Pandemic Reveals Strategic Crossroads for Power and Utilities Industry

The power and utilities (P&U) industry started the new decade in a strong position, identifying new opportunities for growth while leading the economy-wide clean energy transition. Midway through the year, COVID-19 struck and tested the mettle of a crisis-resilient sector in new ways. Five electric load shifts simultaneously occurred: (1) The load shrunk, with the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasting a 5.7 percent decline in electricity consumption this year;1 (2) it greened as solar and wind output bucked the trend and grew; (3) it reshaped into a “perpetual weekend” pattern, better matching the growing renewable output; (4) it residentialised as commercial and industrial (C&I) demand bore the brunt of the demand decline; and (5) it deurbanized as residents decamped to lower density areas.

The outlook for three trends we identified at the beginning of 2020 seems to have markedly changed. First, an industry that was raising the bar on climate goals now appears poised to vault that bar sooner thanks to a raised floor, as renewables abruptly acquired a higher share of electricity demand. Second, ensuring grid stability amid shifting, renewables-rich loads will likely require more demand-side flexibility from distributed energy resources (DER) in the form of demand response (DR). Third, pandemic-related disruptions have strengthened the case for the industry to focus on three growth areas: digital transformation, new services, and M&A opportunities. In short, COVID-19 may have catalyzed the P&U industry-led clean energy transition while lending urgency to strategic decisions about distributed energy resources and growth opportunities.

Carbon Reduction: P&U Companies may Vault the Bar on Climate Goals in 2020

COVID-19 seems to be a catalyst for carbon reduction, which the P&U industry could help sustain or accelerate over the next six months.

The pandemic immediately raised the floor for renewable targets: Amid falling demand across all energy sources, solar and wind output increased 20 percent in the first quarter of this year, reaching record-high hourly shares and demonstrating that utilities can continue to reliably operate the grid when renewables dominate generation. Furthermore, the pandemic exposed the health impact of emissions, compounding the climate concerns driving decarbonization targets. A recent study has linked exposure to air pollution with a higher COVID-19 death rate, and record pandemic-related drops in air pollution may lead to a greater public appreciation and expectation of higher air quality.

 In the intermediate term, the pandemic has demonstrated the resilience of corporate, state, and utility commitments to decarbonization. Amid COVID-19, at the corporate level, RE100 is continuing to grow its membership of businesses committed to going 100 percent renewable, automakers remain committed to electrification, oil majors are shielding their clean energy investment plans from budgetary cuts, and financial institutions are creating sustainability investment divisions to serve these corporate ambitions. At the state level, Virginia joined eight jurisdictions in enacting a 100 percent renewable portfolio standard, and a dozen legislatures are currently considering one. The P&U industry could vault ahead in supporting these commitments following the recent approval of a billion-dollar solar plant in Nevada, NextEra’s announcement of a billion dollar investment in storage, and ConEdison’s announced investment of more than a billion dollars in energy efficiency programs.

In the longer term, future recovery plans may lock in and expand carbon reductions by casting investment in green infrastructure as the bedrock of economic stimulus. The European Union and China have already taken this tack, recognizing the benefits of investment in shovel-ready, labor intensive clean energy projects with high domestic multiplier effects. In the United States, clean energy support might materialize in potential next rounds of stimulus funding. From the COVID-19 crisis may emerge a global paradigm shift aligning economic growth with climate goals.

Distributed Energy Resources: Prospective Demand Upswing Creates Pressure for DER Enrollment in DR

As the summer approaches and states start reopening to various degrees, increasing demand will likely pressure utilities to balance the higher share of renewable generation with demand flexibility via greater C&I and residential DER enrollment in DR. In the C&I sector, DR capacity is currently constrained but also evolving into new forms. Businesses face shelter-in-place orders and operational uncertainty that are clouding forecasts of their energy needs, let alone their ability to participate in DR.

The New York Public Service Commission recently responded by granting DR providers flexibility on deadlines and resource commitments. Broader C&I participation could also help utilities develop more accurate load forecasts amid the unpredictability by tapping into real-time data-sharing from DR providers’ on-site meters. Meanwhile, among the few C&I customers with growing loads, Google is testing a program to shift computing activity at its data centers to match renewable generation, and ultimately do so 24/7. This load-following model is ushering in a more proactive and multipurpose-driven DR that could enable greater flexibility and integration of renewables.

Enrollment of more residential customers in DR could be critical to shaving peak demand and preventing distribution network 2 overloads as many continue to work from their air-conditioned homes through the summer. Here, too, new approaches are emerging. In a new partnership with Google and Uplight, utility Consumers Energy has announced plans to enroll 100,000 customers in DR, mostly this summer, by offering free Google Nest thermostats. In exchange, energy services provider Uplight will remotely precool homes for comfort before reducing AC loads by up to four hours daily on up to 14 hot days annually.8 In addition to the smart thermostat, customers would benefit from lower bills, and the utility would be able to bid the harnessed capacity into the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s market and progress toward its clean energy target. Utilities are expected to deploy more of such customer-centric DR programs to serve grid needs in a low-carbon and low-cost manner.

Growth Opportunities: Crisis Strengthens the Case for Growth via Digital Transformation, New Services, and M&A

Despite facing a pandemic-related revenue crunch, some utilities are in a relatively strong position to seize several new growth opportunities this year. Declining sales and mounting arrearages have shrunk utility revenue, while operational spending on workforce protection has increased. But utilities retain robust access to capital and credit markets for now that can allow them to largely pursue planned record capital spending to ensure reliability and resiliency; they may defer and trim some projects (especially those that are categorized as operating expense in nature and not capital expense), depending on the depth and duration of the recession and unforeseen factors.

COVID-19 appears to have strengthened the case for cybersecure digital solutions to both address short-term pandemic-related challenges and help with long-term resilience. These digital capabilities include:

  • Augmented and virtual reality to help utilities manage a remote workforce • Drones, automation, and asset tracking to boost operational efficiency
  • Digital contract management tools, advanced analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and cloud-based solutions to support corporate and finance functions
  • Virtual agents and home energy management, voice-interactive features, and mobile-friendly options to elevate digital interactions with customers
  • Expanded cyber defenses to address the increased risk from remote operations.

Utilities might also develop new services that address the new work-from-home normal. For example, utilities could offer businesses behind-the-meter storage solutions to enhance resiliency for critical operations now being performed from a home office. Another idea is to assist businesses in managing their carbon footprint reduction strategies across their networks of employee offices. Finally, M&A activity may increase as well-capitalized utilities leverage synergies to save costs and expand their geographies, assets, and capabilities. These utilities may also jockey with other energy, infrastructure, and financial groups to establish leading positions in the power market by acquiring smaller players, notably in the renewables sector. As both access to capital and timelines tighten the longer the pandemic and its recessionary tailwinds unfold, smaller developers unable to continue weathering the crisis will likely bring attractive assets to a fragmented market that larger utilities could be positioned to consolidate.

Source: Deloitte, 2020 (

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