russes de la transition offriront des opportunités à tout le monde — négationnistes et alarmistes, foreurs et écolos — de croire qu’ils sont sur la bonne voie, juste pour dérailler plus tard. Malheureusement, la transition énergétique est un sujet complexe et le «?gros bon sens?» est souvent erroné. Beaucoup de gens espèrent aussi gagner de l’argent rapidement en sautant dans le train de l’industrie de l’énergie. Ils apportent des idées et des inclinations importées d’autres domaines, mais qui peuvent ne pas être pertinentes ici. Il n’y a pas de solution magique à la transition énergétique.

En guise de dernier mot, ne vous laissez pas influencer par les dernières bosses sur les montagnes russes de la transition énergétique. Gardez l’esprit ouvert et restez calme, en vous appuyant sur des sources impartiales et bien informées. Transformer les systèmes énergétiques du monde en systèmes énergétiques durables prend du temps et des efforts, mais c’est ce qui se passe. Le monde à venir sera différent, mais meilleur à bien des égards.

Bonne chance à vous et aux vôtres pour l’année à venir?!

The Energy Transition: Bumpy Ride in 2024 and Beyond

When analysts show you charts of the energy transition over time, such as percentages of renewable energy, EV sales, or peak oil production, have you notice how future years are a smooth curve while past years are a zigzag? Do you really think this will happen?

An industry transition is never smooth. It’s like riding a rickety roller coaster in the dark, with heart-stopping drops, sharp turns, unexpected loops, and sudden dead ends.

That bumpy ride awaits us in 2024 and beyond as we transition away from fossil fuels.

To understand where we’re going, I pay close attention to developments in the oil market, since it is the bedrock of the current energy system. Currently, worldwide crude oil (and other liquids) production is around 102 million barrels per day (mbpd), having decreased to 91 mbpd during the pandemic. Road fuels are by far the largest use of refined oil. Worldwide sales of combustion passenger vehicles and trucks have already peaked, but more vehicles are still entering the fleet than being scrapped. Therefore, global oil demand is expected to rise again by about 2 mbpd in 2024. However, China announced that 2023 marks peak gasoline demand in China, with plugin share of newly registered vehicles is now approaching 40%. We can expect that the world’s fleet of combustion vehicles will soon start shrinking, explaining the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) stated policy scenario of a peak in oil demand before 2030. Clearly, EVs will gradually choke off demand for oil over time. Then the ride will get really bumpy.

Many oil producers (countries) say that they will continue to produce throughout the transition and beyond. They can’t all be right. Historically, countries in the OPEC cartel (and OPEC+, created in response to falling oil prices driven by US shale oil output) have acted as balancing producers, reducing their output to maintain prices. But OPEC is now facing a crisis. Angola is the latest country to leave OPEC. The cartel now accounts for just 27 million barrels per day. Additionally, some non-OPEC producers are increasing their output, such as Canada, which expects to produce 5.3 million barrels per day by year-end 2024, from 4.8 mbpd in 2023. The United States is on track to reach a new record high of 13.1 million barrels per day in 2024 (or perhaps as much as 13.35), up from 12.9 million barrels per day in 2023.

How will this get resolved? Nobody knows for sure. Saudi Arabia is currently the lowest cost oil producer. They may choose to limit their output to maintain high prices for a few more years, assuming that the other OPEC and OPEC+ countries follow suit. Or they may choose to lower prices in the hope that US shale oil producers will stop drilling new wells and reduce output. Or the Saudis may decide to abandon Russia, with Russia then becoming even more dependent on China, with unknown geopolitical implications. Or new wars in the Balkans or Taiwan will disrupt global supply chains. Or all this, and more, may happen over time.

In addition to bumps caused by oil and gas hazards, we can also expect further bumps in the clean energy supply chain itself. Clean technology is evolving rapidly, and some of today’s darlings will fail, to be replaced by something better that nobody knows yet. Some new technologies will have to go through a long maturation process before they succeed, as we have seen with the initial problems in large offshore wind turbines. Some promising clean technologies will fail to scale from MW to GW, limiting them to niche applications. Some new products will just be bad, such as some early EV models from traditional automakers. Not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) activism can delay the implementation of clean energy projects or even lead to their cancellation. The clean tech supply chains are already tight, with, for example, lead times on electrical transformers stretching into years. The risk of a mineral supply disruption, such as that of copper, is very real. Geopolitical factors further increase uncertainty, with much battery, solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing now concentrated in China, as well as mineral processing, including for rare earths.

I hope that you are not already getting sick from all these roller coaster bumps, because the transition will bring more of them. A successful transition away from fossil fuels will mean winners, but there will also be losers: oil workers in developed countries could lose their jobs, while developing countries dependent on oil could face budget shortfalls and possible civil unrest, with unknown humanitarian and geopolitical consequences. Some developing countries may not be able to obtain reliable electricity from renewable sources due to supply chain issues. However, there is a glimmer of hope here: the distributed and local nature of these technologies offers hope of alleviating the energy poverty experienced by 1 billion people who cannot afford the use of fossil fuels.

So, we do not know what the next bumps will be, but what can we prepare for?

Overall, the energy transition is expected to hurt the bottom line of oil and gas companies, whether due to reduced volumes or lower prices. These companies also pay a higher risk premium due to volatility and uncertainty. The upstream oil and gas business, including exploration and extraction, has become increasingly risky and less profitable. In contrast, midstream activities such as transportation, storage and wholesale should be less affected in the short term. Also, some believe that there will be no peak in global oil production before 2030: OPEC expects demand for oil to continue growing through 2050. There is no consensus or certainty regarding this transition. Still, if you work in upstream oil and gas, look for opportunities to apply your skills in clean energy — geothermal and offshore wind comes to mind. If you work downstream, opportunities may include green hydrogen production (to replace grey) and EV charging networks (but expect this to be different than gas stations).

While low oil prices may delay the clean energy transition, they would reduce investment in oil and gas and therefore free up capital for investments in clean technologies. Furthermore, disruptions in oil and gas supplies can lead to price rises. These events also tend to increase investment in clean technologies, as we have seen in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For fossil fuel companies and countries, it is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, regardless of their actions. Global investments in clean electrification, low-emission fuels and energy efficiency are already higher than those in coal, oil and natural gas, with more consistent returns for clean energy projects. Few would doubt that clean energy investments will generally continue to accelerate (with bumps along the way, for sure). 

As we transition away from fossil fuels, four major categories of electrical loads are driving the growth of the power system. These are electric heating (for residential, commercial and institutional use), transportation electrification (including EVs, but also rail and other means of transport), electrification of industrial processes (including heating and drying, but also electrochemistry and possibly new applications such as direct iron reduction) and hydrogen production (replacing grey hydrogen as a chemical feedstock for ammonia and methanol, not as an energy carrier). Trillions of dollars will be invested in customer electrical systems and devices. 

The electricity grid must grow significantly to meet the needs of these new electrical loads. Depending on the current level of electrification, grids in regions such as Québec will have to grow by 1.5 or 2 times by 2050, while those in the US Northeast will have to grow perhaps 4 times, and even more in developing countries. This means trillions of additional investments in clean energy generation, transmission and distribution in the coming years. However, such a high rate of growth with mainly intermittent wind and solar sources requires that conservative electric utilities adopt new ways of thinking and working. Utilities face many challenges: attracting participation in demand management, demand response and energy efficiency programs; integrating new grid technologies, like storage; reducing interconnection delays for renewable projects; improving service reliability; building a new generation and transmission infrastructures; managing tight labour market; ensuring affordability, fairness among customers and prudent investments; managing evolving regulatory and power market requirements; and more. Governments and regulators will need to develop well-thought-out policies and market designs to support utilities during the energy transition. Unfortunately, dumb policies are still far too common, as is currently happening in Texas and Alberta.

Truth also risks becoming another victim of the transition. The twists and turns of the transition roller coaster will provide opportunities for everyone—deniers and alarmists, roughnecks and tree huggers—to believe that they are on the right track, only to derail later. Unfortunately, energy transition is a complex subject and “common sense” is often wrong. Many people also hope to make a quick buck by jumping on the energy industry bandwagon. They bring ideas and inclinations imported from other fields, but which may not be relevant here. There is no magic solution to the energy transition.

As a final word, don’t let yourself be swayed by the latest bumps on the energy transition roller coaster. Keep an open mind and stay calm, relying on unbiased and well-informed sources. Transforming the world’s energy systems into sustainable ones takes time and efforts, but it is happening. The world to come will be different, but better in many ways.

All the best to you and yours for the coming year!

IEEE Webinar: The Utility Business Case to Support Light Duty EV Charging

I presented this webinar on December 2nd. The link to the recording and the slides is here.

Let me know what you think!

A New Kind of Electrical Load: Charging of Long-Range Electric Vehicles

When adopting electric vehicles (EV), consumers are now favoring long-range light-duty EVs[1], with nearly all the growth coming from sales of long-range battery electric vehicles rather than short-range EVs or plug-in electric hybrids.[2] Given this development, I focus here on the unique characteristics of long-range light-duty EVs charging. Long-range EVs have three characteristics that differentiate them from other residential electrical loads:

  • EVs are large and mobile loads—they are not always connected to the grid, and not every day.
  • EV charging is highly price elastic—drivers seek the cheapest electrons.
  • Drivers easily control when to charge—charging is flexible with the large batteries and the telematics of modern long-range EVs. 

These characteristics—and especially customer behavior—mean that utilities can’t consider EVs like any other loads. Utilities need a new thinking to plan for EV charging and to assess how to best manage it to benefit ratepayers. These characteristics also have impact on public and workplace charging sites, their operators, and the businesses nearby.

Let’s see how different EV charging really is.

EVs Are Large and Mobile Loads 

Most electrical loads are fixed, like water heaters and clothes driers. Mobile loads, like cell phones, are small. But EVs are unique because they are mobile and large electrical loads. They are indeed large—typically, 4 to 8 kW for a level 2 charger, and often 100 kW or more with a public direct current fast charger (DCFC). And they are mobile: we drive our cars around (obviously) and do not always keep them plugged in when parked. In fact, parked long-range EVs are more often unplugged than plugged.

Compare this to traditional household electrical loads of a comparable magnitude, which are wired in, like water heaters, or permanently plugged, like clothes driers. Industrial loads in the 100-kW range are usually fixed and wired in.

So What?

This means that the EV charging load is less predictable than traditional electrical loads, both in space and time. An EV driver may charge at home with a level 2 charger, on the way to the cottage with a public DCFC, and on a 120-volt wall plug (level 1 charging) once they get there. Over time and with large numbers of EVs on the road, we may learn where and when EVs are being charged, on average, bringing greater predictability to this load. But, until then, we will have to go with some uncertainty. However, understanding what drive EV customer behavior and what drivers can control helps reduce uncertainty.

EV Charging Is Highly Price Elastic

EV charging is highly price elastic—an economic term meaning that consumers are sensitive to charging price and adjust accordingly. If charging prices at a given time or location rises, the demand for charging then and there should fall. Conversely, lower prices spur usage. 

Many studies confirm the high price elasticity of EV charging:

  • Comparing the charging load profile in the Canadian provinces of Ontario (with time-of use electricity pricing) and Québec (without time-of-use) shows that time-of-use pricing is delaying peak charging by almost 2 hours, with a steep increase once off-peak pricing happens.[3]
  • PG&E customers who have enrolled in EV-only rates conduct 93% of EV charging off peak; on Southern California Edison’s EV-only rate, 88% of charging is off-peak.[4]
  • A small rate differential may induce a strong tendency for overnight charging. A study assessed the impact of the peak-to-super-off-peak price ratio going from small (2:1) to large (6:1). However, the share of super off-peak charging varied little, from 78% to 85% of EV charging taking place during super off-peak period (typically after 10 PM or midnight).[5]
  • EV customers exhibit learning behavior, increasing their share of super off-peak charging and decreased their share of on-peak over time.[6]
  • When free workplace charging is offered, it is used 3 times as much as when employees must pay for it.[7]

Drivers of gasoline or diesel cars are highly responsive to local petrol prices, shopping around or timing purchases when they can, as well as seeking coupons for cheaper gas.[8] When it comes to price, EV drivers seem to act like drivers of internal combustion vehicles.

So What?

The high price elasticity of EV charging is a strong indication that pricing and monetary incentives may be used to shape the EV charging load curve—at home, at work or in public. 

This is not ignored by utilities, as “60 percent of utilities consider activities that would enable them to develop effective rate structures—such as studying EV charging ownership, behavior and rate impacts—to be the most important activity in preparing for increased EV adoption”.[9] For residential charging, driver sensibility toward prices opens the door for gamification programs and is also the main value drivers being considered for vehicle-to-grid pilots. Regarding public charging, Tesla is quietly testing out ways to incentivize its customers to charge their cars when electricity demand isn’t so high or when sites are not congested[10]—I would expect that other charging operators and utilities will also assess time-varying or dynamic pricing for public charging. 

Drivers Easily Control When to Charge

Many forms of residential loads, such as air conditioning used when it is hot and ovens at dinner time, are predictable because consumers want or need to turn them on during specific situations or at regular times. EV charging is less predictable because drivers of long-range EVs have much more control on when (and therefore where) to charge. Drivers elect to use various charging patterns, depending on their needs:

  • Residential EV charging load is well suited to respond to price signals. Modern light-duty EVs be easily programmed to begin charging at a preset time using dashboard menus or a cellphone app. If a smart home charger is installed, it too can limit charging to specific times. Drivers can also start and stop charging remotely with a car or a home charger apps.
  • EV drivers pair charging with other activities, such as spending time in stores while waiting for their vehicles to charge.[11]
  • A Reddit user posted a message received from Tesla, encouraging them to stop at select California Superchargers before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. over a weekend, for a lower charging price.[12]
  • Drivers using an “empty battery” pattern tend to run the battery down to a very low state of charge (SOC) before recharging, like people fueling gasoline cars stopping at a gas station perhaps once a week.[13] In fact, not charging every day is recommended by automakers.[14]
  • Another common pattern is “scheduled charging”, where drivers charge the battery at periodic intervals, even every day, regardless of the state of charge of the vehicle’s batterie.
  • For many drivers, charging once or twice a week when the battery gets low is convenient. Others charge their EV at every opportunity[15], plugging into a charger if it’s available nearby, taking advantage of the fact that they do not need to remain beside the vehicle while it is charging.

In other words, drivers of long-range EVs are flexible and control when and where to charge so that it is best for them, either because it is convenient or less expensive. 

So What?

Utilities, charging operators and business owners can leverage this flexibility, knowing the mobility and the price sensibility of EV drivers. Through price signals or promotions, they can nudge drivers to charge where and when it best suits them—to minimize stress on the grid, to balance usage of high-traffic charging sites, or to increase in-store retail sales. 

Looking Forward

With steep forecasts of the number of light-duty EVs in some areas, many electric utilities are rightly concerned by the impact EV charging may have on their resource plans, both in terms of energy and capacity. Many see managed—or “smart”—charging as a solution to this disruption. Managed charging aims to shift EV charging to times when capacity is available in generation and in the grid. To effect managed charging, utilities may rely on metered rates, unmetered incentives, load control, or, very often, a combination of those approaches. Rates and incentives are behavioral approaches, attempting to nudge customer conduct, while load control works with the loads themselves. 

However, utilities are not the only ones trying to influence the charging patterns EV drivers. There are indeed many stakeholders in the EV charging ecosystem: utilities, cities, charging operators, local businesses, real-estate developers, state/provincial governments, federal government, regulators, automakers, charger manufacturers, etc. For example, installation of chargers at commercial sites and their charging rates is primarily driven by business considerations, such as attracting customers (a business owner objective), and not to benefit the grid (a utility objective) or to ensure sufficient coverage or capacity for EV drivers (which are government objectives). Another example: utilities and their regulators may set rates for public charging stations, but charging operators control end-user pricing and service conditions. 

Greater collaboration and alignment among these stakeholders, with better understanding of driver behavior, will be essential for the EV charging infrastructure to develop harmoniously. 


[1] Long-range electric vehicles (EV) typically have an EPA-rated range of around 250 miles (400 km) or more, with batteries of at least 60 kWh. Examples in 2021 include the Tesla Model 3 and the Kia Niro EV. Shorter range EVs also exist, like some Nissan Leafs, along with plug-in hybrids vehicles, like the Toyota RAV4 Prime.

[2] Long-Term Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020, BloombergNEF, May 19, 2020, page 65.

[3] Charge the North project, Presentation to the Infrastructure and Grid Readiness Working Group by Matt Stevens, FleetCarma, September 2019, page 14.

[4] Beneficial Electrification of Transportation, The Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), January 2019, p. 66.

[5] Final Evaluation for San Diego Gas & Electric’s Plug?in Electric Vehicle TOU Pricing and Technology Study, Nexant, Inc., February 20, 2014.

[6] Final Evaluation for San Diego Gas & Electric’s Plug?in Electric Vehicle TOU Pricing and Technology Study, Nexant, 2014, p.44.

[7] Employees with free workplace charging get 22% of their charging energy from work, while employees with paid workplace charging get 7% of their charging energy from work. Charge the North project, Presentation to the Infrastructure and Grid Readiness Working Group by Matt Stevens, FleetCarma, September 2019, page 13.

[8] See https://voxeu.org/article/gasoline-demand-more-price-responsive-you-might-have-thought, accessed 20191107.

[9] Black & Veatch 2018 Strategic Directions: Smart Cities & Utilities Report, Black & Veatch, 2018, pages 10. 

[10] See https://insideevs.com/features/454482/getting-best-deal-tesla-superchargers, accessed 20210416.

[11] See https://atlaspolicy.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Public-EV-Charging-Business-Models-for-Retail-Site-Hosts.pdf. accessed 20210416.

[12] See https://www.reddit.com/r/teslamotors/comments/jkhdx8/supercharging_discount_this_weekend_in_california/, accessed 20210416.

[13] The Life of the EV: Some Car Stories, Laura McCarty and , Brian Grunkemeyer, FlexCharging, presented at the 33rd Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS33), Portland , Oregon June 14-17, 2020, page 6.

[14] See, for instance, the recommendations of Hyundai at https://www.greencarreports.com/news/1127732_hyundai-has-5-reminders-for-making-your-ev-battery-last-longer.

[15] Charging frequency of private owned e-cars in Germany 2019, Published by Evgenia Koptyug, Oct 21, 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1180985/electric-cars-charging-frequency-germany/, accessed 20210305.

EV Charging Puts Downward Pressure on Electricity Rates

Real-world experience from utilities with a relatively high penetration of light-duty EVs shows that EV charging brings additional utility revenues that vastly exceed the costs to generate and deliver the additional energy. This may be surprising given the concerns expressed in some industry opinion pieces on the ability of the grid to support EVs. However, in California, with high EV penetration and otherwise relatively low average residential load, only 0.15% of EVs required a service line or distribution system upgrade.[1] At a system level, a Hydro-Quebec study shows that average home charging of an EV draws only 600 watts on peak – a small amount.[2] It is worth noting that these two examples do not even rely on EV load management, which would further lower contribution to peak load. 

In practice, many factors contribute to mitigating the impact of unmanaged EV charging on the grid. For instance, many owners of long-range EVs only charge at home once or twice a week, and not necessarily at peak system time. Also, many EV drivers are simply charging off a standard 120 V wall plug – slow but enough in most circumstances. More and more drivers charge at their workplace or at public stations, with diversified load curves. At the local level, distribution transformers used for residential customers are typically loaded at 25% to 30% of their rating; a few hours a year may be above the kVA rating of the transformer, but with little consequence.[3]

If anything, the advent of EVs may get electric utilities growing again: current year-over-year electricity consumption growth (kWh) averages below 1% in North America but was about 2.5% as recently in the 1990s.[4] Perhaps incredibly, yearly growth was about 8% to 10% in the 1950s and 1960s, as a wave of electrification propelled the economy. The ADN of electric utilities includes building the electricity grid and adding capacity.

Looking forward, various forecasts of the electricity use from EV adoption range from a fraction of a percent to perhaps 2% per year[5] – not negligible, but clearly manageable in view of past growth rates. 

Overall, grid impacts of light-duty EV load profile over at least the next decade should be relatively modest and net economic benefits from additional utility revenue vastly exceed costs. Those benefits will exert a downward pressure on rates for all utility customers – not just to those driving EVs. For example, Avista estimates that the net present value to ratepayers of a single EV on its system is $1,206 without managed charging.[6] Furthermore, shifting charging to off-peak or high renewable generation periods further improves benefits – up to $1,603 per EV for Avista. Furthermore, EV drivers also gain from lower maintenance and operating costs. And besides, the switch to EVs significantly reduce greenhouse gas and other harmful air pollutant emissions.
This post was initially published at https://chargehub.com/en/blog/index.php/2020/03/25/ev-charging-puts-downward-pressure-on-rates/.


[1] Joint IOU Electric Vehicle Load Research – 7th Report, June 19, 2019.

[2] Public Fast Charging Service for Electric Vehicles, Hydro-Québec, R-4060-2018, HQD-1, document 1.

[3] Electric Power Distribution Handbook, T.A. Short, chapter 5. Some winter-peaking utilities are even planning the overloading of distribution transformer, counting on the low ambient temperature to cool it down.

[4] https://data.nrel.gov/files/90/EFS_71500_figure_data%20(1).xlsx, figure 2.1, for US data. 

[5] For examples of forecast electricity use from EV adoption, see: 
– Mai et al., Electrification Futures Study, page 82. https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy18osti/71500.pdf.
– Canadian electric vehicle transition – the difference between evolution and revolution, EY Strategy, October 2019, page 9. https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_ca/topics/oil-and-gas/canadian-electric-vehicle-transition-the-difference-between-revolution-or-evolution.pdf.

[6] Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment Pilot Final Report, Avista Corp., October 18, 2019.

The Electric Cars in the Future of Utilities

Yogi Berra famously said that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Electric vehicles do not escape this wisdom. Still, recent trends and forecasts suggest a sustained growth in adoption of light-duty electric vehicles in North America. 

There are many reasons to believe that there will be many electric cars in our future. 

First, most electric vehicle drivers think that their cars are the best cars they ever had – according to a AAA survey[1], 96% of electric vehicle owners say they would buy or lease one again the next time they are in the market for a new car. Anecdotally, we can confirm this: through the ChargeHub platforms, electric vehicle drivers express their enthusiasm daily toward their cars (but also, unfortunately, their frustrations toward public charging).

Second, more and more car manufacturers are committing to an electric future: global automakers are expected to invest $225 billion on the development of battery-electric vehicles from 2019 to 2023, according to an AlixPartners study[2] — roughly equal to the massive amount that all automakers globally combined spend on capital expenditures and research and development in a year. New electric car plants are being built and internal combustion ones are being converted. There’s no turning back.

Thirdly, many states, provincial and federal governments have policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off climate change. The transportation sector is the largest contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and light-duty vehicles contribute to 59% of transportation emissions[3]. Necessarily, reducing greenhouse gas emission will require us to drive electric light-duty vehicles. 

Yet, only about 2% of 2019 new passenger car sales in North America are plug-in electric vehicles.[4]

There are a number of factors to explain the dichotomy between actual and forecast sales of electric vehicles. The first is simply availability: buying a new electric vehicle usually implies waiting months and there are few model options. If you do not happen to live in the few states or provinces that have a zero-emission mandate[5] requiring a minimum percentage of electric light-duty vehicles, you may actually be out of luck: car manufacturers may simply not offer them to you. For example, Subaru stocks the Crosstrek plug-in hybrids in California, nine other states[6] and the Canadian province of Québec[7] that have adopted zero-emission vehicle regulations. 

Even in jurisdictions with zero-emission mandates, availability is often limited to regulatory obligations: internal combustion vehicles are currently far more profitable than electric ones, and automakers don’t have enough incentive to move away from internal combustion engine vehicles, especially at current low-volume. However, analysts, like the McKinsey strategic consultancy, expect that EVs have the potential to reach initial cost parity with and become equally—or even more—profitable as internal combustion vehicles around 2025[8]. Combined with already lower operating costs for drivers, this will make building electric vehicles a compelling proposition for automakers and drivers alike. 

If investments being made in manufacturing will cure current availability and cost issues, there are still a few more obstacles that need to be removed to hasten the advent of electrical cars. A survey by KSV lists top worries about batteries running out, convenient home charging and how to charge, operate, and maintain electric vehicles. These other concerns primarily point to insufficient consumer knowledge and incomplete public charging infrastructure. While home charging remains the principal means to recharge electric vehicles, charging at workplaces and public stations plays an important role for drivers who cannot charge at home or when traveling away from home. Utilities have a central role in enabling public and workplace charging, through policy-induced subsidies and tariffs. Utilities are also the second-most trusted source of information on EVs, after Consumer Reports – car dealers are last[9]. To succeed, electric utilities need to work with site owners (for public charging) and automakers (for education) – two types of stakeholders with which utilities do not have relevant business relationships. 

This was initially published at https://chargehub.com/en/blog/index.php/2020/03/05/the-electric-cars-in-the-future-of-utilities/.


[1]       https://www.oregon.aaa.com/content/uploads/2020/01/True-Cost-of-EV-Ownership-Fact-Sheet-FINAL-1-9-20.pdf, accessed 2020-03-05.

[2]       https://www.alixpartners.com/media-center/press-releases/alixpartners-global-automotive-industry-outlook-2019/, accessed 2020-03-05.

[3]       https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions, accessed 2020-03-05.

[4]       https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car_use_by_country, accessed 2020-03-05.

[5]       https://electricautonomy.ca/2020/02/04/industry-divided-on-the-merits-of-a-national-zev-mandate-as-federal-budget-nears/, accessed 2020-03-05.

[6]       https://www.autonews.com/article/20181124/RETAIL01/181129954/subaru-goes-greener-plugs-in-the-crosstrek, accessed 2020-03-05. 

[7]       https://plus.lapresse.ca/screens/1ee08d4e-e711-4ece-ba8d-8599239ff27a__7C___0.html.

[8]       https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/making-electric-vehicles-profitable, accessed 2020-03-05. 

[9]       https://www.eei.org/issuesandpolicy/electrictransportation/FleetVehicles/Documents/EEI_UtilityFleetsLeadingTheCharge.pdf, accessed 2020-03-05. 

How Not-to-Succeed in the Next Decade of Energy Transition

The 2020s promise to be a momentous time for the electricity industry, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on what businesses might need to succeed through the energy industry transition. I might have a privileged perspective on this, having worked with utilities, vendors and investors, first in the IT and telecom industries as they went through their transitions, and then mostly in the electricity industry for the last 20 years. This does not mean that I can’t be wrong (I know – I’ve been wrong many times), but perhaps my views will help others be right. 

I’ve structured this post as a series of “don’ts”, based in part on actual IT and telecom examples that I’ve lived through – I’ve put these examples in italic, but I left the names out to protect the innocents. I found that many businesses have short-term views that lead them down dead-end paths, and I might be more useful in showing known pitfalls than trying to predict the future. 

Don’t Fight a Declining Cost Curve

The IT, telecom and, now, electricity industries are all seeing declining cost curves. The best known one is Moore’s Law, the observation that the density of integrated circuits (and hence the cost of computing) halves every 2 years. Moore’s Law is nearly 60 years old and still strong. It gave us iPhones more powerful now than supercomputers of a generation ago, even though my iPhone ends up in my pocket most of the time, doing nothing. These days, the electricity industry sees the cost of wind and solar energy as well as that of electricity storage dropping at a rate of 10% to 20% per year, with no end in sight.[i]

In IT, telecom and, now, electricity, this also leads toward zero marginal cost, the situation where producing an additional unit (a Google search, a FaceTime call or a kWh) costs nothing (or almost nothing). 

During the IT and telecom transitions, many startups proposed solutions to optimize the use of (still) expensive information processing assets. Some sought to extend the life of previous generations of equipment (like a PBX) by adding some intelligence to it (a virtual attendant), while others were dependent on a price point (like dollars per minutes for overseas calls) that simply collapsed (calls are essentially free now). 

If your business case depends on the cost of energy or the cost of storage remaining where they are, ask yourself, what if the cost goes down 50%? That’s only 3 years of decline at 20%/year. After 10 years, costs will be only 10% of what they are now. Can you survive with near-zero marginal costs? If your solution aims to optimize capital costs, will it matter in a few years? Or, will people just do as they do now, with a do-nothing iPhone supercomputer in their pocket?

Don’t Think That Transition Will Go 2% a Year Over 50 Years

Phone companies were depreciating their copper wires and switches over decades. Phone utilities were highly regarded companies, imbued with a duty for public service and providing lifelong employment to their loyal employees. Service was considered inflexible, but everyone could afford a local line, which was cross subsidized by expensive long-distance calls and business lines. Things were simple and predictable.

In 1980, McKinsey & Company was commissioned by AT&T (whose Bell Labs had invented cellular telephony) to forecast cell phone penetration in the U.S. by 2000. The consultant predicted 900,000 cell phone subscribers in 2000 – the actual figure is 109,000,000. Based on this legendary mistake, AT&T decided there was not much future to these toys. A decade later, AT&T had to acquire McCaw Cellular for $12.6 Billion.[ii]

In 1998, I was operating the largest international IP telephony network in the world, although it was bleeding edge and tiny in comparison to AT&T and other large traditional carriers. Traditional carriers were waiting for IP telephony to fail, as the sound quality was poor, it was not efficiently using the available bandwidth, it was illegal in many countries, etc. The history did not play out as expected. In 2003, Skype was launched, the iPhone, in 2006. Today, you can’t make a phone call anymore that is not IP somewhere along its path. 

I’m seeing the same lack of vision in energy industry. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is famous for being wrong, year after year, in lowballing the rise of solar and wind energy in its scenarios.[iii]

Another example is the rise of electric vehicles. There are about 77 million light-duty vehicles sold in the world, and this number is flat or slightly declining.[iv] Of these, about 2 million electric vehicles were sold in 2019, but the number of EVs sold in increasing 50% every year.[v] In other words, the number of internal combustion vehicles is clearly decreasing and the growth is only coming from EVs. Looking at their dashboards, car manufacturers are quickly reducing their investment in developing internal combustion vehicles, especially engines.[vi] Disinvestment in upstream activity means that internal combustion vehicles will fall behind newer EVs and become less and less appealing. It won’t take 50 years for most light-duty vehicles to be electric – a decade, perhaps.

Don’t Count on Regulatory Barriers for Protection

Telecom carriers fought deregulation and competition, teeth and nails. Back in the 1950s, AT&T went to the US supreme court to prevent customer from using a plastic attachment on the mouthpiece of telephones to increase call privacy – it was called Hush-A-Phone. AT&T owned the telephones and forbid customers from using Hush-A-Phone. However, AT&T lost the court battle, and Hush-A-Phone was sold legally from then on. This landmark decision is seen as the start of telecom deregulation in North America.

The IP telephony network that I mentioned earlier was indeed illegal in some of the countries we operated in. It didn’t matter. We had plenty of partners willing to bypass local monopolies, even if illegal in their countries, and customers willing to make cheaper international calls, even if the quality was not always so great. 

Regulatory barriers are only as strong as policy-makers make them. When constituents see an opportunity to save money or simply have choice, they pressure the policy-makers to change the rules – or elect new ones more attuned to moods of consumers. It’s just a matter of time. 

Don’t Take Customers Nor Suppliers for Granted

In 1997, at a time when cellular phones were still a luxury and the Internet was still a novelty, an Angus-Reid survey of the Canadian public put Bell Canada #2 among most admired corporations in Canada[vii], and it had been among the most trusted companies in Canada for decades. Yet, in 2017, Bell Canada ranked #291 in a University of Victoria brand trust survey[viii]. People love their Apple or Samsung phones, are addicted to Facebook to stay in touch with friends, naturally turn to Google for any question, and use Microsoft Skype to see remote family members, but they now mostly hate their phone company. 

Obviously, Bell is still around and making money, but one can only wonder how things could have been if Bell had played its hand differently. (In 1997, none of iPhones, Facebook, Google and Skype existed).

Suppliers to electric utilities should also listen to this lesson. Northern Telecom (Nortel), AT&T Bell Labs and Alcatel were among the large traditional equipment vendors to telephone utilities. However, a startup was founded in 1984, designing routing equipment for IT networks used in university networks. Over the years, it expanded into all sorts of datacom and telecom equipment – all telecom companies eventually standardized on this new vendor. Northern Telecom and the others went bankrupt or were merged and acquired to the point they could not be recognized. In the process, some telephone companies were left with unserviceable hardware. 

This startup company is called Cisco Systems and is now the largest telecom vendor in the world. 

The same pattern is playing out in electricity. On one hand, you have many utilities that do not understand that many customers want choice. On the other hand, you have vendors, like GE and ABB, that are in turmoil. 

Will you be the future Google or Cisco of electricity? Or the next Nortel?

Don’t Follow the Herd

Full disclosure: I’m a career business consultant. Caveat Emptor. 

The reason for this disclosure is that consultants are great at announcing bold trends that often do not pan out. There is a great herd mentality among consultants, and it carries over to their customers. 

Twenty years ago, one of my clients was one of the early Application Service Providers, a business concept where small businesses could access shared personal computer applications over the Internet. The idea was to reduce the cost of maintaining software installed in PCs and to reduce the hardware requirements of PCs. This client was unknowingly fighting the declining cost curve of computers. It went bankrupt (and my last invoices were not paid). 

The concept of application service providers was heavily promoted by consultancies like Gartner, who presented it as the future of business computing. I guess that Microsoft disagreed. 

I see similar fast-fashion concepts going through the electricity industry. Walking the floor at the Distributech Conference in 2018, it was all about microgrids. In 2019, it was distributed energy resources. We will see what will be fashionable in January 2020. 

My recommendation when you hear the same concept over and over again is asking yourself: is this a real trend or am I in an echo chamber? With many new consultants flocking to the electric utility industry – I call them tourists – , you can hear many concepts that are taken for truth but really too complex to be implemented or unlikely in the fragmented regulatory environment that we have. 

Closing Thoughts

In the end, keep cool: sound engineering, good economics and great customer service will always win.

Which leads me to offer you this quote:

If I’ve heard correctly, all of you can see ahead to what the future holds but your knowledge of the present is not clear.
—DANTE, Inferno, Canto X

All this being said, have a great Holiday season and see you soon in 2020!


[i]                 See this previous blog posts, http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/lower-and-lower-energy-prices-from-wind-and-solar-pv/, for an in-depth discussion of cost decline in wind and solar energy, accessed 20191220. 

[ii]                See https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/38716/did-mckinsey-co-tell-att-there-was-no-market-for-mobile-phones, accessed 20191220. 

[iii]               See this previous blog post, http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/wind-and-solar-pv-defied-expectations/, for a chart of how wrong the IEA has been, accessed 20191220. 

[iv]                See https://www.statista.com/statistics/200002/international-car-sales-since-1990/, accessed 20191220. 

[v]                 See https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2019 and http://www.ev-volumes.com/country/total-world-plug-in-vehicle-volumes/, accessed 20191220. 

[vi]                See https://www.linkedin.com/posts/bmarcoux_daimler-stops-developing-internal-combustion-activity-6580481304071065600-vRK8, accessed 20191220. 

[vii]               The Fourth Annual “Canada’s Most Respected Corporations” Survey, Angus Reid Group, Inc., 1998, page 5.

[viii]              The Gustavson Brand Trust Index, Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, 2017. 

EV Charging: an Enabler for Utility Customer Engagement

EV charging is a new type of load for electric utilities – probably the first new type of large electrical load since air conditioning over 50 years ago. A lot is being written about the perils that charging a large number of EV batteries could bring to the grid, but also how shifting EV charging off peak could offset decline in utility revenues. 

However, filling up a car with energy is not new for utility customers. In fact, they are already quite passionate about it. They’ll drive out of their ways to pay less, fueling up on days when price is lower, or driving some distance to get to a cheaper gas station. Multiple apps allow motorists to share tips. Gas station chains offer loyalty program and grocery coupons. Gas stations have become minimarts. Clearly, motorists are deeply engaged with those providers. 

Electric utilities are trying really hard to get their customers to be more engaged. They rightfully see customer engagement as the key to entice customers to participate in energy efficiency and demand management (or response) programs. The problem is that customers generally have no idea how much electricity they use for lighting, entertaining, cooling, heating, cooking, showering, cleaning dishes… This makes customers little responsive and unengaged, especially since these activities have very low emotional appeal for electricity (unless there is an outage during a hockey game). To tell you how bad the situation is, utilities regularly go to conferences presenting EE or DM/DR programs considered to be highly successful with only single-digit percentage of the customer base participating… 

With EV charging, utilities have the opportunity to reset customer engagement – especially as owning and driving a car has much more emotional appeal than, say, cleaning dishes. This is especially true since drivers are used to see how much fuel they use at the pump – there is a direct feedback every few days. We also know that drivers are responding strongly to fuel price signals. 

While much of the discussion on EV charging has revolved around grid-centric issues like peak management and electricity sales, EV charging is also a time-limited opportunity to get their customer more engaged. If electricity distributors are not seizing the opportunity, other players will, and they will fall back to being what they have traditionally been – utility service providers serving passive subscribers. 

I think that electricity distributors can be much, much more, especially in the context of the energy industry transition that we are going through.

Energy Is Cheap; Power Is Valuable

For a while now, I have been saying that we are entering a world where energy (kWh) is cheap, thanks to dropping solar and wind costs, but power (kW) is expensive, needed as it is to balance renewables and peaking new uses, such as electric vehicle charging.[i]

There are not a lot of empirical evidence of this phenomenon, but Ontario offers one. 

In 2005, Ontario decided to move to a “hybrid” deregulated generation market, with a “Global Adjustment” (GA) charge on customer electricity bill that is used to cover the difference between the energy market price (¢/kWh) and rates paid to regulated and contracted generators for providing capacity (kW). The energy market price was intended to reflect the marginal cost of production, with contracts meant to compensate fixed capacity costs. Over time, as contract volumes increased, more and more of the costs of generation became charged through capacity contracting rather than through energy market revenues. In addition, a significant number of zero marginal cost bidders (essentially renewables) were built, further depressing market revenues. As the chart below indicates, a growing portion of generator payments shifted from the energy market onto capacity contracts, which were then charged to customers through the Global Adjustment.[ii]

This is for Ontario, with its peculiar market structure. However, with the advent of renewables and increasing electrification of the economy, we will see the same trend across the world: the capacity-driven cost of the grid will be exposed. The underlying trend is:

Energy, in kWh or MWh, will get very cheap.

Power, in kW or MW, will be very valuable.

For stakeholders in the industry, it means that economic value will be created with services and tools that help manage power, such as shifting peaks. If you own a generation source with non-zero marginal costs and cannot play on a capacity market, you’re in trouble. 

If you think that this is sort of crazy, think about what happened in the telecom market over the last couple of decades. It used to be that local phone connections were relatively cheap, but long-distance phone calls were extremely expensive (dollars per minute for some international calls). Nowadays, long-distance calls are effectively free, thanks to Skype and FaceTime, with video as a bonus. However, Internet access is expensive. 

How will this affect your business?


[i]  See my 2018 posts, http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/cea-tigers-den-workshop/and http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/a-perspective-on-canadas-electricity-industry-in-2030/.

[ii]  Data for this chart was extracted from http://www.ieso.ca/en/Corporate-IESO/Media/Year-End-Data. Contact me is you want the underlying numbers. 

Digital Utility of the Future Conference

Last month, I chaired the Digital Utility of the Future Conference in Toronto (http://ikonnect.world/DigitalUtilitiesoftheFuture2/). Based on feedback from many participants, the event was a clear success and I am looking forward to the 2020 edition. Having mostly been out of the country on business since then, I would now like to share some reflections on the event.

First, the multiple presentations highlighted the extent to which digital technologies now permeate the utility world. The energy transition adds tremendous sophistication to the electricity distribution network, relies on renewed engagement by customers, and brings many new regulatory and environmental constraints. As the transformation of other industries have shown, such complexity can only be dealt with through better management of corporate resources, especially information.

Second, adapting to the energy transition and leveraging information a big task. The rule book is still being written. Many innovations were presented. In a few years, we will look back at some of these ideas and admire the foresight of their promoters; other ideas will be dead ends. However, it is clear now that the future of the utility industry will depend on innovations to a much greater extent than was the case a few years ago.  

Third, participants were a mix of utility and vendor representatives, with many presentations being made by representative from both. I think that the best combination. Utilities know their business but may be insulated behind a regulatory wall. Vendors see multiple clients, inside and outside the energy industry, but may not understand all the subtilities of a regulated business. Having both can get sparks flying (in a good way). 

Finally, I would like to thank all participants, sponsors and presenters. I think that we all had a great time debating what the digital future of utilities may look like.

A Perspective on Canada’s Electricity Industry in 2030

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!

Canada Electricity Industry 2030 20180221

Barbarians at the Gate (or: How to Stop Worrying and Love Your Customers)

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!

SGC20180912 BMarcoux

CEA Tigers’ Den Workshop

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.

Wind and Solar PV Defied Expectations

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.

Utilities Should Lead the Change

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]

References:

[i]         As reported by UtilityDIVE, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/alectra-utilities-ceo-someones-going-to-cannibalize-our-business-it-ma/504934/, accessed 20180102.

[ii]        See https://www.greenmountainpower.com/press/green-mountain-power-first-utility-help-customers-go-off-grid-new-product-offering/, retrieved 20171229.

[iii]        See https://www.tesla.com/blog/next-step-in-energy-storage-aggregation, retrieved 20171230.

[iv]       see https://www.greenmountainpower.com/press/green-mountain-power-survey-shows-customer-satisfaction-continues-rise/, 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.