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Battle of the Smart Grids

By Richard Stavros on January 20, 2017

Big technology changes are afoot in the utilities sector. And they’re redefining the sector’s value proposition for investors.

With demand growth for electricity weak or declining since the downturn, utilities have been waging a “Games of Thrones”-style battle for supremacy among their peers.

In addition to pursuing growth via acquisition, utilities are developing new smart-grid technologies to differentiate themselves from competitors with hopes of winning new customers.

Smart grids help utilities expand their ability to accommodate new technologies, such as renewables, on their networks. They also create greater cost efficiencies by helping collect data that give insights into operations and customer needs.

In this first of a two-part report, we look at which states are enjoying the most success in deploying smart-grid technology from a customer standpoint.

Despite concerns that the Trump administration could stymie further development of renewables, corporate giants will continue to drive their adoption.

According to a joint report released in mid-January by the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), major technology and retail firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Target, and Walmart all have corporate sustainability mandates.

And these policies are pushing the firms to go green. Indeed, they intend to procure 60 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025 and are willing to relocate their operations to those states that offer the best opportunities.

This dovetails with what we learned while attending the annual Edison Electric Institute Financial Conference, where utility executives were keen to show they’re willing to do what it takes to keep their biggest customers happy—and possibly attract new ones.

This customer-centric approach is a noteworthy shift for an industry comprised of monopolies. Clearly, the nature of utility competition has changed.

Now, utilities have new ways of attracting their competitors’ biggest customers to their state—or they can win contracts to develop and manage onsite generation for large customers wherever they are, thereby cutting out the local utility.

According to the report, Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey and California are the best states to procure renewable energy.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Iowa, the first state to adopt a renewable portfolio standard, back in 1983, would be the friendliest environment for businesses seeking renewables.

And California’s three utility giants—Edison International (NYSE: EIX), Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE), and PG&E Corp. (NYSE: PCG)—are continuing to make massive investments in renewable infrastructure. That could make the Golden State a top destination for businesses looking to go green.

States in the Northeast also rank highly thanks to supportive policies and high energy prices that make renewables more economic. According to the report, eight states in the region ranked in the top 20—all six New England states plus New York (No. 7) and New Jersey (No. 3).

But the report observes that states vary widely when it comes to the policy landscape.

Some state electricity market structures enable more customer choice, a strong desire of many large buyers. By contrast, states that limit customer choice can see higher renewable energy costs, making their markets less attractive.

“That means the structure of a state’s electricity market can directly influence where corporations choose to invest in renewable projects, and in which states they decide to expand their operational footprint,” the report found.

This, of course, raises the perennial question in the utility industry of whether competitive or monopoly markets will be the best model for long-term shareholder value. For now, Investing Daily’s Utility Forecaster favors firms that take a hybrid approach, with a regulated utility that provides the stable cash flows to push into renewables.

In the second part of this report, due out in the next two weeks, we take a look at the forces shaping this competitive customer landscape and which utilities will benefit from these trends.

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