The race for electricity system flexibility is unleashing a new phase of transformations in the power sector, for which existing companies are ill prepared. Due to the accelerating deployment of an array of ‘flexibility enablers’, the spectre of cost escalation – resulting from the expense of managing intermittent wind and solar power at huge volumes – may never materialize. New technologies that enhance system flexibility include smart electric vehicle (EV) charging, battery storage, digitalization with intelligent control, and demand-side management. Companies providing these solutions may come to dominate the power sector in the coming decades.
- EV uptake is gathering pace, with global deployment of new EVs exceeding 1 million units for the first time in 2017. Smart, staggered EV charging could enable significant advances in system flexibility. By 2030, smart EV charging in the UK could be equivalent to 18 per cent of the country’s current generating capacity. Rapid cost reductions in battery manufacturing, driven by increased deployment of EVs, are enabling affordable static, grid-level storage, in turn enhancing power system flexibility.
- Digitalization of the electricity sector will lead to significant advances in system efficiency and flexibility. Residential demand will become flexible and networks functionally ‘smarter’. Machine-learning algorithms could be a game-changer, helping to manage the increasing complexity of electricity systems and identify new system-level efficiencies.
- Enhanced system flexibility and a growing role for these technologies will provide new entry points for highly disruptive market actors, many of them not traditionally associated with the power sector. These actors include powerful technology companies and automotive manufacturers such as Google, Tesla and BMW. More widespread electrification of transport, and eventually of heating, will change the political and regulatory landscape of the electricity sector.
This ‘second phase’ of transformations in the electricity system comes as the sector is still reeling from a profound ‘first phase’ of disruptive shocks – one most noticeably affecting Australia, the EU and parts of North America. In these markets, once-powerful utility companies are struggling or having to restructure to survive.
- The ‘first phase’ of transformations has been marked by the emergence over the past decade of three interlocking pressures that have undermined the business models of traditional utilities: (1) unprecedented deployment of renewable energy; (2) slower than expected or stagnating demand growth as a result of higher energy efficiency standards; and (3), in many jurisdictions, market reform.
- The transformations to date have undermined the business models of traditional power utilities. For example, the contribution of solar photovoltaic (PV) installations and wind power to electricity generation in the EU increased from 2.5 per cent to 13.0 per cent between the end of 2006 and the end of 2016. In the same period, the average share price of the major power utilities in Europe halved, while the FTSE 100 Index rose by 15 per cent.
- Power utilities face the prospect that renewables will achieve ever higher penetrations within the electricity market, aided by greater system flexibility. This will continue to erode the role of large power stations in ‘system balancing’ – balancing supply and demand – and will put further pressure on existing business models.
The threats for today’s utilities are considerable, but so too are the opportunities for those able to transform. Whereas past market reforms have separated the operations of utilities into discrete functions, in the emerging ‘second phase’ of electricity system transformations energy services themselves are likely to be fragmented into smaller functions.
- The growth in electricity demand from EVs presents an opportunity for power companies, but it is unlikely to compensate fully for slowing overall electricity demand in OECD countries. As EV adoption rates rise, utilities could offer smart-charging tariffs that encourage staggered EV charging at lower unit prices.
- The modular nature of batteries enables their cost and size to be optimized for specialized system requirements. This, combined with their ease of deployment, is likely to result in storage competing with conventional power plants in supplying the electricity market. While first-mover advantages within the renewables market are already broadly out of the reach of power utilities, the battery storage market offers an opportunity to develop new businesses and maintain market influence. Residential flexible-demand markets also present new opportunities for utilities that have established retail relationships with household consumers.
- Digitalization could support business models based around the administration of ‘energy service platforms’ for consumers who own distributed energy resources (DERs) – and who thus seek not only to purchase electricity but to sell it back into the market. This could result in a reduction in the amount of electricity paid for via traditional utilities’ retail tariffs, threatening their revenues. Furthermore, digitally enabled peer-to-peer transactions could begin competing with retail tariffs.
New regulatory approaches are needed to encourage market actors to deliver flexibility. Evidence is growing that highly flexible electricity systems could deliver lower whole-system costs, especially given the dramatic projected falls in solar and wind power costs by 2030. This outcome is contingent on policy and regulatory action to stimulate the diverse set of flexibility-enabling technologies discussed in this research paper. There is a need for new market mechanisms that appropriately value the emerging suite of ancillary flexibility services while ensuring adherence to core principles of energy security and environmental protection.
- Government reforms of electricity markets can create efficient market signals for these new forms of flexibility. The focus of system operation is shifting, from transmission networks with capacity markets for large power generators towards distribution systems, DERs and energy service platforms.
- Governments, regulators and utilities will need to work together to design the rules and protocols for energy service platforms. If implemented, this will enable the connection of DERs to the network, and allow new consumer-oriented services to emerge.
- To avoid new cybersecurity threats, regulators will need to work with utilities and technology companies to develop protocols and standards for the burgeoning number of internet-connected appliances and DERs, as flexibility is provided in ever greater volumes from such sources.