European Utility Week: Back to basics

The largest event dedicated to the Smart Grid industry in Europe has just ended. The various players have left me the impression of a return to the basics of their business. Is it because of economic difficulties and tensions in various markets? Or, is this due to the slowness to impose certain innovations?

We are far from the buzz of the recent years on innovations and applications presented then as unavoidable and still in their infancy today.

Here are the key observations inspired to me by these three days in Vienna.

The confrontation of Smart Metering 1.0 and Smart Metering 2.0 is flagrant

The Chinese were out in force on booths of another time, with a basic communication. They effectively remind us that, once the stabilization period of technologies, nothing will really differentiate a smart meter to another, except the price. They are well present with unbeatable prices. A few years of presence on the European market are only missing to them to gain the confidence to win.

In front of them, the major Western manufacturers remind the market that they are trustworthy beyond the meter: “go beyond the meter (Itron)”, “beyond metering solutions (Elster)” and offers a verticalization of metering applications that is hardly consistent with the need to brake walls between applications, required to deploy Smart Grids. The attempts of these manufacturers to present solutions linking distribution and consumption are more timid except Elster (Connexo / Enacto).

The battle between the two camps may be rude in the future and Western manufacturers will have to be inventive not to be squeezed between Chinese manufacturers at the meters level and electrical manufacturers and major integrators at the solutions level.

The last major innovation trends of those years seem to falter, pause or be more realistic

The Smart Home is no longer head of the poster. The house fully controlled remotely is no longer a dream. In terms of energy management, despite the lack of value offered, dashboards for consumers persist thanks to agreements with utilities wanting to simply occupy the field of energy efficiency, without really achieving results. There are however occasionally some more interesting offers: we rediscover the thermostat as the mean to act on the main source of energy consumption in the home and we try to give life and meaning to the consumption data acquired.

Internet of Things is facing the immaturity of communication technologies and the lack of ecosystem supporting the technologies. SIGFOX shows his muscles in front of LoRa, more open and less proprietary, before the emergence of 5G technology addressing the needs of M2M. Few stands dare making visible their belonging to ecosystems.

The link between Smart Grids and Smart Cities seem to be a stake too complex to be addressed: only Alstom claims its capabilities in this field, carried by the lead taken in the matter.

Only the energy storage gave the impression to generate bubbling activity. But this idea was quickly offset by a diversity of solutions and technologies and a lack of references allowing the visitor to detect use cases of interest.

These innovations are often made by small companies, which cannot guarantee to utilities nor a sustainable supply or the R&D means to achieve a sufficient level of maturity of their offer. Major manufacturers show, for their part, that their culture dies hard: only Siemens, GE and Alstom have resisted the temptation to present products on their booth to better talk about the value they bring to their customers.

The industry remains almost silent about the major energy challenges ahead

The energy transition appears to have no consequences and require no adjustment.

The development of intermittent energies seems to have no effect on the stability and conduct of networks: some German and Danish utilities presented their experience at conferences; the others remained in a kind of denial.

The trend or the need to think in terms of energy rather than in terms of gas or electricity is not mentioned: little company are ready to offer real solutions in this area. Some start-ups still offer interesting advances.

The consumer engagement is openly focused and addressed by some companies (Tendril, Opower); but in this area, that is complex, it will take time to find offers bringing a true value.

Fortunately, finally, after snooping around for 3 days, there were some well-hidden gems to discover. This could motivate utilities that have committed a substantive change to accompany the evolution of energy systems.

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