Technology is creating opportunities and threats for the supplies of traditional industries from utilities to pulp and paper to construction.

Counting on a gradual pace of change, established industries have long been cautious in adopting or responding to advancing technologies. That posture is starting to shift in three industries, as this package will show. In the electric-power industry, battery improvements are bringing down storage costs faster than expected, allowing customers to “defect” from grids—with disruptive consequences—but also offering utilities a chance to defer major investment in new capacity. In pulp and paper, data analytics and artificial-intelligence applications are opening surprising operational improvements across new and existing plants—areas where veterans assumed gains were foreclosed. And in engineering and construction, a new crop of start-ups deploying robust mobile apps and GPS monitoring are improving managers’ efforts in the field and lowering costs, pushing digital benefits far beyond the back office.

Will batteries disrupt the utilities industry?

A rapid decline in storage prices encourages customers to produce a greater share of their own power, partially “defecting” from the grid.
Cheap solar energy is already a challenge to utilities. But cheap storage will be even more disruptive, raising the prospect that individual and business customers will bypass traditional suppliers for greater parts of their consumption.
Storage prices are dropping much faster than anyone expected—battery costs in 2016 were one-quarter of what they were in 2010. In this new world of low-cost storage, solar users can stay connected to the grid in order to have 24/7 access but rarely have to use or pay for energy, instead using stored energy, which helps dramatically reduce their utility bills. So-called partial grid defection reduces demand for power provided by utilities (because consumers are making their own energy) and likely increases rates for those who remain (because there is less consumption to cover fixed grid costs). This is already happening in places where electricity is expensive and solar is widely available, such as Australia and Hawaii. On the horizon are other solar-friendly markets such as Arizona, California, Nevada, and New York (exhibit).

Partial grid defection likely makes economic sense within a few years; full defection will take longer.

Storage, though, can also benefit utilities in markets where loads are expected to be flat or falling. In some US states, for example, utilities can earn returns by providing contracts for distributed energy resources. This would, among other things, allow them to defer expensive new investments.


 

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